A call to consider alternatives to an online fall semester

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We have experienced a great deal of change in the last two months. The word “unprecedented” has become a part of our everyday vocabulary, and things that were big parts of our lives at the beginning of March, like going to class and spending time with friends, have become unthinkable. As the global COVID-19 crisis continues unabated and there is no sign of a broadly effective treatment or vaccine on the immediate horizon, colleges around the country, including Williams, are being forced to contend with the possibility that they will not be able to open as normal in the fall. President Mandel already announced the formation of several committees to explore the College’s options in the event that a normal opening in the fall is not possible. 

My intention with this piece is not to suggest that I know better than these committees; I trust that their research and deliberation will be thorough, informative and productive. I write simply to express my view that continuing online classes in the fall is not a good option for the Williams community and that other options, such as delaying the start of the semester, should be prioritized and explored further.

It has become abundantly clear in the last several weeks that despite the best efforts of professors and students alike, online learning cannot effectively replicate the experience of in-person instruction at Williams. In her recent phone conference with parents and alumni to discuss the College’s handling of COVID-19, President Mandel noted that one of Williams’ greatest strengths is the way that professors work closely with students and foster important connections through hands-on instruction. This is simply not possible in a remote learning model. In fact, since instruction went online this spring, most classes have not even been able to meet in a live setting because students are spread across multiple time zones, making synchronous learning infeasible. This has left Williams students robbed of the most important part of their learning experience — face-to-face interaction with their professors and peers. Digital discussion threads and pre-recorded lectures are a poor replacement for in-person discourse in Williams classes, and continuing to employ them in the fall would be a disservice to both students and faculty. 

Online learning also deprives students of the opportunity to experience the numerous out-of-classroom activities that are undoubtedly some of the most meaningful parts of many students’ time at Williams. Club meetings, a capella concerts, dance shows, plays, sporting events, WOOLF trips, Mountain Day and even simple things like getting a meal with friends are all totally eliminated if we continue with another online semester. With the loss of all of these special experiences and the clear inferiority of online learning, the question of what value there is to be had with an online semester looms large.

Beyond issues with the logistics and quality of remote learning, it is crucial to be mindful of the ways in which online instruction impacts Williams’ diverse student body in unequal ways. Students who have reliable internet and access to a safe, quiet study space will undoubtedly be better equipped to perform well in online courses than those who lack access to these resources. With the COVID-19 crisis, many families are facing sudden, acute economic distress, not to mention health and safety issues. Students in these difficult circumstances should not be put at a greater disadvantage by having to learn remotely from home. While the College has taken some action to relieve the added stress by moving to mandatory pass/fail grading for the spring 2020 semester, this change alone does nothing to level the playing field and is not a viable option for future semesters. In short, there is no way for the College to effectively accommodate the differing needs of students using a remote education model.

Critically, having already had a taste of remote learning in the second half of the current semester, many students may choose to seek alternatives if the College commits to an online model for the fall term. In recent conversations with classmates, several indicated to me that they would elect to take the semester off if it were to be conducted digitally. Additionally, many incoming first year students who had the ability to do so would likely choose to take a gap year in order to ensure a full four year on-campus experience at Williams. In fact, in a recent poll conducted by the Record, 43 percent of incoming first-years polled said they would likely take a gap year if the fall semester remained online, and 68 percent of non-senior current students polled said they would “seriously consider” taking the fall 2020 semester off if it were conducted remotely. These numbers are staggering, and the administration would be well served to take them into account in deciding how to proceed with the coming academic year. Holding a semester with less than half of the normal student population enrolled would not be worth it for anyone involved and is an untenable business model for the College.

Additionally, a high volume of incoming students taking gap years would result in the filling of numerous spots in the Class of 2025 long before the Williams admissions department even reviews any applications for that class. With so many spots filled, the College would be forced to admit fewer students for that class year, potentially creating a major disruption in the College’s standard admissions cycle. The administration’s stated commitment to the current gap year/leave policy demonstrates its vast underestimation of the number of students who would take either a gap year or time off if faced with another semester of remote learning. If the Record’s polling data is an accurate depiction of the feelings of the student body at large, the College may face a mass exodus if they choose to continue with remote learning in the fall, robbing the College of vital tuition revenue that keeps the school running.

Rather than conducting classes online, the College should prioritize other options that allow students to return to campus, even if that means delaying the start of the 2020-21 academic year, in order to make the most of their time at Williams. Despite the current circumstances, there is good reason to believe that on-campus learning is a real possibility for the upcoming semester. Wheaton College, a small liberal arts college that is also in Massachusetts and has a student body similar to Williams in size, recently announced a commitment to opening for on-campus learning in the fall, even if it has to delay the start of the academic year. David Greene, the president of Colby College, a fellow NESCAC institution, also indicated a preference for a delayed opening over online learning. Greene acknowledged that at Colby, “our whole model of education and all of its power comes from close human interaction.” The same is undoubtedly true of Williams. While Colby’s president noted that financial constraints on the endowment would limit the school’s ability to delay the start of the year for more than a month or two, at Williams, we are incredibly lucky to have one of the largest endowments of any small school in the nation. If the College so chose, it could realistically delay the start of the academic year by a significant period of time without compromising the school’s financial stability. 

In the event that the global situation does not markedly improve in a one-to-two-month delay period in the fall, another route could be bringing students back to campus with certain social distancing protocols in place and universal testing if possible. Class rosters could be divided in half and assigned days to attend in person while the other half watches a live stream, and performances could be held with every other seat left empty. With proper dedication, we could create a safe learning environment on campus for this upcoming semester. In this scenario, those who feel they are at especially high risk of health complications could conduct their coursework remotely if they chose.

These are all simply suggestions for ways the College can keep students, faculty and staff safe during the upcoming semester while preserving the unique Williams experience that we have all come to cherish. There is no doubt in my mind that I would rather be in class in Williamstown in July than in class in my living room in September, and I believe most students and faculty likely share this sentiment. Even if it means implementing some new social distancing and public health measures on campus, it is plain that on-campus learning is the best option for the Williams community as a whole. 

Max Plonsker ’21 is a political science major from Larchmont, N.Y.