Burlington’s Mayor Miro Weinberger can be excused for questioning the thoroughness of the University of Vermont’s plans to guard against a Covid-19 outbreak when the school’s 12,000 students return to school this month.

He has company. The Burlington community has shared the same concern as they read about flare-ups across the nation, many spawned by college-aged students oblivious to the virus or the responsibility that comes with how it should be handled. No one completely trusts all college students to do the right thing all the time. Watch the newscasts. Mr. Weinberger is simply sharing those same concerns knowing the political liability of under-reacting is greater than over-reacting.

That said, if any school can reopen in the fall with anything close to a traditional in-person learning environment it’s UVM.

For two reasons:

• First, Vermont has the lowest positivity rate in the nation, with 0.5 percent of our tests coming back positive over the last two weeks. We’ve also held the distinction of being the lowest in the country, or close to it, since the pandemic first hit. We’ve had outstanding leadership and, as a state, we’ve all bought in to what’s required. To date, we’ve lost 58 people to the virus, which is only one more than what we typically lose each year to flu. [Cross your fingers.]

• Second, UVM has put together one of the nation’s most comprehensive plans regarding what’s required to reopen the university this month, and how to do so safely. No student returns without being tested and when they get here they are tested again. That weekly testing extends for five straight weeks; more if necessary. The results of the tests will be available within 24 hours. The complete protocol for each student’s return, and their conduct while at school, is as long as a person’s arm.

The school has also made it clear to students that the ramifications for behavior that puts others at risk include being sent home. Testing alone is expected to cost the school upwards of $10 million, which means the school isn’t about to be too lenient when it comes to questionable behavior.

UVM’s plan is the product of the best minds the school [and its medical center] have when it comes to the disease, how it progresses, and what needs to happen to keep it contained. UVM’s plan has also received the blessing of the state’s experts as well; people who have a lot riding on UVM’s success.

There is another way, as skeptics have urged. UVM could do as other colleges have, which is to declare now that the 2020-2021 school year will be remote-only. That has been urged by some in Vermont, particularly in Chittenden County, where the lion’s share of out-of-state students congregate.

That would reduce the risk, no question.

The same could be said in going remotely only for preK-12 schools.

The same could be said for shutting down the economy like we did in March.

If the goal is to have no new Covid-19 cases, that’s the way.

But we’re almost at that level now, without shutting things down. Vermont is in the enviable position of being the safest place in the nation, which allows us to take bigger steps going forward, steps that help rebuild a sense of normalcy. Bringing back 12,000 UVM students is one of those big steps, both for the school and for the state.

If it breaks down, students can be sent home. We’ve experienced that already. But, as a state, we’ve earned the stripes necessary to take this step, and to take it with a sense of confidence, understanding the utmost in precautions have been taken.

Instead of talking about why things can’t work, let’s work to make sure it can. UVM is a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise that Vermont needs to get its ship afloat.

by Emerson Lynn

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