Record survey suggests most students plan to return to campus

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In response to an anonymous Record survey sent to the entire student body following President Maud S. Mandel’s email last week about reopening campus in the fall, 66 percent of the 685 students who completed the poll said that they would likely return to campus and live in on-campus housing. Eleven percent said they would enroll and learn remotely, while 8 percent indicated that they would take time off, and 4 percent indicated that they would return to off-campus housing in Williamstown. Twelve percent were undecided about their plans when they filled out the survey, which was sent on July 2 and closed on July 5. Students have until July 10 to inform the College of their decision.

In-person classes may have been a prominent reason in many students’ choice to return to campus. When selecting courses, an overwhelming majority of respondents expressed a preference for hybrid courses rather than courses with an all-remote designation. Fifty-nine percent of respondents strongly preferred hybrid courses, and 18 percent mildly preferred the mixed offerings. Only 9 percent expressed any level of preference for all-remote courses, while another 9 percent signaled no preference. 

The number of students seeking hybrid courses might still rise, as the survey closed a day before Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that international students enrolled only in online classes would be barred from the U.S.

Despite the option for students to return to campus in the fall, campus life will look drastically different amidst the pandemic, and students are considering the many regulations in the College’s reopening plan as they decide whether or not to learn remotely or take the semester off. On a question for respondents planning on attending remotely or taking time off that invited students to check all answers that applied, 87 percent indicated concerns about the quality of social life as a factor in their decision not to return to campus. Another 60 percent expressed concerns over academic quality, 66 percent regarding extracurricular restrictions, 27 percent regarding cancellation of athletics and 54 percent regarding personal and family health. Seventy-four percent expressed worries about the campus closing due to COVID-19. Another 24 percent cited fears over travel restrictions, a number that could increase with the new rules from ICE.

Some respondents also shared in the comment section that the $4,000 personal allowance for students who are on financial aid was a factor in their decision to stay home. While students on financial aid will receive allowance money whether they enroll on campus or remotely, remote students will receive additional money to support potential added costs of studying off campus. Others expressed appreciation for the generosity of the College compared to peer institutions but questioned the optics, as the allowance felt, some respondents said, like an incentive for students to not return.

As suggested by the widespread concern among respondents who are not returning about the quality of social life, students who are able and willing to study on campus will have to adjust to very different norms and standards than in previous years. Most notably, all students must sign a “Community Health Commitment” that requires students to socially distance from all who are not in their same “pod,” defined as a grouping of up to six students who share a common bathroom. 

As for how closely they will follow the new rules, respondents’ plans are mixed. Only 1 percent of respondents do not plan on seeing people outside their pod at all, while another 44 percent plan on seeing other students only from at least six feet apart. Another 27 people plan to see people outside their pod from closer than six feet, while 28 percent are unsure. 

On the other hand, an overwhelming majority of respondents returning to campus said that they would meet or even exceed the College’s expectations on mask-wearing. Fifty percent said they would wear a face covering at all times outside their pods’ living space, including when they are further than six feet away from other people outdoors, and 11 percent indicated that they would at all times outside their dorm room, in the bathroom when possible and in common areas, for example. Thirty-four percent said they would wear a mask at all times when outdoors and unable to maintain social distancing. Only 5 percent of respondents planning to live on campus suggested that they would violate the guidelines by limiting their mask-wearing to the classroom, an indoor setting where a professor would otherwise ask them to leave.

The high levels of anticipated compliance with mask-wearing coexist, however, with an uncertainty among many students about whether or not they would attend parties, a term the survey left undefined. A slight plurality of 47 percent do not plan to attend parties in the fall, while 11 percent said they do plan to attend parties and 42 percent are unsure. 

Among the 13 percent of respondents returning to campus who are currently in a romantic relationship with another student who will also be on-campus at the College, few plan to maintain social distancing. Of those who are in a relationship with another student, and who are not planning to live in the same pod as that student, only 22 percent plan to maintain social distancing, while 78 percent plan not to. 

Despite mixed levels of expected compliance, 60 percent of respondents planning to live on campus said they felt that the social distancing guidelines were “reasonable and realistic asks,” while 14 percent disagreed and 26 percent were neutral. 

Overall, of the 685 students who responded to the survey, 71 percent said that they approved of the College’s plan for the Fall 2020 semester, while 23 percent remained unsure and 6 percent disapproved.

The number was higher than the 61 percent of surveyed students who approved of the College’s process for determining whether to reopen for Fall 2020 when the Record conducted its bi-annual approval ratings survey in May. It was slightly lower than the 77 percent of students who approved of the College’s overall response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring.