It is reassuring that state and private colleges and universities around Vermont are taking bold measures to keep students and staff when they return to higher learning this fall.

COVID-19 has upturned the apple cart on how schools — at all levels — can teach. There has been lots of pivoting to innovative ideas, and an even greater reliance on the Internet and distance learning to fulfill academic requirements and keep everyone safe.

There are about 56,000 students who attend Vermont colleges. These schools are critical to the state. As the task force that crafted the “Mandatory Guidance for College and University Campus Learning” noted in their recommendations last week, “Higher education institutions are an important component of Vermont’s economy, workforce development system, culture and vitality. The State of Vermont aims to make Vermont the safest place to go to college in the country during this public health emergency by establishing strict safety protocols that all institutions must follow.”

The 10 pages of guidelines are designed to complement existing safety measures, and place added rules and recommendations on administrators, faculty, staff and students to comply.

“These guidelines are aimed to minimize the likelihood of an outbreak, and strictly following these guidelines will reduce both the likelihood of an outbreak and the severity of an outbreak,” the document notes.

It is tricky. A school like the University of Vermont faces different challenges than smaller, private colleges like Goddard or Sterling. Nonetheless, the goal is the same: Keep education going — safely.

Ultimately, the guidelines — which were crafted by a task force of health and higher education experts spanning the state — focus on three areas: Decrease risk of individuals infected with COVID-19 from entering the campus through effective public health prevention; decrease transmission of COVID-19 among staff and students once on campus through effective public health measures; and quickly identify individuals with COVID-19 and put containment procedures in place to minimize the impact on students, staff and education.

Notably, the state guidelines require all students, faculty and staff to sign an institution-specific health “safety pledge that affirms the individual is familiar and willing to comply with the state’s COVID-19 restrictions and the institution’s health policies.” Schools will enforce this contract, “and immediately remove any student who violates major public safety components of the contract (such as quarantine requirements) from campus for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.”

The recommendations require quarantines for students traveling to Vermont. Students may quarantine in a private residence in Vermont, including the student’s Vermont apartment; at a lodging property in Vermont including hotels and short-term rentals; or in a college residence hall, under strict conditions.

Students will have to have a health screening before they come to school and they will be tested when they arrive. Then, every day after, “all students, faculty and staff must complete a daily health screening prior to interacting with anyone on the campus, including going to class, going to a dining hall, or participating in any campus activity.”

As a matter of course, students will have to wear face coverings and practice social distancing, as well as maintain hygiene and hand-washing.

Right now, schools are still trying to figure out how to limit on-campus events, deal with athletics and — most obviously — how to deal with restrictions on room and board to keep density levels safe.

In addition, schools also have to modify their academic calendars to reduce the instances of students traveling outside of Vermont and returning to the campus. Some best practices include ending in-person learning before Thanksgiving; bringing students back to campus for second semester later than usual; eliminating short January terms; and eliminating spring break.

In classrooms where in-person teaching will be taking place, institutions must reduce density of classrooms to ensure at least 6 feet of social distancing between students (such as leaving seats empty between students).

These guidelines (and others not listed here) are among the mandatory minimums that schools must follow.

Should be simple, right? Young people, who already listen well and follow guidelines, that were cooped up for months, would never bend or break rules. Right?

The coming months will be a challenge, for sure. Hopefully, the fraction of the 56,000 students who head to school will not try to conform to the “traditional” college experience. There are a few lessons here they do not want to learn the hard way.

You can read the plan for yourself at https://accd.vermont.gov/sites/accdnew/files/documents/College-Restart-Plan.pdf

— Rutland Herald