BREAKING: Williams announces plan to reconvene on campus for fall semester, with reduced tuition

Irene Loewenson, Joey Fox, and Annie Lu

The College has announced that it will reopen the campus to students for the fall semester, though with stringent measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and with a 15 percent lower cost of attendance.
(Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Here’s what you need to know:

  • The College intends to convene for an in-person semester, with classes beginning on September 10 and students arriving on campus in stages beginning in late August.
  • Students can opt to return to campus or take classes entirely remotely. Most classes will be taught either in a hybrid or completely remote format. Classes will become entirely remote after Thanksgiving.
  • For this coming academic year only, the cost of attendance will be reduced by 15 percent, the work-study contribution will be waived for students on financial aid and the annual Student Activities Fee will be scrapped for all students. Students who receive financial aid and are studying remotely will receive a $4,000 personal allowance per semester; the announcement doesn’t make clear whether all remote students will receive that allowance.
  • Students will arrive on campus a few hundred at a time and will be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival and quarantined in their rooms for 24 to 48 hours until results come back. Students will also be tested weekly, for free, throughout the semester. 
  • Local hospitals have indicated that they will have sufficient capacity to accommodate students in the event of an outbreak on campus.
  • There will be no travel or competitions for fall-season athletes.
  • The email, though addressing many aspects of the fall semester, has yet to answer key questions, including what shape extracurriculars will take, how the College will accommodate students who wish to switch to entirely remote learning in the middle of the semester and whether the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford (WEPO) will run on-site.

The College plans to convene in person this fall, albeit with significant restrictions, President Maud S. Mandel announced this morning in an all-campus email

Students who choose to enroll in the fall semester can choose to return to campus or take their classes virtually. All courses will be taught either partially or entirely remotely, allowing off-campus students access to the College’s full course offerings. Regardless of whether students enroll on campus or remotely, the total cost of attendance will be lowered by 15 percent, and the College will waive the work study contribution for students on financial aid.

“With the voices and suggestions of so many wise and caring people resounding in my mind, I concluded that the right path for Williams was to reconvene, and to do so flexibly, so that we could offer as many of you as possible as much chance as possible to judge what’s best for yourselves,” Mandel wrote in the email. The College’s decision is largely based on the report from the Working Group on Returning for Fall 2020, which Mandel attached to her email.

The College may change its plan if the public health situation worsens. Mandel indicated that she could still reverse today’s decision and cancel the fall’s in-person activities, whether before the semester starts or in the middle of the semester. Her email comes after an entirely remote second half to the spring semester, and amid an increasing wave of coronavirus cases in many parts of the country.

In the past few weeks, several colleges have announced plans to hold in-person fall semesters, including the nearby Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and fellow NESCAC members Middlebury, Tufts, Trinity and Wesleyan. Bowdoin plans for first-years and transfer students, among others, to return in the fall, while the rest take classes remotely.

But the College’s plan for reopening stands out compared to that of its peer institutions in that tuition for the 2020-21 academic year will be 15 percent lower than planned for this upcoming academic year only — regardless of whether students are taking the semester in person or remotely, though remote students will of course not have to pay for room and board. Moreover, students who receive financial aid and are enrolled virtually for the fall semester will get a $4,000 allowance for “the expenses you’ll incur while studying remotely,” according to FAQs linked in the email. The FAQs do not make clear whether the College will also give this allowance to students who do not receive financial aid.

The total cost of attendance had been set to be $74,660 but will now be $63,200, and the family contribution required for students receiving financial aid will be lowered by 15 percent. Part of this lowering of fees arises from changes to key parts of the Williams experience, from the elimination of Winter Study for this academic year to reductions in extracurricular offerings and athletics.

Classes will begin on September 10 and end on December 11, as the College had previously announced at a recent faculty meeting. After Thanksgiving, instruction will be held remotely. Students will take their last two weeks of classes and their final examinations online, although they can request to stay on campus “for a variety of reasons related to concerns about travel or conditions at home.”

All students have the option to take time off from the College, though incoming first-years and transfer students who do so must take a gap year rather than a semester, while sophomores, juniors and seniors can take a semester or more. The deadline to request time off is Friday, July 10, at 5 p.m. Eastern Time. It remains uncertain how or if the College will accommodate students who wish to go remote after initially opting to return to campus.

The differences between this semester and previous ones will be apparent from the moment students return to campus. Students will arrive beginning in late August in stages of “several hundred at a time.” They will be assigned dates for arrival but will be able to request alternative dates if needed. Upon their arrival, they will have to take “minimally invasive, self-administered nasal swab” COVID-19 tests. For their first 24 to 48 hours on campus, students must quarantine in their dorm rooms, except for trips to the bathroom, as they await their test results. Subsequently, they will be required to take weekly free COVID-19 tests, offered in partnership with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. 

Faculty and staff will also have access to testing, although most staff will continue to work remotely. Essential staff will return with altered schedules, while faculty are encouraged to minimize their time on campus.

First-years and transfer students will still participate in some form of First Days, the College’s orientation program that typically introduces new students to residential life at the College. Mandel’s email did not specify whether it would take place partially or fully remotely. Drop-off day will look different from previous years, since parents and other non-students will not be allowed in the residence halls to help with moving in.

All courses will have some remote component. 

“Students who opt to study remotely will still have full access to our courses, although not necessarily all sections,” Mandel wrote. “Indeed, a significant percentage of courses will be entirely remote even for students on campus so that we can manage class sizes, ensure social distancing and meet the needs of faculty and staff who must remain off-campus for their own safety.” The FAQs added that students enrolled remotely would not be able to visit campus or use College facilities without express permission from the dean of the College.

According to both a Record survey from May and a concurrent survey administered by the College, most students had a negative experience with remote learning during the spring. But for some students who have health concerns or who are otherwise unable to return to campus, it will be the only way for them to take classes at the College this fall. Faculty have already chosen whether they will offer their classes in person or entirely online, information which can be found on the preliminary course list released online. According to the FAQ page, a fall course list will also be released on the registrar’s website after July 2.

Whether on campus or remote, students will be able to take as many Pass/Fail classes as they wish, including for divisional or graduation requirements, although it is up to professors whether their classes will have a Pass/Fail option. 

As previously announced, students will be required to take only three classes per semester, though they may continue to take four classes if they so choose. Eighty-six percent of respondents to a Record survey in May said they would prefer to take four classes if they were on campus in the fall. Individual departments can decide whether to adjust major requirements to accommodate the changes to the grading system and graduation requirements.

Those taking in-person classes will have to wear masks and sit six feet apart, a rule that will apply to all public indoor spaces. When outdoors, students must wear masks if they cannot socially distance. All students, faculty and staff will receive three reusable masks, as well disposable masks in some public areas, according to the FAQs.

Fall athletic teams will not be allowed to compete or travel. The effects of this decision will be far-reaching at a college that counts 35 percent of its students on intercollegiate teams and that prides itself on having won the Directors’ Cup for success in Div. III athletics 22 times out of the last 24 years. Teams may, however, continue to practice outdoors if they follow public health rules. The College has yet to make a decision regarding winter and spring sports. In all aspects, the email reads, “athletic engagement will begin and proceed slowly.” 

Social interactions, too, will look dramatically different from previous semesters. Dining halls will shift to carry-out only, and according to the FAQs, Mission Dining Hall will be closed. There will also be unspecified restrictions on the size of gatherings, which will affect parties, performing arts, outdoor programs, extracurriculars and more. The plan is for all students to live in singles, but the College acknowledged in the FAQs that it may have to put students in doubles if more students than expected come to campus.

The email does not specify if and how the College will enforce social distancing and mask guidelines. The FAQs note that students, faculty and staff will have to sign a commitment to the College’s public health policies.

The email includes no concrete decisions about student extracurricular activities but does state that students will not have to pay the Student Activities Tax. “Many of our student clubs and organizations are likely to be active,” Mandel wrote, “but will have to operate in new ways given public health considerations.”

The email also noted that the College “won’t have all the forms of support on campus this fall” that students normally receive, such as in-person counseling with Integrative Wellbeing Services (IWS). Instead, IWS will be expanding virtual counseling offerings through its partnership with Talkspace. Mandel advised students and families to consider these changes in mental health services, among other aspects of campus life, in deciding whether or not to return.

Mandel wrote that the College expects at least some cases of COVID-19 to be diagnosed on campus. Should that happen, students will quarantine on campus, receiving health guidance via telemedicine and getting meals delivered directly to them. 

The email does not specify whether students will be quarantined in their own rooms or in designated quarantine areas. It does, however, indicate that students may need to relocate into a different room in order to make room for quarantining or isolation.

Students with severe cases of COVID-19 will be transported to a local hospital in Vermont or Massachusetts. In her March decision to shut campus down, Mandel noted that one of her primary concerns was the ability of local hospitals to handle an outbreak on campus, but her email today noted that local hospitals have indicated that it is reasonable for students to return to Williamstown.

Mandel also reserved one final option: If campus becomes truly unsafe during the fall semester, she may shut it down once more. “I hope, of course, that I will never have to make such a decision,” she wrote. “Nevertheless, conditions are uncertain enough that it’s impossible to guarantee the completion of an in-person semester.”

In consideration of international travel restrictions, most study away programs partnered with the College, including the Williams-Mystic Program, have cancelled on-site programming for the fall. Students intending to attend a program that is set to begin in person should contact Director of International Education and Study Away Tina Stoiciu to determine whether the College can authorize the program. The College’s signature study abroad program, WEPO, will let its students know in early August whether they will be able to study at Oxford in the fall.

Mandel acknowledged the unique challenges international students face, given that many embassies have stopped processing visas and international travel is severely restricted. The College is “committed to assisting international students in enrolling for the fall (either in person or remotely) or taking time off,” the email said. 

The details included in Mandel’s email pertain only to the fall semester. The College plans to announce the start date and calendar for the spring semester sometime in October, but what it will look like remains in question. 

Many details about campus life even for the fall are still unknown. The College will host a series of town halls, virtual meetings and office hours beginning this week where members of the community can ask questions. 

“When in doubt we’re going to err on the side of caution,” Mandel wrote, “because what’s at stake is the health and wellbeing of our extended community, to which we all have a collective responsibility.”

This is a developing story. The Record will provide further coverage online throughout the rest of the summer.

Monday, June 29, 3:33 p.m.: This article has been updated to include additional information about changes to financial aid, in particular about the $4,000 allowance for remote students.