Mandel mandates most students leave campus by Tuesday, announces transition to remote learning after spring break due to coronavirus pandemic

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For the first time in over 50 years, the College has decided to disrupt normal operations mid-semester in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. President of the College Maud S. Mandel announced in an email on Wednesday morning that the College would require most students to leave campus indefinitely by next Tuesday, March 17, three days before students were slated to leave for spring break. Classes will resume remotely on April 6 after the extended break.

In making the decision to move to online classes, Mandel cited various rationales, taking into consideration not only the wellbeing of vulnerable community members but also the broader Berkshire community.

Mandel’s decision comes after a slew of peer institutions have already cancelled in-person classes, while others, which have already returned from spring break, plan to remain open.

The College is working to provide logistical information to students preparing to leave campus and to those who are petitioning to stay. Several questions, however, remain unanswered, including how the move to online classes will impact course grading; the precise forms of support that will exist for students, staff and faculty; and how this decision will affect local businesses and the Berkshires at large. The decision has sparked a wide range of emotions in the College community, from seniors now preparing to make final goodbyes, to faculty working out solutions on how to move courses to an online format, to staff who do not yet know what their jobs will entail over the next few months.

Rationale

In the all-campus email, Mandel listed various reasons to cancel in-person classes, including reducing the risk of further contagion and protecting vulnerable community members, particularly the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. At a 4 p.m. faculty meeting on Wednesday, Mandel emphasized her concern for the health of the broader Berkshire community and local health services if the coronavirus epidemic were to spread on campus. 

“If this came to our community in full force in a way that we couldn’t handle ourselves … our impact on people over 70 and 80 in that community, immunocompromised folks — it was a responsibility I didn’t think any of us wanted to bear,” Mandel said.

 In the meeting, Mandel noted that the health risk to otherwise-healthy young people has generally been relatively low. “I just wanted to acknowledge that the actual impact on people ages 18-21 is not the problem,” she said. “My concern here was less that we were imperiled … and more that we were imperiling, potentially, other people.”

A number of NESCAC schools had previously made the decision to suspend in-person classes, including Amherst, Bowdoin and Middlebury. Amherst in particular cited concerns, in an all-campus email, over the risk of students returning to campus after spring break and bringing the coronavirus with them. Other institutions such as Bates, which has already returned from spring break, have told their students they currently plan to remain open. Hamilton, which originally notified students that they could remain on campus, updated their response and suspended in-person classes as well.

The petition process

Students from countries under a travel restriction, whose primary residence is the College or who face extenuating circumstances “that make departure difficult or undesirable” are invited to apply to stay on campus during spring break and through the subsequent remote learning period via a petition process that opened on Wednesday. According to Mandel, the exact criteria for approval will be largely dependent on the number of students who petition to stay on campus. “We’re trying to figure out so much in real time,” Mandel said. “If 250 people apply, it’s going to be a different thing than if a thousand people apply.”

There is no hard limit, however, on the number of students who will be allowed to stay on campus. “We’re not doing it that way — we haven’t capped it,” Mandel said. “But I would say it is better if people can leave campus.” 

According to Chief Communications Officer Jim Reische, 207 students had submitted petitions to stay on campus by noon on Wednesday. However, an error occurred when the original petition form, released on Wednesday at 10:40 a.m., did not include the option for students to submit any identifying information when submitting their petitions. Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom informed the student body about this technical error later on Wednesday evening via email, asking students who submitted a petition prior to 2:00 p.m. to submit a new petition. 

Students who had indicated that they would remain on campus over spring break via a form sent by the College must reapply through the new petition process if they intend to stay; the earlier form has been nullified.

Although all the criteria that will be weighed in approving student petitions to stay on campus have not yet been decided, Mandel said that the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in a student’s home state or city in the U.S. will not be considered a valid reason to stay on campus. “I think if we picked every state that was in a state of emergency in the United States, we wouldn’t have made this decision, so that can’t be a criteria,” Mandel said. 

Students who do not have stable access to remote learning at home, such as those without internet access, may be considered eligible to stay on campus. Mandel emphasized, however, that consideration of these criteria will depend on the problems identified after students have submitted requests to stay on campus through the petition process. 

During Wednesday’s faculty meeting, Mandel and Sandstrom discussed faculty concerns about thesis students who need campus resources in order to complete their research. Mandel said that thesis students may petition to stay on the basis of these concerns, but that it is unclear whether they will be approved to remain on campus. “I just want you to remember my base starting point, which is [that] we really do need to encourage people to leave if they can,” Mandel said. 

Students who are approved to stay will be able to remain on campus even if there come to be cases of the coronavirus at the College. “The reason we would allow people to petition to stay here is because they don’t have another safe place to go,” Mandel said. “And so, therefore, I have every anticipated belief that they would stay no matter what.”

The presidents of NESCAC member institutions have collectively cancelled the spring athletic season, including the College’s annual spring break training trips and all competitions. Several winter season teams that are slated to appear at NCAA Championships in the next week will continue to compete until March 20, when a ban on all College-sponsored domestic travel goes into effect. Mandel emphasized that student-athletes will not be kept on campus and athletic training will not be a factor in the petition review process.

The majority of students will be required to pack their belongings and find transportation off-campus within the week. Although Director of Student Life Doug Schiazza advised that students pack as if leaving for the semester, students will also have the option to leave items for storage in clearly-labeled boxes in their rooms. The College will provide shuttle-based transportation to Boston and New York, but generally advises “arranging to leave as soon as possible after your last class, since transportation options are limited and may fill up,” according to the College’s web page on the coronavirus. Students on financial aid will be reimbursed for all transportation costs. 

Student reactions

After numerous other colleges decided to notify students about their decisions on Monday and Tuesday, student discourse focused largely around Mandel’s potential decision. A student-circulated electronic petition advocating remaining on campus received over 400 signatures by press time, while some students took to filling out the comment form on the College’s web page related to the pandemic or contacting Mandel directly.

After Mandel sent the email notifying students at 10:40 a.m., students immediately began reading their phones, calling their parents and congregating to discuss and share support. At 12:45 p.m., a large group of students gathered on the Paresky steps to scream, organized on Facebook by Aidan Lloyd-Tucker ’22. Many student groups have decided to have their final concerts, banquets, formals and other events and parties within the next few days before students leave rather than at the traditional end of the semester.

Some students have responded by creating platforms to both request and share resources for low-income, international and housing-insecure students in need. A Google form, inspired by a similar form at Harvard, surfaced a few hours after Mandel’s announcement. The form asks students if they may be able to host a student, find housing or help move or store others’ belongings through the semester.

A spreadsheet, created by Tania Calle ’20 and Jackson Ennis ’20 and inspired by a document at Middlebury, also provides a variety of information and seeks to consolidate information about resources. The document includes links to the College’s information about the campus changes and contains tabs in which students can offer transportation, housing, food, storage, health care, emotional and spiritual care and miscellaneous information.

With classes continuing through Friday, professors have had mixed responses. Some have cancelled classes and major assignments, while others have continued coursework and class meetings. Meanwhile, a few classes have already met online this week.

On-campus resources

Students who successfully petition to remain on campus will have access to several campus buildings, including Sawyer Library and Lasell Gymnasium, which will uniformly require swipe access through the semester’s end. Thompson Health Center will remain open but may have a more limited capacity considering that, under standard circumstances, most staff members at the health center leave campus over spring break. Some buildings, such as Goodrich Hall, will be closed; Reische said that a full list of buildings remaining open would be released in the coming days. 

Students who have off-campus housing and are not given permission to remain on campus through the petition process may still stay in Williamstown, but will not have access to any on-campus buildings. 

Starting March 18, only Driscoll Dining Hall will remain open. Meals will be served by staff rather than being self-serve, and the College discourages food from being eaten in the dining halls themselves in order to minimize contact in a contained space. 

Should any members of the College community be infected with the coronavirus while on campus, Mandel said that the College will be ready to support them. The College has identified several buildings, including Tyler Annex, which could serve as quarantined areas where afflicted students could live. 

Currently, Mandel does not anticipate food or supply shortages for those who remain at the College, even as hand sanitizer and other sanitary products become scarce in local stores. Mandel explained that the decision to limit the number of students on campus will also help to ensure adequate resources. “I was much more worried about it actually when we were the big community,” she said. “But as we become a smaller community, I think we’ll be just fine.”

The College is still in the process of determining which facets of campus will remain in operation and in what capacity. Integrated Wellbeing Services (IWS), for instance, has not yet determined what form of treatment will take for the next few months. Currently, students who are leaving campus will still have access to TalkSpace, an online resource for therapy the College introduced this year that connects students with licensed therapists outside those on campus. 

“There’s a lot of things that are still in the works to figure out,” Mandel said. “In general, over spring break IWS cuts back. That’s a time where they take care of themselves too, so there are fewer resources on campus during spring break for usually the very few students who are here in general. After we get back from spring break, I think there is some conversation about what might happen, but I think those are in the early stages.”

Mandel has not yet made a decision as to whether campus could be reopened for commencement at the end of the semester, although she expressed confidence during the faculty meeting that the semester will end on schedule on May 15. The College has not made any decisions as to the shape of the fall semester, including the status of study abroad programs and international admittance. “I really can’t answer the question more than anybody else can about where we’re going to be by next fall,” she said. 

The two College-run study away programs, the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford and Williams Mystic, remain open, Mandel said, and will continue as usual until local situations require other steps to be taken. Mandel did encourage students to continue applying to study abroad, despite current restrictions to international programs. “I would say keep your options open,” she said. “Can’t hurt to apply. As you know, this is a fluid situation in the world.”

Even as the number of students on campus declines precipitously, the College intends to continue paying all staff in full. Treasurer and Vice President for Finance and Administration Fred Puddester said at the faculty meeting that “if [staff are] sick, or if they have a situation helping elderly parents at home and they feel uncomfortable coming to work, they should stay home. They’ll still get paid.”

Mandel admitted that the College does not yet have a clear idea of what staff who no longer have roles to perform will do during working hours, given the lack of students on campus. “I don’t know how we’re going to work around work,” Mandel said. “But keep in mind, there are stretches of time where we don’t have students on campus, but people have jobs.”

Post-break academics

When the semester resumes on April 6 following an extended spring break, all classes will be conducted virtually. In order to ensure academic equity for all students, Mandel said students staying on campus will not be permitted to continue meeting with professors or utilizing classroom resources not available online.

Mandel acknowledged that most classes, especially seminars and other classes that feature significant student participation, will have to undergo major changes in the transition to an online format. “I’m hugely optimistic that we will be able to figure out good learning experiences where you can get something out of your class by changing form,” Mandel said, “but it’s going to change form and it’s pretty hard to predict.” 

The College is encouraging faculty members to use asynchronous methods of virtual instruction, which would allow students to complete their coursework at various times. Because many students will soon travel to different time zones, this approach would accommodate those in all locations, Mandel said. 

At Wednesday’s faculty meeting, several faculty members voiced concerns over possible grading discrepancies that may arise in the online course format. The College is currently considering three potential grading options: upholding usual grading procedures, giving all students the option to pass/fail their courses or instituting a mandatory pass/fail policy for the semester, Mandel told the Record following the meeting. 

Mark Reinhardt, chair of the political science department, urged senior staff to consider making all courses pass/fail, arguing that virtual classes will make it difficult for professors to assign fair and accurate grades to all students. 

Professor of English Gage McWeeny, however, expressed a fear that a blanket pass/fail policy would signal to students that the administration had a “lack of confidence” in the virtual learning model and would further decrease the quality of academics. 

 Mandel said although she will continue to solicit faculty feedback and weigh potential options, the College must come to a firm decision by the time classes resume. “We are going to have to deal with the fact that we probably won’t have faculty consensus on this matter,” she said. “And we’ll still have to make a decision.”

Students and faculty have also raised questions about how courses will proceed in disciplines that require hands-on, in-person instruction, particularly in visual and performing arts classes as well as in science labs. Mandel and Dean of the Faculty Denise Buell affirmed that the College will work to support departments and faculty members as best it can, but acknowledged the limitations all parties will face. 

“We have great faculty, we have wonderful students,” Mandel said. “There are lots of ways to learn. We love the residential college model … and I am very sad that we had to do this to the semester, but I’m hugely optimistic that we will be able to figure out good learning experiences where you can get something out of your classes by changing form. But it’s going to change form and it’s hard to predict.”

According to Mandel, a decision has yet to be reached about how third- and fourth-quarter Physical Education classes will be accounted for, an issue of particular concern to seniors who must complete the PE requirement before graduation. Mandel said the College will discuss options for the PE and swim test requirements in the coming days. 

Next steps

In her conversation with the Record, Mandel stressed that despite the College’s current decisions, answers and planning, much is subject to change given all the unknowns about the virus. “Every ‘yes’ I say is with an asterisk,” she said.

The financial impact of this decision remains to be seen, although Mandel noted it is likely to incur a substantial cost to the College on net. “There are tradeoffs,” Mandel said. “My guess is that we are going to spend more than we save. This isn’t about money; this is about making good decisions for the community in a very challenging moment.”

Mandel recognized that some students and other members of the community may view the College’s decision as an overreaction. “All I can say to that is I hope they’re right,” she said. “I hope this was an overreaction and all of us don’t have to deal with [a] large-scale public health disruption. That would be the good news.”

With new information constantly being released, the Record plans to update this story and other coverage online throughout the semester. If readers have questions, tips or stories, please reach out to Record Editor-in-Chief Samuel Wolf ’21 (stw5@williams.edu), or respond to our Google form.