As campus settles into a new normal with a consistently low COVID-19 case count, the Vassar administration is looking to the spring semester and preparing for the unique challenges of the winter season.
In an email to the student body, President Elizabeth Bradley asked for students’ feedback on three potential plans for next semester. Plan A entails students returning in late January and potentially beginning classes exclusively on Zoom until the weather warms. Plan B would include students staying home and participating in classes remotely until the end of February, at which point students would return for in-person classes. Plan C would have students stay off campus until March, and then return for a delayed semester with in-person classes. For Plan C, graduation would also shift back to mid-June.
An additional email detailed a fourth option, one in which students would move in during mid-February, begin classes in late-February, and then finish classes on time to have graduation on May 31st.
While the current three phase plan and ongoing social-distancing restrictions seem to have proved successful for the fall semester. Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana shared that the forthcoming cold weather and flu season will present novel complications.
“Weather is a significant factor in the considerations of a plan for the spring, given how important outdoor space was during our return this fall semester in allowing our students to eat safely with roommates or meet in small groups,” said Alamo-Pastrana.
He continued, “We are also still in flu season during January and February, so that is something else that we need to consider. Right now, students who present with flu-like symptoms are treated similarly to a positive COVID case until they are cleared through testing. This can potentially strain some of our systems. Given all of this, our key challenge here is how to balance starting at a reasonable date while still working to preserve the physical and mental health of all of our students.”
Peer colleges are facing similar decisions about the upcoming semester. Colby College, which also welcomed students back to campus for Fall of 2020, has yet to announce their plans for spring. Smith College, which went remote for Fall of 2020, released a statement stating that they hope to allow more students on campus for the coming semester.
Regardless of the plan Vassar ultimately chooses, Alamo-Pastrana shared that students will still have the opportunity to study completely remotely. He is unsure whether the number of remote students will increase or decrease, but suggests the number might remain the same. However, he also noted, “Because we have shown it is possible to have a safe, in-person experience for this semester, some may feel more comfortable returning to in-person for the spring semester.”
Students have responded with differing opinions to the proposed plans. Sulekh Fernando-Peiris ’22 believed that Plan A seemed like the most reasonable option because taking classes remotely from home can prove challenging. “I like [Plan A], which allows us to return and do the first couple of weeks at school. I say this plan because I think at the end of last semester we saw how hard it was for some students to do online work at home,” he said.
Caeli Porette ’22 expressed via text message that she prefers Plan C because it reduces weeks of Zoom-only classes and provides the opportunity for a more traditional semester. “I prefer Plan C because it gives us the best option of possibly having a vaccine at that point and being able to live out a more normal semester. Also, January to the beginning of March can be brutally cold and given the present COVID guidelines, social life would be even more limited and it would be really tough on the mental health of so many students to be cooped up in one room for basically two months, especially those who don’t have roommates.”
Alamo-Pastrana shared that regardless of the final plan chosen, spring break would either be shortened or removed. He said that the administration recognizes the need for breaks, and that much like this current semester, the college will implement “Community Care Days.” These are various days throughout the semester wherein classes are canceled, and Vassar hosts events promoting wellness and mental health.
However, some students say they will miss the traditional spring break, and would prefer a shortened spring break over no spring break at all. “I think breaks are essential. Even now, I think it’s important to note how midterms have thrown all of us into a state of stress, in addition to the stress we have from the ongoing issues in the world. I honestly don’t think one day in the middle of the week is enough,” said Fernando-Peiris.
Porette expressed a similar sentiment: “Canceling spring break, though it makes sense in order to try and keep students from leaving campus … would be a bad idea overall.”
She continued, “Personally I was really surprised and upset that we didn’t have an October break this year. I know myself and many other students rely on these breaks as a means of being able to relax and recharge mid-semester, especially for those in classes with stressful midterms.”
While Alamo-Pastrana stressed that plans for the coming semester are fluid, he is grateful for the way students have followed social-distancing protocols and kept campus relatively safe: “Students seem to have internalized ‘we’ precedes ‘me,’ and we are very grateful for this. The spring semester will bring its own set of unique challenges and so we appreciate your patience and understanding as we think and work through these together.”