May 1, 2020
Dear Students and Families,
I know that some of you have struggled with COVID-19 infections, including at least one entire family. I hope you are recovering, if you have been ill, and that most of you have stayed well through the second half of the semester. I have no doubt that you have also learned a lot—from your courses, your professors, one another, and also from life under difficult and uncertain circumstances. These very challenging conditions have made learning harder for many of you. I admire your resilience and determination.
You understandably have questions about the fall semester and also about the support for students facing financial hardship through the CARES Act. Let me begin with what we know and are doing to prepare for fall.
We continue to hope that you will be on campus in the fall and are working hard to understand and create the conditions that would make that possible. However, there is still too much uncertainty for us to make a decision at this point. We know you want a full academic and residential learning experience. We want that for you, too. One way or the other, we take seriously our responsibility to provide the education you need for the next phases of your lives in the safest possible conditions.
There is no zero-risk scenario for residential education, given the absence into the fall semester of a vaccine against COVID-19. We will need to decide how much risk is too much for on-campus learning. Right now we are working to identify the keys to bringing you to campus, while also waiting for the guidance we expect from the state and from the CDC.
Based on what we know now, we would need the availability of reliable, easily administered, and widespread testing for the virus, with a short turnaround time for results. The availability of such testing is increasing by the day. Second, we would need a robust capacity for contact tracing. My conversation last week with Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, gives me some confidence that an effective system could be in place in Massachusetts by fall. Third, we would need to observe some form of social distancing. Ideally, we will have more effective therapeutics even before a vaccine is available, but these alone will not necessarily obviate the need for social distancing precautions. Fourth, the College would need to identify and set aside spaces that would allow us to isolate and care for any student infected with the virus and to quarantine those who have been in contact with the infected person. We are hard at work on arrangements for such spaces.
Alongside the logistics is the “people” piece of the puzzle. There are a number of things we would need to ask of you, based on what we know now. You might need to wear masks everywhere you go and, for your own safety, wear gloves in many contexts. We are acquiring the necessary supplies of these and other items. We may need to require that you limit your movement to on-campus locations only; that you are willing to be tested; that you monitor your temperature; and that you make use of oximeters to track oxygen levels. The most difficult, but equally necessary, responsibility would be your compliance with social distancing guidelines, which will very likely prohibit large gatherings and may significantly limit the number of people with whom you can be in close proximity. We would need to know that you are willing to take these measures in order to protect yourselves, other students, and our faculty and staff. Of course, some of you with health risks and those of you who cannot get to Amherst for other reasons may need to do your work remotely. Even those on campus may still be doing some portion of some courses from locations outside of a traditional classroom, because faculty with underlying health conditions or who are at risk for other reasons may choose to opt-out of being in classrooms. We would make accommodations for these and other needs.
We have been discussing a range of possible models for creating meaningful and safer ways of bringing students to campus. Some of you have written to me about the so-called “Beloit model,” which would have you enroll in two courses in each of four seven-week mini-semesters on campus, reducing the disruption to your studies of shifting from one mode of delivery to another. There are other ways to maximize on-campus time by imagining a variety of adjustments to the academic calendar and the traditional cadence of a normal year.
We are keenly aware of the socioeconomic and racial inequities that have been highlighted and heightened by this pandemic. We know we will need to take disparities into account under any circumstances. Some possible scenarios would involve higher costs for travel, for example, and could therefore have the potential to limit options for some of you. In all of our planning, we will take this into account and we will set aside funds to help address these challenges.
What happens if we conclude that it is not safe enough to have students on campus at the beginning of the semester or for the entire fall? To prepare for this possibility, faculty will be working over the summer to develop courses and pedagogies that will greatly enhance what we can offer online. As you know, our faculty had only one week to prepare for the conversion of their in-person instruction to online teaching in March, just as you had only a week to travel and ready yourselves for online learning. In the first survey you filled out, many of you expressed gratitude to your faculty for their extraordinary efforts and their success in making the change and engaging you in your studies. Many of you also lamented the difference between residential learning and learning at a distance. You have made a strong case for the value of residential liberal arts education in your commentary. Should remote learning prove necessary, we will ensure that it does far more than replicate what was possible this spring.
Amherst faculty members are embracing the need for flexibility in course development so they can provide you with an excellent educational experience, regardless of the mode in which it is offered. Disciplines that involve hands-on experiences are harder to reproduce in full online. Some colleges and universities are contemplating credit for science courses in which much of the material is covered remotely, with labs occurring when students are able to be back on campus. In addition to enhancing the classes you might be taking in the fall, if at a distance, we are also organizing out-of-classroom support and community-building opportunities so you can experience as much of the richness of an Amherst education as can be provided remotely.
What about tuition if we are forced to rely on remote learning for the entire semester? I don’t yet have an answer for you on that front, but we are aware of your concerns and are thinking hard about this question.
Deferrals and Voluntary Leaves
While we hope you will begin or continue your education with your classmates, we also understand that some of you may be considering a voluntary withdrawal or deferral for next semester or next year. If you think this is the best option for you, please contact your class dean for a discussion.
Emergency Relief Grants to Low-Income Students
The College will be providing additional financial support to our students with the greatest needs over the next few weeks. These grants will be funded in large part by the CARES Act, Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF), with the College providing funds to those who are not federally eligible for CARES Act funds. The College will act as a conduit for the federal student funds. We will neither apply for nor accept the funding intended to help colleges and universities with their own expenses. The direct grants to students are intended to support students’ needs related to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ranging from $500 to $1500, these grants will be provided to students based on demonstrated financial need for the 2019-20 academic year and they will go to all students whose family contribution is less than $16,000. Eligible students will receive emails from the Office of Financial Aid next week with information about how to claim your funds. No application will be necessary, but students will need to certify that expenses have been incurred that meet the criteria for receipt of a cash grant and provide a current mailing address for a check to be sent.
Student Emergency Fund
The College has established a new Student Emergency Fund for students who experience financial strain and need supplemental resources due to temporary hardship related to COVID-19. Such expenses could include unforeseen medical costs, financial stress around housing, food insecurity, and emergency travel. Students may ask the fund for financial support, regardless of whether or not they received an emergency relief grant. Details on how to apply to the Student Emergency Fund will be announced in the Daily Mammoth.
Given the uncertainty of summer employment during the pandemic, and because of additional financial burdens for many students and parents that may require that any summer earnings be used toward current expenses, we will make a one-time change to the standard summer earnings expectation. This year, all financial aid recipients will have their summer earnings expectation replaced with an Amherst grant. This policy is for the 2020-21 academic year as an additional, temporary economic support during a time of crisis. No action is required by students. For new students, revisions will be made to existing financial aid packages in June, prior to the bills being published in July. For returning students, the grant replacement will be incorporated into their financial aid package that is also expected to be available in June.
Student Input into College Decision-Making
As we continue the process of decision-making, I have asked this past year’s AAS president, Avery Farmer, to assist us in establishing a student task force that will help us consider our options and come up with creative solutions to whatever challenges we face. I have no doubt that you may have innovative ideas that have not occurred to us and concerns that we may not have covered. This group would help reach out to the student body as a whole and make your ideas available to the administration. I am grateful to Avery for assuming this responsibility prior to an AAS election. Ultimately, of course, the administration will have to assume responsibility for final decisions, but I would like to have as much student thinking as possible before we assume that responsibility.
Let me conclude by emphasizing again that we are fully evaluating all options for the fall and are committed to providing an excellent education and the best possible student experience, regardless of the forms it takes. We are also committed to keeping you informed and letting you know what’s possible as soon as we have enough information to make a decision. Many colleges and universities have set July 1 or July 15 as deadlines for announcing a decision; I anticipate that this is a likely timeframe for us as well. That is based on the need to have the most reliable information possible about the prevalence and spread of the virus, the availability of testing, the capacity for contact tracing, and best practices with regard to social distancing. I know the uncertainty is extremely difficult and wish we had the information we need to decide now, but I believe it would be irresponsible to make final decisions without knowing more than we do or can at the moment.
Please take good care of yourselves. I wish you a positive end to the semester. Thank you for your patience, resilience, and your work over the course of the past several weeks. We are living through extraordinary circumstances, and each of us is doing the very best we can.
With my very best wishes for your health and well-being,