Five takeaways from senior staff’s call with families

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(Graphic by Nigel Jaffe/The Williams Record)

President Maud S. Mandel and several of her senior staff held an open phone call for Williams families on Monday to provide information about the College’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Director of Parent and Family Programs Rob White uploaded a recording of the call to SoundCloud the following day.

The call began with remarks from Mandel, before she, Provost Dukes Love, Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom and Director of the Career Center Don Kjelleren answered families’ questions, which had been submitted in advance. 

Here are five main takeaways from the call.

Mandel aims to announce the plan for the fall semester by July 1; don’t expect a decision to come much earlier than that.

 “It’s fair to say we don’t know yet what we’re going to do in the fall,” Mandel said. “I wish we did, because I know that that’s what you want to know. And I wish I could tell you right now, because it would alleviate everybody’s anxiety, particularly my own, to have a very clear plan and set of recommendations for the fall.”

In waiting until roughly July 1 to announce a decision about the fall, she said, she is “seeking to avoid precipitous decisions.” In the meantime, one ad hoc working group will examine the feasibility of opening the campus to students in the fall, while another will focus on what the fall would look like otherwise.

“Honestly, I want to wait as long as possible, because with every passing day we have more information about testing and contact tracing and all the things that we will need to do here on campus if we want to open safely,” Mandel said.

But by not releasing a decision until July 1, Mandel said, she hopes to give students and their families time to make plans for the semester and to allow staff to prepare the campus for a potential re-opening.

The plan is to open campus before a vaccine is widely available.

“We will likely, under any circumstance, open the campus again to our students before there is a vaccine,” Mandel said. 

Many experts estimate that a vaccine will be available by mid-2021 at the earliest, though one lab at Oxford has predicted that it may develop the first few million doses of a vaccine by September. On the whole, it is unlikely that a vaccine will be widely available by the time the spring 2021 semester would normally start.

Mandel stressed the importance of the task force that is developing a plan for opening safely in the pandemic, since even if classes are online in the fall, the College will eventually need to make use of its guidelines.

Some remote learning will still take place whether or not campus opens in the fall.

The work of the group that is considering remote learning options for the fall is also necessary, Mandel said, regardless of whether the campus is open to students.

“Even if we do open in the fall, the working group focused on building out robust remote learning opportunities will also need to support the working group for opening in the fall because there will be students who won’t be able to return either way,” she said. She did not point to any specific groups of students who might be unable to return.

As for whether students who are taking classes remotely will pay reduced tuition, “it’s still way too soon to tell,” Love said.

If the fall semester is on campus and study abroad is canceled, housing will not be an issue.

It remains unclear whether study abroad programs will be running in the fall, Sandstrom noted. But even if more students than usual are back on campus in the fall, there will be sufficient housing for them.

“I can assure you that we will be fine in that regard,” Mandel said. “We may have more doubles than we’ve had in the past.” Doug Schiazza, director of the office of student life, previously sent out an email on Feb. 26 announcing that some singles would be converted into doubles and some doubles into triples in the event of a larger-than-expected population on campus.

Mandel said that she has received several questions about whether the old Williams Inn could be used for quarantining or housing students.

“I just want to say: We cannot,” she said. “Enough demolition of that building had already happened that using it in that way would require a massive renovation to get it up to code, which at this point wouldn’t be a sensible use of College resources.”

The College cannot guarantee that it will not lay off employees, but it will try to keep everyone employed.

Love emphasized that as the College tightens its spending, it will prioritize protecting the jobs of its employees, including staff and untenured faculty.

“Now, we can’t offer guarantees — we were very open about that,” he said. “Because there’s such an enormous amount of uncertainty right now, what we can say is that the first response to the crisis for the next fiscal year is really aimed at the kinds of measures that are reversible, that will allow us to reduce spending, potentially through flattened salaries, through slowing down capital projects.”

He said that the College will likely release more information in the next two or three weeks about its financial response to the COVID-19 crisis.

“We will have to take actions to prepare for the fall semester, but we are in a very fortunate position relative to many other peer institutions across the country,” he said.