Summer in Northfield has always been quiet. This year, it feels downright empty. Sad as the sight of Division Street without cars and people in the shops may be, some wonder whether the quiet is for the best.
With St. Olaf bringing its full student population back in the past week and Carleton soon to follow, the residents of Northfield are bracing for a rise in COVID-19 cases that seems inevitable. Some raised concerns over how roughly 5,000 more people in town will affect their own daily lives, while others focused on the danger to the on-campus communities more than anything.
As of September 1, there were an average of 6.6 new coronavirus cases per day in Rice County, but that was measured without a large portion of Northfield’s population present. St. Olaf has recently walked back some of its ambitious plans to return, offering more online classes than originally planned. Still, the virus has proved difficult to contain even in the first few days on campus. 17 St. Olaf students were suspended and dozens more were quarantined following a large party.
Carleton has shown no signs of changing course, and although administrators have indicated that they will keep an eye on case numbers in the coming weeks, they have given no concrete information about the threshold at which they would deem the environment unsafe for students to return.
“Northfield is going to be a national Petri dish,” said Doug Green, 65, a Northfield resident of more than thirty years. “We’re going to collect people from all over the country and bring them here and see what develops.” Though he said it with a chuckle, Green captured well the skeptical we’ll see mentality that several other residents expressed.
Some raised concerns about their own lifestyle changes, like when Green said that he would take into account the increased crowds in downtown stores when he decides when to go grocery shopping. However, he and others acknowledged that they felt that the danger posed to them was much smaller than the danger to those in the immediate campus community.
Bonnie Jean Flom, 71, a retired teacher active in town affairs, said that even though she lives with her husband, who is immunocompromised, her primary worry is for the students who will be living on densely packed campuses. “Certainly there’s some concern about people coming from all these places, but the greater concern I hear is for the students on campuses in those tight quarters and how to manage that and maintain that healthy distance that will be required in order for you to stay healthy,” she said.
Though students can stay mostly on campus and distance themselves from those outside their close circle, Carleton does not exist in a vacuum. Anything that the college and the individuals within it do will have “ripple effects” on the town, said Teri Knight, News Director at KYMN Radio. The K-12 school reopening plan in Minnesota is contingent on county-by-county case density. If countywide case numbers increase suddenly once students return to the two college campuses, that could have an effect on how Northfield’s schools are allowed to operate.
Carleton’s planning team met with Northfield city leaders while they made decisions about the fall, recounted college Vice President Eric Runestad. Northfield School Superintendent Matt Hillmann, who regularly attends those meetings, said in an email that they “discussed various concepts of planning, including the potential of students coming back to campus. While we did not specifically speak when the decision was being made, I trust the Carleton administration’s process and their ability to make the right decision for the College while considering the health of the community.”
Knight said that she thinks they should have extended their communication with the wider Northfield community beyond that, “but frankly, they’re notorious for not.” She is used to reaching out to school officials for comment on her morning news program and not receiving any. “They give to the city a certain amount of money once a year and that’s kind of it. Other than that, they are entities of their own.”
Gathering public opinion on the reopening decision could have produced conflicting results, because there is evidence that the student population thinks differently about the decision than the wider community. St. Olaf conducted a poll in late July that clearly highlighted an age divide—53% of faculty preferred to have the semester fully online, compared with only 22% of students.
The return to campus will surely bring benefits for the town, especially for small business owners. The restaurants and shops downtown that usually bustle with students are struggling, Knight said, and the allure of added business is strong. The question looming over everyone’s head is some variation of “what is worth the risk?”
Green, a professor of English at Augsburg University, said that although he understands the various pressures on a college to open, in general “campuses should not be opening live.” He knows firsthand the difficulties of online learning as he prepares for his second semester of it. “Some students don’t learn well that way but it’s the only safe method we have and it would be better to be working with those students to help rather than endangering all lives,” he said.
Flom, who has three school-aged grandchildren, said she is “concerned about any school opening before science tells us it’s safe.” Her priority is their health, even if it comes at the cost of their academic progress.
None of the three expressed bitterness toward the colleges or suggested that this would lead to a tense relationship between the colleges and the town community. Flom in particular said she cherishes interacting with students and looks forward to a time when she can do that again safely.
“‘No, don’t come to our town, we don’t want you here?’ There is none of that,” Green said. “I just think in the absence of clear national guidelines and scientific advice this is what you get. You get people making decisions ad hoc on their own. What the results of that will be, who knows? My prediction, not good.”