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Local Colleges Make Changes to Address Coronavirus Concerns

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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Citing similar actions by 70 colleges and universities around the country, Williams College President Maud Mandel on Wednesday announced that the school is effectively closing the campus to students and going to remote instruction after Friday, March 13. 
 
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts is canceling classes for a week following next week's spring break but anticipates resuming a regular schedule on March 30.
 
In a communitywide email, Mandel announced that the liberal arts college will dismiss students for spring break after Friday's classes, one week earlier than planned, and that the remote learning will begin on Monday, April 6.
 
"This decision is among the hardest I’ve ever made," she wrote. "My heart goes out to everyone, and especially seniors, for whom this is the last semester on campus. In this letter I want to tell you why I’ve made the decision and try to anticipate many of your questions about logistics and impact. Let me begin, however, by acknowledging how disruptive and difficult this is. I'm truly sorry."
 
Mandel wrote that in-person classes will end Friday and students will be dismissed for spring break on Saturday — a week earlier than planned. The campus will close to students and remote learning will begin on Monday, April 6. 
 
On the college website linked from the bottom of Mandel's email, the school said that no decisions have been made about the schedule for June's commencement exercises,  alumni weekend, traditionally held the week after commencement or "other major events later in the spring and summer."
 
"We promise to inform people as promptly as possible once a reliable outlook is available upon which we can base our decision," the website reads.
 
As for intercollegiate athletics, Mandel wrote that the presidents of the New England Small College Athletic Conference have unanimously decided that all competitions, including championships, are canceled for the spring 2020 season.
 
Williams' eternal rival, Amherst College, announced its closure and switch to online classes to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus on Monday. It was swiftly followed by Harvard University, Smith College and Mount Holyoke. State colleges and universities are still on a regular schedule but this may change with Gov. Charlie Baker's declaration of a state of emergency on Tuesday as COVID-19 cases neared 100. The governor, however, pointed out authority extended to the Executive Branch in dealing with closures and that the university system, courts and quasi-agencies would be making their own calls. 
 
In a posting on MCLA's website, President Jamie Birge said the North Adams college would cancel classes the week of March 23 through 27, and resume classes on Monday, March 30. Spring break begins on Monday, March 16. Students will need to leave residence halls by 7 p.m. on Friday and may not return until Sunday, March 29. Campus offices will remain open. 
 
"This decision allows the college additional time to clean all frequently touched surfaces and common areas in all of our facilities, including the residence areas," he wrote. "Moreover, this additional time allows me to work with my colleagues to organize a coordinated campus response to COVID-19. ...
 
"It is possible that in the future, depending on the status of the coronavirus, we will explore with our faculty colleagues the possibility of teaching predominantly in an online environment. It is unlikely that will happen this semester."
 
Birge said the the executive staff of the college and the Critical Incident Response Team are closely monitoring developments related to COVID-19 and are in regular communication with health-care providers, state government, and state Department of Public Health.
 
All international and domestic travel for faculty, staff and students has been canceled for 30 days, including athletic competitions and conferences. 
 
Berkshire Community College President Ellen Kennedy posted that classes will continue at the Pittsfield campus but other outside uses will be suspended.
 
"We are suspending use of our facilities through April 10. We are in contact with appropriate state agencies and will keep you apprised of this evolving situation," according to Kennedy's post. "This measure will be revisited in 30 days or sooner as circumstances dictate by the commonwealth."
 
The two-year commuter college has no residence halls or other student living areas.
 
Christina L. Wynn, dean of enrollment management at BCC, confirmed that classes will continue as scheduled although the college will have a week off as spring break is next week. 
 
"Part of the reason is we're a fully commuter school," she said. "The people who are here are working here or coming for classes and leaving."
 
Wynn said the college is informing faculty, staff and students what it is hearing from local, state and health officials: If you're sick don't come to campus. Professors will also work with students who can't come in because of illness, she said, and students should reach out to their instructors if this happens.
 
The circumstances could change, she acknowledged, saying the college is trying to find a "spot in the middle" between doing enough planning so it's not scrambling but also not getting locked into actions it can't reverse.
 
Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington has made no special accommodations for the pandemic, stating in a post on March 4 that it is closely following the "constantly evolving situation." Students are being asked to share any spring break travel plans with the college.
 
Mandel said Williams students should assume they are not returning this semester. "We will certainly be in contact if the outlook improves, but please plan to complete the term remotely for now," she wrote. 
 
The decision was made to reduce the risk of contagion and Mandel noted that the first presumptive positive case in Western Mass was just a few miles of the campus in the town of Clarksburg. 
 
"Public health experts and medical professionals advise us that the virus will likely reach campus soon," the president wrote. "There have been 92 cases in Massachusetts to date, and five within just a few miles of campus. A densely-packed campus is ripe for contagion."
 
Mandel said it will also avoid a "false sense of security" and that the college could not "promise adequate care to the full student body" because of the limited medical care available in the region. 
 
"A reduced college population will dramatically reduce pressure on local caregivers, and will not take up so-called 'surge space' in local hospitals, allowing them to instead focus on vulnerable populations," she wrote. The dispersion of the campus will also protect those most vulnerable, enables students to get home "while options still exist," and prevents a more dramatic disruptive later. 
 
"Even with all of these considerations, it was a heart-breaking decision," Mandel wrote, adding that to the faculty, "we are going to provide every resource we can to help you transition to remote teaching. ...
 
"Staff, this affects you deeply, as fellow educators and, with faculty, as local residents. We appreciate your commitment to the students and ask you to please report to work as always so that we can manage the transition well. Williams will still operate, and you will be paid as usual."
 
Those who can telecommute were asked to contact their supervisor and Human Resources; those vulnerable to COVID-19 were asked to stay home if possible. 
 
Students will be required to leave campus by no later than Tuesday, March 17 at 5 p.m., unless they have received permission to remain. To reduce the chance of contagion, students will not be allowed to return to campus once they leave, until the closure is lifted.
 
Editor's note: this article has been updated and edited from its original posting as more information has become available. Future edits are likely as this situation evolves.

Tags: COVID-19,   Williams College,   


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Williamstown Planning Board to Look at Impact of Land Regulations on Equity

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board wants to make a concerted effort to assess potential bylaw changes with an eye toward increasing equity.
 
Picking up on a conversation that has dominated discussions in the town's Select Board in recent weeks, the Planning Board last Thursday began talking about how it can advance social justice through its work.
 
"I think this is really essential work for us to be doing," said Peter Beck, who participated in his first meeting since his election to the board in June. "Issues of racial equity are not tangential to planning and land use but deeply wrapped up in it."
 
Chair Stephanie Boyd raised the issue toward the end of a meeting dominated by discussion about bylaw amendments the board plans to bring to next month's annual town meeting.
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