Community Conversations: Why Masks?

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Interim Provost David Kotz ’86 and his guests talked about masks, housing, and trips.

Interim Provost David Kotz ’86 during the taping of this week’s Community Conversations webcast
Interim Provost David Kotz ’86 during the taping of this week’s Community Conversations webcast. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

Watch the Aug. 18 Community Conversations webcast with Interim Provost David Kotz ’86, Associate Dean for Global Health Lisa Adams, Executive Vice President Rick Mills, and First-Year Trips Director Kellen Appleton ’20.

“What we are experiencing right now is a transition period of learning to live with COVID,” Associate Dean for Global Health Lisa Adams told viewers of this week’s Community Conversations webcast.

Adams, director of the Center for Global Health Equity, a professor of medicine, and a former co-chair of the COVID-19 Task Force, was referring to the complex factors—including the state of virus mutations and what she calls the “Swiss cheese” model of aligning long-term mitigation efforts—that are driving Dartmouth’s changing policies around the pandemic.

Acknowledging that “it’s a lot to ask” of students, faculty, and staff to return to wearing masks indoors, Interim Provost David Kotz ’86 said that masking “boils down to respect: respect for your fellow human beings, for the students and staff who work around you, and for those who are unable to be vaccinated or may be particularly susceptible to infection or its consequences.”

At the same time, Kotz announced two immediate adjustments to relax the current indoor masking policy requirement:

  • Fully vaccinated residents of on-campus housing who have no symptoms, have not been identified as a close contact, nor have been notified of special circumstances that dictate an exception to the policy, may now remove their masks anywhere inside on-campus residence halls or Greek houses, with approval from the host.
  • Two fully vaccinated individuals—again, who have no symptoms—may remove masks for a one-on-one indoor meeting, if both parties are comfortable doing so, and as long as neither has been identified as a close contact or are subject to special circumstances.

Kotz and Adams were joined by Rick Mills, executive vice president for finance and administration, and Kellen Appleton ’20, director of first-year trips. The conversations were moderated by Vice President for Communications Justin Anderson.

Deciding to Mask Up Again

The masking policy was reinstated Aug. 5 in response to a COVID-19 outbreak in the community, likely driven by the delta variant of the virus. Since Aug. 17, Dartmouth identified two unrelated clusters of linked COVID-19 cases in the student population. One identified on Aug. 17 includes at least three individuals and another identified on Aug. 18 includes at least three individuals.

The state of New Hampshire defines a cluster as three or more individuals confirmed with COVID-19 who are part of a related group of individuals who had the potential to transmit infection to each other through close contact. An outbreak is defined by two or more unrelated clusters where the date of symptom onset for the source cases are within 14 days of each other.

For up-to-date information on the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 among Dartmouth students and employees, visit the COVID-19 dashboard.

The majority of current cases on campus have occurred in individuals who have been vaccinated, Kotz said—and these cases have been mild or asymptomatic, a sign that the vaccines are doing their job of reducing the risk of serious illness. Fully 94% of the Dartmouth community is vaccinated. But mounting evidence shows that vaccinated people can still transmit COVID to those who are not yet or can’t be vaccinated.

Adams said the decision to reinstate indoor masks takes into account multiple factors, including, among others, the current vaccination rate locally and regionally, test positivity, and details about individual cases.

“Put together, there’s a whole host of factors and that we have to consider, and it’s really this composite set of variables and criteria that we have to be tracking and assessing,” Adams said.

Asked about the possibility of vaccine booster shots, Adams said the additional vaccinations will likely become part of “learning to live with COVID” as a society for the foreseeable future.

“We want to follow the science,” Adams said. “We want to do what is medically indicated and indicated from a public health point of view. I’m fully anticipating booster shots will become part of our lives, and I will promote them when they are officially recommended from our public health authorities.”

A New COVID-19 Leadership Structure

Kotz announced a new structure for Dartmouth’s COVID-19 leadership to replace the COVID-19 Task Force, which ended its work at the beginning of August.

Kotz and Mills are now leading the response, supported by four teams—a leadership group that finalizes policy changes; a core group of the original task force that manages day-to-day logistics; a testing group, which is being integrated into the Office of Environmental Health and Safety; and a science advisory group of clinical and research faculty from the Geisel School of Medicine and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

In addition, Kotz announced the appointment of Scott C. Brown as interim dean of the College and Marianne Huger Thomson as interim associate dean of Student Affairs.

Asked about the return to work for most non-faculty Dartmouth employees, which has been anticipated for the beginning of September, Mills said he anticipates an announcement early next week.

Mills also addressed the medium- and long-term plans to improve housing on campus.

“The biggest and potentially most exciting update is the work we’ve been doing out at Mount Support Rd. to deliver new beds for graduate students,” he said. The third-party developer of the Mount Support Road project now anticipates opening the facility to residents in March 2022, several months earlier than anticipated. Among other benefits, the project will free up space on campus for undergraduate housing.

Longer-range, Mills said plans for renovating undergraduate residence halls—and for the swing space where students will live while that work is completed—will likely be announced this fall.

“It’s intended that that work would add bed space and begin to move us out of being as constrained as we have been, really since Dartmouth went coed,” Mills said.

The Return of First-Year Trips

Beginning in early September, incoming members of the Class of 2025 will be able to participate in first-year trips, a tradition that had to be deferred last year at the height of the pandemic.

As trips director, Appleton—who was also hired to direct trips last year, and who led the pivot to the Orientation Peer Leaders program that worked to provide community for the Class of 2024 last fall—said the goals for this year’s trips “are the same as they’ve always been, which is providing this welcoming experience for incoming students to form connections with each other” and with upper-level students.

Trips are an opportunity for students to discover the natural world in and around Hanover, and to have time for personal reflection before the academic year begins. This year, student organizers are planning more than 35 types of trips to match student interests.

One difference from past years: While some groups will use the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge during their trips, the large gatherings at the lodge that are the traditional culmination of trips will now take place at a variety of locations in the Upper Valley.

“We’re sending more trips out at a time and more trips overall than ever before,” Appleton said—surpassing the lodge’s capacity. For students who want to experience the lodge, she said special dinners will be organized throughout the term, with shuttles available.

In addition, Appleton said plans are underway for members of the Class of 2024 to experience the outdoors throughout the coming year—possibly culminating in sophomore trips at the beginning of the ’24s’ sophomore summer in June 2022.

Community Conversations is a production of Dartmouth’s Media Production Group and the Office of Communications that airs on selected Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m. The next broadcast is tentatively scheduled for Sept. 22.

For the most recent information on Dartmouth’s response to the pandemic, visit the Dartmouth Together COVID-19 website.

Hannah Silverstein