In early August, Williams faced a crisis. Having designed a solid plan for ensuring campus safety in the face of the global pandemic, it was becoming increasingly clear that the plan might not be feasible. There was so much to be done before students began arriving. Most importantly, a testing site had to be built from the ground up. Where would we find sufficient space that was accessible to all? Where would we find the many dozens of people needed to staff the site? Happily, we had an organization in Boston that would provide the tests we needed, but who would transport the tests for analysis every night? What system would we use to track whether all those who needed to be tested had complied and how would we ensure it happened? And what if someone tested positive? Who would transport them while ensuring their own safety? How would we feed and care for those in isolation and quarantine? And on and on.
Getting this operation up and running was literally an around-the-clock project that seemed on the brink of collapse a half-dozen times over a three-week period, as we faced an endless stream of seemingly insurmountable problems.
But that was not all: Ever-changing CDC and state-backed regulations around food and dining meant that plans for providing for the campus had to be repeatedly re-thought from the ground up. How could we redesign the entire dining system essentially overnight, turning our eat-in-place system into a grab-and-go program while at the same time providing safe workspaces for those who had underlying health conditions or age-related concerns? And what was the back-up plan if we had to close one of the dining halls due to a COVID-19 outbreak; how would we feed the community if our capacity was suddenly cut by a third or a half? How could we protect the custodial staff required to clean all campus spaces, and particularly the private and residential spaces, according to new and ever-changing stringent local and national guidelines? At a moment when colleges and universities were furloughing staff to stave off financial crisis, Williams, it seemed, would have to hire more people to meet all the pandemic-related demands, and yet attendance at job fairs declined significantly, and the around-the-clock meetings to determine how we could address the staffing crisis were not providing the necessary immediate answers to the labor shortage.
The closure of local schools and the College’s childcare center in March meant that many in our community did not have childcare during the essential summer months of course redesign and other campus preparatory projects. In July, the dedicated teachers and administrators of our childcare center, like those across campus, re-thought every aspect of their program to meet state safety guidelines. When they could finally open, they provided a safe learning environment for their young charges but their capacity was necessarily reduced, meaning the faculty and staff of the College who rely on that resource had less time to do their jobs.
There is not a single area of the campus that went untouched in the period from July 1 to August 17. Your professors completely redesigned their courses, learning new pedagogical approaches and technological tools. Indeed, in a period when most faculty across the higher education landscape devote themselves to forwarding crucial research projects, Williams faculty doubled down on course preparation, often re-thinking their courses entirely. Student advising was also more intensive for everyone, and faculty and staff of color extended themselves doubly, supporting all students while also disproportionately providing guidance to those from historically underrepresented backgrounds. Meanwhile, course packets, which had been delayed as courses were redesigned, were put together at breakneck speed; the residential life staff rethought housing procedures and on-boarding processes to accommodate the travel plans and housing needs of over 1400 students; those in student-facing roles in the Dean’s office, the Chaplains Office, the Davis Center, Integrated Wellbeing Services and others redesigned orientation programs, innovated on how to support remote and international students, and created new community outreach tools in a moment when building community seemed impossible; and communication teams responded to the hundreds of questions pouring in from parents and students trying to figure out how each change affected individual family plans.
I could go on and on, and without doing so, I’m rendering invisible the work of the librarians, or technology specialists, or campus security officers, or Williams affiliated volunteers, or athletic coaches who worked to make this last semester possible. Missing, too, are the Admissions officers who transformed their program on a dime into virtual outreach tools, as well as Alumni Relations and Advancement teams who sought to keep alumni engaged even as reunions were cancelled and plans for our historic Society of Alumni Bicentennial program, which was years in the making, were scrapped for digital alternatives. And of course, even the best laid plans would have collapsed if Williams students hadn’t displayed tremendous adaptability to new guidelines and the wholesale reordering of campus life. Student flexibility and care for this community were notably visible, for which I’m deeply grateful.
In short, this semester posed numerous challenges. We were only able to pull through because of the dedicated labor of hundreds of people who overcame their own justifiable concerns and exhaustion to push forward. Moreover, we made some mistakes. Not every decision was perfect, and despite the effort to think of everything, we missed some important details. I will always be moved by the patience and fortitude of the broader community as we navigated our way through. Indeed, even though the semester was challenging, I have remained keenly aware of how much harder this has been for so many others and how fortunate we have been to live in a community such as this one.
This pandemic is terrifying. While the vaccine on the horizon provides much needed hope, the daily news makes clear how many will suffer first, and particularly those from communities that were already vulnerable to begin with. Anxiety is rising in the face of the next surge. Williams is not immune. In August, in particular, I saw powerfully the toll that exhaustion and fear could take on our community. As we prepare for next semester and for the inevitable difficulties ahead, we will need to recommit to the collective project of living and learning together during Covid-times. Thankfully, we now know we are up to the task.
Maud S. Mandel is President of the College.