Editor’s note: Vermont By Degrees is a series of columns written by representatives of colleges and universities from around the state about the challenges facing higher education at this time.

Vermont colleges and universities have a lot to be proud of as we navigate the global pandemic and its many challenges. As educators, workforce developers and major economic drivers in the state, it was vital that leaders in higher education figure out how to stay open even after having to switch to completely online education last March.

The infection rate on Vermont campuses of 0.05% is lower than the overall state rate, both of which are lowest in the country in their respective categories. To date, Vermont is the safest state in the union to attend college or university.

How did we do this? How did we manage to keep our students, staff, faculty and town neighbors safe from contracting COVID-19 while cases in areas of the rest of the country continue to surge?

The answer lies in the strategic planning, beginning with a statewide plan, that framed reopening. Leadership from the governor’s office to empower a reopening task force led by business and industry leaders has been a key to successful reopening.

For the state’s colleges and universities, this meant putting an expert in charge — Norwich’s very own recently retired and now President Emeritus Richard W. Schneider. After 28 years of leading Norwich University, Schneider knows a thing or two about how higher education works. Working with the Agency of Commerce and Community Development Deputy Secretary Ted Brady, Schneider led a team of leaders representing public and private colleges and universities and health experts who developed the “Safe and Healthy Return to Campus: Mandatory Guidance for College and University Campus Learning,” published July 6.

This document outlined three strategic principles: reduce the number of students coming back to campus that have COVID-19; decrease transmission of the disease once everyone returns; and how to contain the virus if and when a campus community member contracts the disease. It articulated some requirements as well such as behavior contracts, face coverings, physical distancing and testing.

Although the reopening guidance laid out goals, the state left many details to each college or university to work out on individual campuses. This was smart, because each campus is unique.

Given the importance of our in-person campus experience to our progressive leadership development model of values-based education, Norwich University opted to open in-person, even if it meant reduced capacity and hybrid classes. We prioritized all first-year students — so they can bond with one another and with their faculty and mentors — and all seniors — to ensure they could fulfill their curriculum requirements in order to graduate on time. After that, we prioritized on-campus housing for student leaders — civilian residential advisers and cadre in the Corps of Cadets.

Then, we looked at academic programs and prioritized those programs that required in-person activities such as high impact practices like labs or clinicals, in the case of our nursing students, for instance. For the fall semester, Norwich has more than 1,660 students living and learning on campus and several hundred commuters to campus and several hundred “remote learners,” a new category of student who was asked to, or who opted to, stay home for the semester. Those students were promised beds on campus for spring semester.

We structured our arrival dates into six strategic events, beginning with the largest single group — more than 500 students coming from high-risk areas (non-green zones) and/or students who had to travel via commercial means. We brought that group to campus on Saturday, Aug. 8, so they could quarantine together for two weeks. Intake was highly structured, with one road into campus and one road out. Parents or those accompanying an arriving student were not allowed to go into the dorms or barracks or any campus building. We tested every student on day zero (the day they arrived), regardless of whether they were exhibiting symptoms, and on day seven, to allow for what we know of the virus’ incubation period.

Any positive cases identified were immediately isolated according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Vermont Department of Health guidelines, and contact tracing was completed by the state.

This complex and highly detailed plan, which also includes posted capacity for every room, classes taught in multiple modalities — in-person, online and virtual — an initial closed campus in which students could not leave and the public could not come onto campus, highly structured and expanded dining options and a ban on large gatherings, among other things, has required an immense amount of communicating.

On a call with state officials recently, participants learned that the CDC had recognized Vermont for having the best contact tracing in the country with a 92% response rate.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading epidemiologist, joined Gov. Phil Scott recently at one of his COVID-19 press conferences to laud the state’s success and encourage Vermont residents to continue their vigilance even in the face of such low infection numbers. Fauci said that while Vermont’s rural nature had something to do with our low infection rate, it was not the only reason.

It is no small thing that the state’s response to the pandemic in general has been rooted in altruism, the idea of taking care of ourselves through staying home when we’re sick, wearing masks in public and refraining from large gatherings to protect our families and neighbors. That is the very concept of service to others before self, upon which Norwich University was founded.

Norwich University is a fundamentally Vermont institution — founded in 1819 in Norwich, Vermont, the birthplace of Norwich’s founder Capt. Alden Partridge, a Dartmouth College graduate. After a fire burned down the university’s building in 1866, Northfield town leaders invited the university to move up north to central Vermont to add vitality to the town and the region. As the Northfield campus has grown with new programs and facilities, so, too, has the relationship with our neighbors.

Norwich’s Northfield neighbors have been active, communicating and supporting our work during this most challenging time. And the altruism that we all practice, has made all the difference.

Daphne Larkin is Norwich University’s director of media relations and community affairs.

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