The state university system made it official this month that its campuses would reopen for the fall semester to students and blessed their reopening plans. For Keene State College, that’s a hopeful sign, as the college considers its shared campus environment an essential part of the experience it offers students, which was degraded last spring when it sent students home during the COVID-19 shutdown.
It’s also a hopeful development for Keene and its economy. City stores, restaurants and other businesses are trying to find their legs again, and the return of Keene State’s students will surely provide a welcome boost.
As in the case of so many aspects of life in the COVID-19 era, though, steps toward returning to what was once normal life can also cause nervousness. For Keene State’s host community, that comes from the public-health uncertainty of an influx of students as they settle into dorms and neighborhoods and begin to integrate and interact in a city and region that has remained relatively COVID-free.
Recognizing this, Keene State’s reopening plans not only address how classes, dorm life, meals and other campus activity will be conducted, but also imposes safety precautions on students when off the campus and in the community. Thus, guidelines the college has posted on its website state students must wear masks when in public spaces, both on campus and off.
Further, Keene State is implementing a robust mandatory testing program for students before arriving on campus that also applies to off-campus students, and there will be periodic follow-up testing during the opening weeks, President Melinda Treadwell stated in late July.
Overall, the college’s reopening plans appear comprehensive and cautious, and before returning to campus students must sign a commitment agreeing to follow the various safety protocols. Even so, the effectiveness of the plans will depend on whether students adhere to them, both while on campus and when out in the community.
The college’s ability to enforce its guidelines off-campus received a boost this month from the Keene City Council’s ordinance mandating face masks throughout the city when entering a business and in common areas of apartment buildings with three or more units. At a minimum, no Keene State student can complain of being subject to a mask requirement in places where the general public is not. More importantly, the college has explicitly tied its reopening guidelines to its code of conduct, so risking a citation for violating the city ordinance will also risk disciplinary action that could escalate to removal from college.
The city, however, can — and should — help the college’s enforcement efforts further. One of the critically important mandates under the reopening guidelines is to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people, either on or off campus. Given the surge of COVID-19 infections in other areas of the country that have not controlled social gatherings, particularly among young adults, giving teeth to this restriction will mean much to the safety of the college and the city. The importance was made even clearer in Tuesday’s report by Sentinel reporter Olivia Belanger that the 20-29 age group has the largest number of positive tests in New Hampshire.
For its part, Keene State’s student code of conduct now specifies that students will face enhanced sanctions if found responsible for hosting gatherings of more than 10. The college clearly has the means to enforce this in its dorms and elsewhere on campus. What’s concerning is how effectively it can be enforced for student-hosted off-campus gatherings.
The city has been considering since June a so-called social host ordinance, first proposed by a group of east-side residents. The principal aim is to address long-vexing concerns about disruptive behavior by holding those hosting unruly gatherings responsible. But such an ordinance would also help the college enforce its COVID-19 social-gathering restriction, and Treadwell stated as much to the City Council in early July when throwing her support behind an ordinance.
We, too, have expressed support for swift staff and council action to develop a social host ordinance, but we recognize there are complications to it that require, for instance, ensuring that it fairly treats landlords who might be held responsible for continued tenant violations.
Still, we’d urge the city to consider other ways to buttress enforcement of the college’s social-gathering limitation. These could be more formal, such as a temporary trial social-host ordinance applicable to gatherings of more than 10, even if not applicable to landlords. And surely there are less formal ways the city — no doubt involving police assistance — can assist.
Both the college and the city have a strong interest in having students back this fall as safely as possible. However the city can assist Keene State will help keep them here.