On Monday, June 29, President Elizabeth Bradley sent an email to students, faculty and staff stating that Vassar College will reopen in the fall with in-person classes. Citing a low incidence of COVID-19 cases in New York State due to mask wearing and social distancing, Bradley confirmed that she plans to adhere to and exceed the guidelines put in place by federal, state and local leaders regarding safe health practices.
One week ago, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s New York Forward Re-Opening Advisory Board, on which Bradley sits, announced that it will issue a series of guidelines to New York State colleges and universities on practices ranging from supplying personal protective equipment to adopting cleaning and disinfecting standards.
This announcement follows a wave of U.S. colleges and universities sharing safety plans for a fall semester taking place amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Neighboring Marist College released their fall semester proposal one week ago, and hundreds more have shared plans already or are scheduled to in the coming weeks.
To return to the Vassar College campus for the fall 2020 semester, students must provide evidence of a negative coronavirus test administered within three to five days before arriving. Students will be tested again during their first week on campus. “The College is working on a plan for subsequent, periodic asymptomatic testing to take place throughout the semester,” stated Bradley in her email.
Students will move onto campus in small groups; the first of these groups will move in on August 15. “Currently, New York State is requiring that anyone entering New York from various states or international settings need to self-quarantine once in New York; however, we know these guidelines will likely change throughout the summer,” said Bradley. “We are following this issue closely and are planning for how we might accommodate these students in accordance with all public health requirements.” Classes will take place from August 31 to November 20, at which point students will return home, have a one-week break for Thanksgiving, and then complete the final one and a half weeks of classes, the study period, and finals remotely. All students will be asked to leave on November 20, with exceptions for students who are not able to do so. Except in the case of emergencies, no student may leave campus from August 31 to November 20.
Classes will take place both outside (with tents and awnings) and inside (with classrooms reconfigured to provide six feet of distance). ‘We are equipping classrooms with needed technology to support hybrid classes that are taught both in person and remotely,” said Bradley. According to a faculty survey, the majority of professors will teach their classes in-person, though this is not a requirement. As of now, there is no mention of capping class sizes or staggering classes, options posited by Bradley in earlier statements.
Bradley wrote that a six-foot rule will be enforced within the “campus island.” “Students may socialize with each other but must keep 6-feet of distance from each other,” she said. Gordon Commons will be grab-and-go style for the first part of the fall semester, as it was for the 225 students who stayed on campus for the latter half of the spring semester. As of June 28, Governor Andrew Cuomo stated that he was indefinitely postponing indoor dining in the state of New York. “We will be arranging for vendors and Arlington businesses to be supported with on-campus services” said Bradley.
Bradley acknowledged the additional challenges faced by students living abroad, who may be unable to safely get to campus. “Faculty will work to make the remote learning robust and meaningful regardless of where in the globe our students reside,” she said, and emphasized that remote learning is an option for any student, regardless of their living situation.
Bradley did not discuss the employment of students or their on campus income in the email, but she stated that a website with more specific aspects of Vassar’s health and safety plan will be available the third week of July. She also did not confirm a return to sports for the fall semester, as Vassar plans to wait on the Liberty League’s upcoming announcement as well as the to-be-released NCAA guidelines for safe athletics.
Dutchess County, in which the City of Poughkeepsie is located, has seen a steep decline in COVID-19 cases, although there are still active cases within the county. The county entered its third phase of reopening on June 23.
New York State is currently experiencing its lowest rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths since the pandemic began. The state’s effective reproduction rate, or the number of individuals a person with COVID-19 will infect, is estimated to be one.
The past two days have seen the United States’ highest daily totals of COVID-19 cases, per the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
Neighboring Marist College will also begin classes in August and complete them by November, with the last few weeks of the semester conducted online. Several of Vassar’s peer institutions, such as Colby College and Middlebury College, will follow a similar model with in-person classes ending by Thanksgiving break. However, this is far from a universal standard among small liberal arts colleges. Bowdoin College will only receive freshmen for in-person classes. Mount Holyoke College will split the fall semester in two, with students only taking two courses at a time. Williams College has lowered graduation requirements from four classes a semester to three classes a semester. Taken as a whole, small colleges that are able to close off their campuses are trending toward reopening in some form, as opposed to larger schools, like the California State Universities, that plan to operate primarily online. However, this is not a hard and fast rule, as many larger universities in the state of New York have announced reopening plans.
Bradley underlined the role of each individual in keeping Vassar’s reopened campus safe. “We will require each student who chooses to live on campus to sign a community care pledge, which commits one to uphold the expectations of the community so that we mitigate the risk of COVID-19 on our campus,” she wrote. “Students who continue to disregard the community care pledge, and therefore the health and safety of others, may be required to leave campus and complete the semester remotely.”
Since last spring, college students have experienced a period of great uncertainty. Although some of this uncertainty may be alleviated with announcements like these, students who are immunocompromised, students living with essential workers, students living in epicenters of the outbreak, and students with other vulnerable home arrangements still live with fear of infection. Vassar College has made the decision to combat those fears with community. In the words of Bradley, “Most unnerving is the truth that this pandemic will not end soon, and no one can predict when it will end. Amid this uncertainty, we need to act.”