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MCLA Moves Students Online But Still Plans Commencement

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Like so many college and universities across the nation, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts has had to quickly restructure its spring semester and cancel all of its sports and activities.
But what it isn't going to do is force the class of 2020 to forgo its commencement ceremonies.
President Jamie Birge on Thursday confirmed to the board of trustees what he'd written weeks before on the college's website: some way, some how there would be a presentation of diplomas.
"I can tell you we will have commencement, but we don't know the date of that yet," he said during the call-in meeting of the trustees. "We will be consulting with the senior class officers here to ask for their input."
Last week was the first week of remote learning for the college, which had to move hundreds of students and more than 100 faculty off campus as schools and organizations shut down across the state to comply with restrictions to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. 
Williams College had moved to remote learning after March 13 but MCLA had planned to return to campus March 30 after a spring break and a week for cleaning. That changed on March 23 when the governor ordered all nonessential businesses to close and prohibited any gathering more than 10 people by noon the next day. 
"So within 24 hours, hundreds of MCLA employees transitioned from working in their offices to working remotely, which meant that they needed to collect technology, they needed to get the paperwork and files, they needed to actually file an application to work remotely," Birge said. "But it was done."
There are now few people or cars on the campus, he said. "That's the sad thing but the workforce has really responded swiftly and effectively." 
Seventeen resident advisers returned to help more than 700 students move off the campus over a two-week period while maintaining a 6-foot social distance. 
Birge described the shift to remote working and learning and the removal of hundreds of students during that short window a "significant accomplishment" for the small college. 
A number of changes have been instituted including pass/fail options for the spring semester and online student support. The Center for Student Success and Engagement has called every student to find out how they're doing and what they need and the information technology department has opened platforms for students to access software that's on campus. 
"There have been a number of hiccups and if you were on the enrollment management call just before this meeting, you can attest to the hiccups," Birge said. "But we're getting through it, we're managing it and that's because of our IT professionals who are helping us out."
The college is also hoping to help students beyond academics and emotional support through the creation of a "Resiliency Fund" through the auspices of the Institutional Advancement Office. 
"[There are] expressed needs from a number of our students for access to food or to housing or to internet access or put gas in their car or to pay for utilities," Birge said. "Our students are struggling in lots of ways that they didn't have to when they were here because we were housing them."
In less than a week, the fund has raised $8,685 and begun dispersing money to students in need. More than 40 percent of MCLA's undergraduate students are first-generation college students and nearly half are Pell Grant recipients. 
Students who held on-campus jobs will continue to be paid through the semester and the college is looking at reimbursements for housing, dining and parking permits, although Birge said that cannot happen without support from the state. Any receipt of federal funds because of the pandemic cannot be used for reimbursements either, he said. 
"So even though that will help us and others, it will not help us with the hit that we'll take with those refunds," Birge said.
Another financial hit will be in enrollment if students do not return for the fall. The enrollment committee, which met immediately prior to the trustees, reviewed a number of factors including surveys by other institutions that indicate the pandemic may have students rethinking returns to current schools but on the other hand, they're also looking more at colleges closer to home. 
MCLA had to cancel a number of incoming student activities but has seen strong registration numbers for a series of webinars put together with faculty and staff about the college. Award letters will also be going out for the class of 2024. 
There has been initial thoughts about what will happen if that class can't start in September but there is no backup plan at the moment as the college focuses on getting students through the end of the spring semester. 
And figuring out when a commencement ceremony can happen, as Birge promised in a letter March 20 to the MCLA community: "We will meet again I will still be there on stage to congratulate you in person."
Student Trustee Jacob Vitali said his classmates understand why these actions had to been taken even if they don't like it.
"I'm very excited that we're going have commencement at some point," he said. "I do have friends at other institutions whose commencements were canceled outright. So, I'm glad we're going to have ours."

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