Mar 19, 2021 | NEWS | By Esteban Candelaria, Lorea Zabaleta, and Cameron Howell | Photo courtesy of the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project & Illustration by Bibi Powers

This report originally appeared in the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project, a twice-weekly newsletter partnered with The Catalyst that covers the pandemic’s effect on higher education. For more COVID updates delivered straight to your inbox by CC student-journalists, be sure to subscribe to the newsletter here.

💉Vaccines into arms means CC students are back in classrooms

Last Friday, Colorado College’s Acting Co-Presidents Mike Edmonds and Robert Moore announced that the college would be returning to in-person learning in the fall semester, provided that local, state, and federal guidelines allowed it to do so.

“We’re not quite yet back to normal, but we can have more in-person instruction,” Andrea Bruder, the chair of CC’s Scientific Advisory Group, told The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project. “And I’m very excited about that.”

The decision to return to in-person learning was the latest in several similar announcements across the U.S. from institutions of higher education, and came after Gov. Jared Polis adjusted Colorado’s vaccine distribution plan to include higher education faculty and staff in Phase 1b.4. According to CC COVID-19 Emergency Manager Maggie Santos, that phase will also include student employees who deal with the general public on a regular basis. 

Light at the end of the tunnel

The first sign of hope that CC would be able to return to in-person learning came for Bruder a few weeks ago. 

“When we crossed 2 million doses per day that were administered, that threshold made me feel more optimistic, and seemed like it would be more realistic to think that we might reach community immunity,” Bruder said. 

For CC leadership, the success of local and national vaccine distribution is key for returning to the in-person campus format the college had before the pandemic. Brian Young, Vice President for Information Technology at CC, said that Colorado’s effectiveness at getting vaccines into arms was a major source of assurance in deciding to return to an in-person campus.

“The transparency with the state of Colorado has been good with the vaccine, the fact that all three doses of vaccine are now available in Colorado … that’s a benefit,” Young told The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project. “So that’s all great optimism for us.”

Bruder also said she was keeping her fingers crossed that use of Johnson & Johnson vaccine would become more widespread throughout the state, which would give her and Young additional confidence in the supply chain and vaccine rollout.  

“It could be a real game changer,” Bruder said. “If the single dose vaccine became widely available.”

Socially-Distanced Spring (again)

Even before CC returns to in-person learning and activities this fall, college leadership expects to increase in-person classes and events for Blocks 7 and 8 this spring by sending people outdoors.

“As weather turns better, we have greater access to outdoor classrooms, such as large tents that we purchased,” Young said. “Obviously, each day passes, we also know more and more people get vaccines, which is good, we want that. And so, all those added up mean we can continue to see more and more normality.”

According to Bruder, around 35% of the courses CC will be offering in Block 8 will either be in person or in a hybrid format. 

Bruder said that as part of the efforts to return to some sense of normalcy this semester, the college would also be bringing some of its pre-pandemic events back, with just a few modifications. For example, this spring, CC’s Residential Experience will be bringing back Llamapalooza, but Bruder said this year the festival will be held over three consecutive weekends. 

In general, Bruder said the college plans for more outdoor activities to be available for people to gather and spend time together safely and in person. 

“We hope that people will use those outdoor spaces and prioritize outdoor activities, getting together outdoors with friends, as opposed to indoors,” Bruder said.  

Some things, however, won’t be changing — students, faculty, and staff will still need to abide by health and safety procedures that have been the standard throughout the pandemic.

For example, even after members of the CC community have been fully vaccinated, they will still be asked to adhere to guidelines like testing and quarantining after being exposed to the virus.

“We are a congregate living setting with dorms and residence halls,” Young said. “That puts us in a very different category when it comes to the quarantine efforts, even with those that are potentially vaccinated.” 

So what will next year look like?

Despite the security herd immunity might bring, Bruder said it is too soon to know exactly what an in-person campus will look like for CC in 2021, and it depends on who will be “winning the race” — the vaccines or the new variants. 

“It kind of depends — will it be the vaccines winning the race, or potentially the new variants slowing things down, at least temporarily,” Bruder said. “If I had a crystal ball, then I would take a look.”

Still, Bruder said there is a “good chance” the CC community will have to abide by fewer safety protocols next year. 

“I don’t think that we’ll switch off the protocols overnight, but I think with more and more people being vaccinated, the population will build immunity gradually over time,” Bruder said.

Of course, another factor playing into the success of an in-person campus will be the number of students who actually receive the vaccine when eligible.

While Young said the college cannot currently require students to receive vaccines, he said that CC and other higher education partners in the community have come to an agreement to strongly encourage each campus to get the vaccine when it becomes available to them.

“As of today, it is the CC stance that we are going to be strongly encouraging the access and taking the vaccine,” Young said.

Not getting too ahead of ourselves 

In the midst of all this optimism, there are still some things that Bruder and Young said will be on their minds as in-person learning and activities resume. 

“If a vaccine-evading variant of the virus were to become dominant in the U.S., then the vaccines would need to be modified to be effective against those variants again and so that that would delay things,” Bruder said. “So that’s something that we’re concerned about.” 

Young said there are a few things that worry him for the coming semester. The first is the fatigue the pandemic has given everyone, which Young fears might cause people to give up on precautions that keep them safe from the virus. The second thing, he said, is travel, which always opens up the possibility of bringing the virus back home.

Finally, Young also worries that people may feel like a “superhero” after getting the vaccine and take more risks. He said the college is still asking people to wait two weeks before assuming they are fully vaccinated. 

“So, just a lot of those things added together that we still just need to make sure that as a community, we are as aggressive as we have been with the protocols to try to maintain a safe environment,” Young said.

About the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project

The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project is created by Colorado College student journalists Esteban CandelariaLorea Zabaleta, and Cameron Howell in partnership with The Catalyst, Colorado College’s student newspaper. Work by Phoebe Lostroh, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology at CC and National Science Foundation Program Director in Genetic Mechanisms, Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, will appear every Monday.

The project seeks to provide frequent updates about CC and other higher education institutions during the pandemic by providing original reporting, analysis, interviews with campus leaders, and context about what state and national headlines mean for the CC community. 

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