June 2, 2020

Dear Students, Faculty, Staff, and Families,

Since we last wrote to you, the semester has come to a close and, on Sunday, we honored the class of 2020 in a virtual celebration that is available to view. We have reached this point because of the perseverance, sacrifice, and creativity of the Amherst community—all of you. We are grateful for your extraordinary achievement.

We continue actively planning for the fall, and we are writing now to give you another update on our effort to bring as many students as possible back to a safe learning and living environment on campus. As you know, there are many hurdles involved, some in our control and some not. You will probably have read announcements from other colleges and universities, some announcing decisions to bring students back to campus for the fall semester, but all with a warning that those decisions could change. We do not believe that kind of announcement will be very helpful to you. We are focusing intensive efforts on making it possible to bring our students back to this beautiful campus while also preparing to enhance significantly what we offer remotely, knowing that some members of the community will teach and learn at a distance.

Our timing has not changed. We will make a more definitive announcement about our plans in late June or early July, at a time when we know more about the availability of testing with a rapid turnaround for results. What we can do now is provide information that we hope will be helpful to you in the interim.

Fall Start Date/Classroom Logistics

At this time, the College is planning to start classes on August 24, regardless of whether they begin in person or remotely. This is a significant shift from the traditional post-Labor Day start date which, this year, would have been Tuesday, September 8. Taking full advantage of our beautiful late summer and fall New England weather, this earlier date allows us to hold as many classes as possible outdoors, which experts agree is safer than indoors, and to provide a unique learning experience at the same time. If students are able to return to campus as we hope, the August 24 start date would permit 13 weeks of instruction before students leave for the Thanksgiving break. Reading period and finals would take place remotely.

In an effort to schedule and encourage as many activities as possible—both academic and extracurricular—to take place out of doors, with proper distancing and safety protocols, we have ordered 20 tents that will be equipped with power and teaching technologies.

We understand that some students, faculty, and staff will not be able to return to campus for a variety of legitimate reasons, including pre-existing health issues. Therefore, even if we are able to return, some number of students will want to take advantage of remote learning. Faculty are preparing to do both in-person and remote teaching. We are working closely with faculty and our colleagues in IT to enhance our remote teaching platforms and capabilities (see more below). Regardless of where students are, they can gain access to classes and have a richer, easier, and more productive virtual academic experience.

We are also establishing guidelines for a variety of safety protocols. For example, given distancing requirements that we anticipate will be in place, all classes with enrollments of 35 or more will take place remotely this fall, regardless of whether students are on campus or not.

Working Groups

There is a great deal of work underway to enable a safe and effective return to a residential experience. We are making very significant investments in the technologies, supplies, equipment, and staffing necessary to facilitate a much-improved student experience next year, regardless of the form that experience takes. In order to gather as much information as possible from subject matter experts who will be directly involved in the implementation of our eventual plan, 11 different working groups were formed, ranging in size from two to nine members and comprising faculty, staff and students. The groups regularly communicate information and recommendations to the senior staff, where final decisions are being made. Here are the working groups, along with their staff “sponsor” and the focus of their efforts:

  • Academic Structures (Catherine Epstein, Provost and Dean of the Faculty) -- This ad hoc faculty committee has created recommendations about policies, practices, and academic structures that could better serve our students during the upcoming year. Their recommendations were presented to faculty and discussed at last week’s faculty meeting, and some of the measures they recommend will be put to votes this week. The group has concluded that we should have two 13-week semesters, an intensive January term in which students can take one course for full credit, and a proposal that students take three rather than four courses per semester.
  • Campus Operations (Jim Brassord, Chief of Campus Operations) -- This group is developing and beginning to execute plans for a redesigned food service model with grab-and-go satellite facilities, a robust campus cleanliness and hygiene plan, redesigned classrooms in collaboration with the registrar, buffer-capacity housing for isolation and quarantine, all necessary PPE and supplies, enhanced HVAC air flow in campus buildings, and the design and installation of physical barriers to promote social distancing. Their work will continue until and beyond the opening of the College.
  • Enrollment (Matthew McGann, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid) -- This group is discussing a number of policies and actions, including gap year requests, use of the waitlist, voluntary leaves, financial aid, and billing. It is working to provide forecasts about enrollments for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 academic years and beyond. The group is also examining what billing and aid policies will best serve our students and families. Among other applications, their ongoing work will help to calculate how many students can safely be on campus this year, next year, and beyond.
  • Financial (Kevin Weinman, Chief Financial and Administrative Officer) -- This group provided the recommendations that shaped the actions we announced on May 7, reducing expenditures and beginning to address the financial challenges we are experiencing as a result of COVID-19. Further actions will likely be necessary once we have a clearer picture of the potential scope and extent of the pandemic and its impact on the College. This group is evaluating options to adjust our cost structure as needed. In addition, they are forecasting the costs that a safe return to campus will involve and preparing to support the recommendations made by the other working groups. The financial working group is tracking the needs identified by other working groups and incorporating them into our financial projections and plans.
  • Human Resources (Lisa Rutherford, Chief Policy Officer and General Counsel) -- The HR group is focusing on workforce planning, developing a potential voluntary retirement program for staff, and considering the implementation or modification of policies and procedures to address needs that arise during the pandemic, such as telecommuting and leave policies. Their work is ongoing as more formalized plans for the fall semester begin to take shape.
  • IT Planning (David Hamilton, Chief Information Officer) -- In addition to researching various external partners that can provide tools and professional development to improve distance learning, the group is also procuring technological equipment—webcams, tablets, laptops, Wi-Fi hotspots, lecture-capture equipment for classrooms, projection equipment—and additional software licensing to enhance remote teaching and learning. The group is working with faculty on their fall teaching needs, and improving the work-from-home circumstances for faculty and staff.
  • Legal (Lisa Rutherford) -- This group’s ongoing work includes, among other things, addressing issues of compliance and accreditation; reviewing the new and frequently published guidance on the application of regulations specific to COVID-19-related issues; and determining the legal risks that may arise from COVID-19.
  • Medical (Kevin Weinman) -- This group is determining what equipment, supplies, personnel, and processes the College will need to have in place for a return to campus in the fall. Their work includes addressing issues including testing capacity and protocols; healthcare staffing; procedures and logistics for isolating and quarantining; and securing face masks, thermometers, oximeters, gloves, and other supplies. Their work will continue as needed.
  • Remote/Hybrid Learning (Catherine Epstein) -- This group will finalize a contract this week with an outside firm that will help us prepare to mount large classes effectively via online/remote learning. In addition, they are reaching agreement with another firm that will provide professional development for faculty. The Center for Teaching and Learning and Academic Technology Services will offer cohort-based programming that will provide faculty members with the necessary pedagogical and curricular tools to teach their classes in the fall. Details of options for faculty support will be announced shortly.
  • Student Leaders (Biddy Martin, President) -- This group of students is providing valuable ideas on a wide variety of fall planning issues, including the safest ways for students to live together and interact on campus. The group has participated in information sessions with the faculty group on academic structures as well as with the dean of students, associate dean of students, and director of residential life. Their work is ongoing.
  • Student Life (Karu Kozuma, Chief Student Affairs Officer) -- This group is examining how to make the necessary adjustments and enhancements to programming, community building, and delivery of services for students, whether in a remote or on-campus setting. They have identified promising ideas and will continue their work with an eye to implementation. 

Support for Students (CARES Act Funds) and the Town of Amherst

Amherst has now distributed more than $1 million in direct support to students, from both College funds and from the federal CARES Act. While the College did not apply for CARES Act institutional funds, deferring to institutions with fewer resources, the College has directly distributed $787,000 in federal funds to students facing financial hardship. Of these federal funds, $673,000 were distributed in direct grants to qualifying students, and an additional $115,000 has been distributed through the Student Emergency Fund. The College has also distributed its own funds, totaling more than $168,000, in the emergency relief effort to students who do not meet the federal qualifications for CARES Act funds through direct grants and the Student Emergency Fund. Previously, the College provided other emergency funding to students with financial need for food, housing, emergency travel, and more.

 Additionally, the College has contributed to the Downtown Amherst Foundation fund, which provides grants to Amherst businesses to help sustain them during the pandemic and prepare them for reopening. A healthy and vibrant town of Amherst is important for all of us.

Opening of Labs

Following Governor Baker’s May 18 announcement of the four-phase Reopening Massachusetts plan, the College will soon reopen its laboratories only to faculty who are actively conducting laboratory research and the essential staff directly related to that work. This is a very small group of individuals, and the Provost and Dean of the Faculty has the responsibility and authority to approve the return to this restricted on-campus work. Until further notice, those employees who have been working remotely since mid-March will continue to work from home. Professor of Mineralogy and Geology and Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty Jack Cheney is coordinating the effort to reopen research labs.

We hope this information is helpful in keeping you up-to-date on the work we are doing to make a return to campus possible. We will continue to provide updates and opportunities, at key points, for questions and discussion.

The entire community—each and every member—has risen to the challenge of this crisis. The remarkable efforts of students, faculty, and staff have gotten us to this point and will guide us through the next several weeks of preparation. Please continue to take care of yourselves and your loved ones.

Sincerely,

Biddy Martin
President

Catherine Epstein
Provost and Dean of the Faculty

Kevin Weinman
Chief Financial and Administrative Officer