After days of anxiety and uncertainty in the greater Vassar community, President Elizabeth Bradley and members of Vassar’s senior administrative team have released a strategy for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. All of the College’s classes and in-person work will be moved exclusively online—for at least a three-week period—following the conclusion of Spring break.
Starting on March 23 and effective through April 10, Vassar will hold classes remotely through a newly developed distance learning program, though the administration hopes to fully reopen campus for the final stretch of the Spring semester. The College will reassess the severity of coronavirus and the possibility of returning to classrooms by April 6.
“We’re ready to deliver the highest quality Vassar education, just in an online atmosphere,” said President Bradley (whose academic and professional backgrounds are in public health) in a video statement. “I think we have a real opportunity. We can pursue education at the highest level and still maintain the health of our communities.”
Senior officials are hoping to provide resources that may mitigate the effect of a shift to online—an unprecedented event in the history of the College. While students currently away from campus will be encouraged to stay home, all those registered on campus through Spring break are allowed to remain at Vassar and participate in distance learning from there. Students in financial or personal hardship and/or concerned about their circumstances outside of Vassar have two days to complete a special “Request to Reside on Campus” form through the Dean of the College.
Members of Vassar’s senior class, who are now preparing for the possibility of not returning to campus before their graduation, are still expected to complete their coursework and graduate on time, with individualized support offered by deans and faculty. There is currently no change to the upcoming Commencement ceremony scheduled for May 24, although this may be reassessed at a later date.
The College also plans to alleviate some of the expected financial impact on students and employees. Vassar will refund students for room and board expenses incurred during the time they are not on campus, while tuition costs will remain the same. A digitized “Telework” program (unrelated to the new distance learning program) will be put into motion so school employees can continue collecting wages through remote work, with potential paid leaves offered to other employees at higher risk of infection. A plan to reconcile work-study wages is still up in the air, with the College looking to provide off-campus alternatives to typical on-campus work.
While the majority of Vassar’s student population will have to adjust to life outside of Vassar’s gates, many on-campus buildings will continue to operate as usual. Gordon Commons will reopen on Saturday, March 21, though self-serve stations will be closed. The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, the Thompson Memorial Library, the Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve and Wimpfheimer Nursery School will remain open. Student support services, such as the Counseling Service, Health Promotion and Education, and Support, Advocacy, and Violence Prevention (SAVP), may adjust their operations but will continue offering services.
Athletics and study abroad programs, on the other hand, are facing greater changes. Following the conclusion of Spring break games, all winter and spring sport competitions—baseball, men’s volleyball, men’s lacrosse, women’s lacrosse, men’s and women’s rowing, men’s and women’s rugby, women’s golf, men’s tennis, women’s tennis, and men’s and women’s track and field—will be suspended until April 10 and reevaluated on April 6, following the same timeline for the general campus hiatus. Students studying abroad in continental Europe, now considered a Level 3 area by the CDC, are currently being brought back to the United States.
In efforts to prevent a potential outbreak of coronavirus at Vassar itself, on-campus gatherings of more than 50 people, as well as all admission-related campus visits, are suspended. All events are suspended through April 17. Organizers will have the option to hold their events digitally.
“This is a difficult time for our College, and we are not alone,” wrote Bradley in her statement outlining the new course of action. “Vassar is a courageous and fearlessly consequential community and we will get through this.”
The novel coronavirus has ushered in what is now classified as a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). The coronavirus first broke out in the city of Wuhan, China, and has since travelled across the United States and the world, even to Vassar’s neighboring Ulster County, New York. The desire to mitigate an inevitable larger outbreak has forced college administrators across the country into many rapid and difficult decisions. Over 100 public and private universities have already announced protective measures, such as class cancellations, weeks-long suspensions, and, in some cases, definite closures through the remainder of the Spring semester, including the cancellation of graduation ceremonies. Most institutions are transitioning to online learning.
Yesterday, Marist College made a decision to extend students’ spring break by one week, with classes tentatively scheduled to reconvene on March 30. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that all SUNY and CUNY schools, including SUNY New Paltz, would shut down for the remainder of the semester and shift to full-time online learning. The Poughkeepsie City School District and others in the county are expected to receive guidance in the near future from state officials about potential closures.
There are currently no known cases of the coronavirus in Dutchess County, where Vassar is located. Neighboring Ulster County has reported two cases, with both patients in recovery and under quarantine. Other areas in New York State have seen larger outbreaks. Westchester has over 100 reported cases, with New Rochelle being designated as a highly impacted “containment area.” The town is about 70 miles (approximately an hour’s drive) south of Vassar. Major buildings and public gathering spaces there are now shut, and the National Guard is distributing resources to quarantined residents.
Immediately following President Bradley’s more general announcement on Tuesday, which suggested a potential move to online learning, and prior to today’s more detailed decision, students were quick to express their opinions online. Emma Fraizer ’21 and Alice Woo ’20 created a Change.org petition titled “Keep Vassar open,” which gained over 1,700 signatures in its first 22 hours. The petition cites concerns such as the lack of accessibility to digital learning and complications surrounding returning home for international and low-income students, as well as potential diminishment of food, medical and therapy services. Petitioners also mention inaccessibility to campus services for Vassar’s most vulnerable students as a reason for Vassar to stay open, arguing “If support services are drastically cut, including things from food service to access to therapy, this will make it very difficult or impossible for students remaining on campus to continue activities of daily life.”
Caitlin Wong ’23 would have prefered to stay on campus, as she views the Poughkeepsie area as safer than Westchester, her home county. Wong would “feel more comfortable only interacting with young college students than demographics that are more at risk, like my parents or older people in my community.” Also from an area that has experienced a significant outbreak, Emily Yang ’23 does not want to return to Beijing and risk infection, worrying that she could spread a potential virus to friends and family. She and Haru Sugishita ’23, who hails from Tokyo, Japan (also a locus of an outbreak), are concerned about being quarantined upon arriving at home, as well as issues re-entering the United States when Vassar eventually returns to in-person instruction.
Many leading public health officials have advocated for measures like school cancellations and social distancing in order to prevent a larger-scale outbreak that could push health care systems past their capacities. College cafeterias, communal bathrooms and close living quarters are all harbors in which the virus could proliferate. If students were to return directly following Spring break, the presence of even just one infected person could quickly lead to a wide-scale community outbreak. An additional outbreak anywhere would put increased pressure on local hospitals and leave immunocompromised or otherwise at-risk community members at even greater risk.
In the midst of a pandemic, public health considerations are forcing decisions that work against some of the College’s most vital economic and educational incentives. Community members must wait for more detailed information to come, and in the meantime, continue to practice baseline preventative measures, such as washing hands.
Additional reporting by Tiana Headley.