WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Williams College on Monday morning announced that students will be welcomed back to campus beginning in August for a semester of " 'hybrid' courses that blend in-person and remote instruction."
In a 3,400-hundred word letter to the college community, President Maud S. Mandel explained that the college's faculty and administration have designed a return from the spring's campus closure that aligns with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Students will be allowed to choose to take the year off with no penalty, and the college has lowered the number of courses required in the 2020-21 fall and spring semesters with no impact on a student's progress toward graduation.
Students also will have the opportunity to complete all of their course work remotely, and, if they do, they will have access to all of the college's courses, Mandel wrote.
"When in doubt we're going to err on the side of caution, because what's at stake is the health and wellbeing of our extended community, to which we all have a collective responsibility," she wrote.
The college has decided its athletic teams will not compete or travel during the fall semester and is still considering what to do about winter and spring sports.
"Knowing how important athletics is in the lives of many students, we hope to provide opportunities for team engagement," Mandel wrote. "Teams will be able to practice outside in small groups if they adhere to social distancing guidelines, and may progress to more game-like practice activities if conditions improve."
Given the loss of athletics, the disruption to student activities, the cancellation of the college's Winter Study term and other changes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Mandel said the college is reducing its comprehensive fee by 15 percent for the 2020-21 academic year. Last December, the school announced that the fee, which covers tuition, room and board and fees, would be $74,660 per year; 15 percent would be a reduction by $11,199. Tuition — not including room and board — will be the same for students whether they are on campus or taking classes remotely.
The plan announced on Monday morning could change if the progress of the pandemic changes.
"Currently, cases are spiking in some parts of the country, and if the situation worsens significantly and persistently before September I may have to reconsider our decision to convene," Mandel wrote. "Even after the term starts I'll reluctantly have to reserve the option of announcing a mid-semester shutdown if conditions require."
As of now, the college will welcome students into its residence halls in stages, beginning with groups of several hundred at a time in late August, "to allow for thorough COVID-19 testing." Following that initial test, students will be confined to their dorm rooms for 24 to 48 hours, allowed bathroom access only; meals will be delivered to students’ rooms.
Though not mentioned in Mandel's letter, according to the school's website, the school hopes to be able to provide each student with a one-person dorm room.
"Our plan is for each on-campus student to have their own bedroom (a single dorm room)," one of the website's FAQ pages reads. "This may change if the numbers of students returning to campus is higher than the number of available rooms. The number of students sharing a bathroom will vary by residence hall. There will be daily cleaning of bathrooms, and sanitation products will be provided to students. We plan to limit access to common rooms and rearrange furniture in gathering spaces for safety."
Williams' international student population faces its own set of problems with returning to the Massachusetts campus, Mandel notes. The federal government is yet to issue guidance for the return of students outside the U.S. borders, and the college's director of international student services is the point of contact for those students looking to make plans for the fall, whether that is remote classes, a break from their studies or, if possible, a return to campus.
Mandel said that the college anticipates there will be COVID-19 cases on campus this fall.
"The question is not whether they'll happen, but how we'll care for people who get sick and also contain the spread," she wrote. "Our plan establishes protocols for on-campus treatment, quarantine and isolation as needed."
Williams has received assurances from the administration at Berkshire Medical Center and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington that they have the capacity to accommodate potential cases from the college.
Everyone on campus, including faculty, staff and students outside of their dorm rooms, will be required to wear a face covering and observe six-foot social distancing, Mandel wrote. This includes students in classrooms. Meals will be distributed in carry-out containers and not consumed around tables in dining halls.
"In order to make the fall semester work and avoid spreading serious illness, everyone at Williams will be required to sign a Community Commitment that describes and confirms your promise to uphold public health measures and commit to everyone's safety," Mandel wrote.
All Williams classes will be available via remote learning, and a "significant percentage" of courses will be remote even for students on campus, Mandel wrote.
"In light of this fact, it's important to note that our online courses this fall will be substantially different than the ones students experienced in the spring, when the college had to make the transition to remote learning quickly, with little advance notice," she wrote.
Classes will begin on Sept. 10 and conclude on Dec. 11, but, like at MCLA, in-person instruction will end when the college goes on its Thanksgiving break. Students will be able to ask to allow to remain on campus after Thanksgiving if they have "concerns about travel or conditions at home."
For the 2020-21 academic year, Williams is reducing the number of required classes per semester from four to three, and the faculty has agreed to lower the number of credits required for graduation to reflect the lessened course load requirements.
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