July 1, 2020

Dear Students, Families, Faculty, and Staff,

I am writing today to share our plans for the fall semester. First, I want to thank the many students who responded to our two recent surveys. Your responses revealed just how much you miss being on campus with one another and with the faculty and staff who teach and support you. I would also like to thank the student advisory group; they reinforced this sentiment and have been valuable thought partners, pointing out key issues and contributing great ideas for the fall. 

We have consulted extensively with experts in the fields of medicine and epidemiology, including a small advisory group of alumni—David Kessler ’73, physician and former head of the FDA; Harold Varmus ’61, Nobel Prize-winning biologist; and Ezekiel Emanuel ’79, a physician with expertise in public health and ethics who serves as an administrator at the University of Pennsylvania. We have been in conversation with Paul Farmer and his colleagues at Partners in Health about contact tracing. And we are working with the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard for testing. Resources specifically focused on reopening have been particularly helpful—OpenSmartEdu and the Mass High Tech Back-to-Work Planning Briefing, for example. Through the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, we have consulted with colleagues at a wide range of institutions as well as with Governor Baker’s Higher Education Working Group. We have had ongoing discussions with our Board of Trustees, as well as with you, including through surveys and meetings. The keys to our risk mitigation strategy are not surprising, but they are essential, and it will take the goodwill and cooperation of every member of our community to make them work. We will fully implement and rely on the mutually reinforcing measures of face coverings, physical distancing, rigorous hygiene practices, thorough cleaning and disinfecting, contact tracing, and frequent testing.

We know that any scenario short of bringing everyone to campus will be bitterly disappointing to those who will have to wait until the spring. However, after lengthy and careful deliberations, we conclude that we can adhere to the best public health guidance and offer an excellent educational experience to students who are on and off campus if we bring approximately 1,200-1,250 students to campus in the fall. This represents just over 60 percent of our total enrollment and between 70 and 75 percent of those who indicated interest in returning to campus for their studies. We hope to bring back even more students in the spring, ideally all who wish to be here. Should that prove unwise, those students who could not be here in the fall will have priority in the spring. With this structure, we can provide the opportunity for every student who wishes to be on campus to spend at least one semester here and, if things go well, both semesters for a large number of those students.

For the fall, we will give priority to all first-year students, all transfer students, all sophomores, any seniors who are scheduled to graduate at the end of the fall semester, and seniors who are returning to campus after spending the fall and/or spring term of the 2019-20 academic year studying abroad. In addition, two categories of students may petition to study on campus: senior thesis writers whose work requires access to campus facilities or materials that would otherwise be unavailable; and students whose home circumstances impede their academic progress. We have prepared specific criteria and processes for these two requests, which can be found in the FAQ

We know this decision will disappoint those of you who want to be on campus in the fall and will instead have to wait until spring semester. We are also disappointed that you won’t be here the whole year. However, we needed to balance this desire with the need to lower the density on campus, assign only one student per room in the residence halls, ensure a low student-to-bathroom ratio, and have confidence in the availability of healthcare resources, both on campus and in the region.

In a pandemic caused by a highly transmissible and, for some, life-threatening virus, no college or university can replicate the experience you have had before, had imagined you would have, or will have when the virus is under control. Things will be different. Still, whether you study on campus or remotely, I am confident that the quality of your education will be excellent. I am inspired by the fact that over 90 percent of the faculty teaching in the fall are sacrificing research time during the summer to learn more from one another and from outside experts about the most effective uses of online learning, incorporating novel methodologies that will make for a more engaging and rewarding experience for students. This effort is testament to their own passion for learning and their dedication to great teaching.

We will ask those who come back to campus to work with RCs and CDCs to develop plans for your floor or hall and to develop strategies for limiting your contacts as a way of reducing the exposures you have each day. No large parties or gatherings will be allowed. The upper limit on gatherings will depend, to some extent, on state guidance in the fall and on your ability to maintain physical distance. I encourage you to stay current with the guidelines set by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and with health information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. We believe some student organizations and club gatherings can continue, with meetings and activities moved online to the extent possible and with physical distancing when in person. Student Affairs staff are developing ideas and strategies to help students build community and stay engaged beyond the classroom, on campus and off. Students studying remotely will also have more regular contact with staff and faculty than was possible in the spring. 

It goes without saying that no student will be required to be on campus during the upcoming academic year. Any student who wishes to study remotely for one or both semesters may do so, even if they have been invited to study on campus. In addition, we understand that some students might wish to step away from their studies for a time during the pandemic rather than continuing either on campus or remotely. We will accommodate all requests to learn remotely or to take time away from your studies. We will also eagerly welcome you back when you are ready to return, with the limitation that we may not be able to honor all students’ first preferences for on-campus housing. If more students than anticipated choose to study remotely or take an academic leave, we will extend opportunities to additional students who wish to study on campus.

As you know, classes will begin on August 24, 2020, so we can take advantage of the outdoors on campus. Coursework will be completed before Thanksgiving. Study period and exams will be remote for everyone. Move-in for those coming to campus will be staggered and take seven to ten days. Every student will have a single room and the density in residence halls will be reduced from the usual levels. Students will be able to choose up to six people with whom they would like to live or people with whom they share a particular interest. Groupings of students on a floor will work together with a resident counselor and a community development coordinator on ways to organize their time in the residence halls consistent with applicable safety precautions. 

You can find more details about the fall semester in the sections below and on the FAQ web page. We will continue to provide you with updates as we complete plans and follow the course of the virus. Let me add before closing that conditions could require that we change our plans before the semester begins, as I‘m sure you know. Should we face an outbreak in the fall despite our best collective efforts to avoid one, we will enact safety plans that will make use of the isolation and quarantine space we have set aside on campus and nearby. 

Please stay well and take good care of yourselves. We look forward to interacting with you, whether in person or online, throughout the coming months. Thank you for your patience and understanding.

Sincerely,

Biddy


For more information

We’ve arranged for Amherst College staff to be available to try to answer your questions by phone, and we’ve scheduled three town halls, the first of which is this evening, and the details of which you will be receiving shortly. Here are the days and times of these events:

  • For all students and families: Amherst College staff available via phone from 3-7 p.m., ET, on Wednesday, July 1, and 10 a.m.-2 p.m., ET, on Thursday, July 2, at 413-542-2919
  • For new students and families: A town hall on Wednesday, July 1, at 7 p.m., ET
  • For returning students and families: A town hall on Thursday, July 2, at 7 p.m., ET
  • For staff: A town hall on Tuesday, July 7, at 10:30 a.m.

Academics

Amherst will provide our students with a distinct, challenging, and intellectually rewarding academic experience, whether they are studying on campus or remotely. Our faculty is committed to providing the highest quality academic experience and one that is consistent with what generations of Amherst students have become accustomed to expect. Our dedicated faculty have responded to the need to re-craft their courses for remote teaching in the fall with overwhelming enthusiasm and determination, and we are excited to see the results of their efforts.

Schedule and Classrooms

Instruction will end on November 20, with a remote reading and exam period taking place after Thanksgiving break when students have returned to their homes. There will be no fall break.

The College is installing 20 tents around campus that will host, in particular, seminar-style classes. There will be back-up indoor classrooms available in case of inclement weather. All of our classrooms and tents will be set up to facilitate physical distancing and will have high-touch surfaces cleaned during the day, including a daily deep clean and disinfection. 

Remote Classes

Some classes will be taught entirely in a remote format, including all classes with more than 35 students. The College has partnered with 2U, a leader in the field of online education, to help faculty with larger classes that will all be taught remotely. In addition, many faculty members are participating in a program based on a curriculum designed by the Association of College and University Educations (ACUE) that will help them to adopt the most effective methods of remote instruction, with a particular emphasis on enhancing student engagement in online learning. Faculty members are also working on offering smaller classes, as well as more one-on-one and small-group learning opportunities for those learning remotely.

For students who must or choose to learn remotely, nearly all of the courses offered on campus will also be offered virtually, with the quality of those courses significantly enhanced as described earlier. Classes have been scheduled throughout the day and into the evening to make it easier for students located around the country and the world to take classes at convenient times. In addition, the class schedule includes one evening time block that will be available only for remote instruction, which should work especially well for students in Asia-Pacific time zones, for example.

Re-Registration

Changes to the academic calendar, course offerings and course schedule will require all students to re-register for fall 2020. Re-registration will follow a similar pattern as pre-registration and will begin with advising week (July 16–24). A new course keyword, Online Only, has been added to the catalog to make it easier to find courses that will be offered through remote teaching technologies.

Course Loads and Academic Progress

As previously announced, all students will be permitted and encouraged to take three courses during each semester (fall and spring), regardless of whether they are on campus or off, as this will allow them to focus and engage more fully in the courses they are taking. Students who wish to take four classes during one or both semesters may do so after discussing with their advisors. 

In addition, we are excited to offer a new four-week January term, during which students may take one intensive class that will count for full course credit. This term will likely take place remotely and will be available to all students at no additional cost, and any Amherst student, whether studying on campus or remotely during either the fall or spring semester, will have access to this class. All told, students will have the option of taking anywhere between six and nine courses this coming year and remain on track for graduation.

First-year Orientation and Students’ Return to Campus

All students will receive detailed information about their scheduled return to campus in the next few weeks. Students will be assigned a specific move-in period and will need to comply with this schedule, there will be no exceptions. 

We are constantly monitoring guidance from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts regarding quarantine and other protocols for people coming from out of state. Students should expect that they will need to go through some isolation period when they first arrive on campus. Throughout this period we will provide online programming and meal delivery. 

As the pandemic situation continues to develop across the United States and around the world, we anticipate that there will be ongoing changes to health and safety protocol and therefore we are working to make our orientation program and move-in process as flexible as possible so that they can adjust to changing needs. We will communicate with you regularly on this topic.

Our staff is hard at work designing an Orientation program that will provide a warm welcome and introduction tailored to this particular academic year, and all incoming students will be able to participate in the orientation programs.

Residential Life, Community and Co-Curricular Activities

We know that the residential experience at Amherst is special and we also know that our students seek a total learning experience that covers a broad set of interests, activities, social life, emotional development, and more. Now more than ever we are committed to building a strong, healthy, and interdependent residential community that supports all of our students. We will provide social and co-curricular experiences for all students, on campus or remote, and want to provide many of the special attributes of Amherst’s residential experience. We are aligning the work of our Community Development Coordinators with the new residential experience and hiring more of them in order to ensure our students are well supported. Of course, the health and safety of our entire community has to remain our number one priority which requires significant changes to our residential life program, many of which are enumerated below.

For students who are on campus, we are investing in ways to help you form and build community and to socialize, while abiding by the safety measures. For example, we will provide outdoor occasions for students to connect, relax, study, learn, and exercise. We are starting the semester two weeks early to take advantage of warmer weather and allow more activity to take place outdoors. We are installing event-style tents for classes, workouts, and outdoor socializing, and procuring hundreds of additional Adirondack chairs to allow for physically-distant gatherings on the quads. 

Although no large social gatherings will be allowed, we will still have an engaging set of speaker events, panels, and discussions. At least at first, these would be designed as exclusively remote events available to all students, whether they are on campus or not, and even if we are able to transition to in-person events we will continue to make remote access available for all students. In addition, we will create a centralized communication so that students who are off campus will have an easy way to access information about these programs.

We look forward to working with student leaders and the student body as a whole, whether on campus or participating remotely, to identify ways to remain connected with each other. We know that the ingenuity, creativity, and problem-solving nature of the Amherst community will bring many other great ideas.

Residential Life

Students will live in singles and room assignments will be made in a way that allows a lower student-to-bathroom ratio. The housing selection process will take place in late July and students will be able to select up to six people with whom they would like to live. Students will only be allowed entry into their assigned hall and will not be allowed to have any guests in their residence halls. While gatherings must necessarily comply with group size restrictions and physical distancing requirements, students can work with residence life staff to design appropriate programming

Dining

All meals will be provided on a grab-and-go basis, with multiple locations around campus for students to pick up their meals. The same menu will be available at all locations and will include vegan, vegetarian, and allergen-free options. In order to streamline services, students will use an app to select their meal, pick-up time and location. Students will be able to sit outside in small groups to eat their meals as long as all physical-distancing guidelines are met.

Athletics

Although we have reached the difficult decision not to allow varsity teams to travel and compete this fall, we are developing a plan that allows those students who return to campus who are members of our fall, winter and spring varsity programs to participate in both practice and strength and conditioning activities in a safe manner. There is no decision yet regarding winter or spring sports. We are communicating closely with our New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) peers, public health officials, and the NCAA, and will make more information known as soon as we can. 

We understand that club sports and outdoor recreation are an integral part of the Amherst experience for many students, and we are optimistic that many of these activities will be able to continue. Of course, they will need to be consistent with applicable safety precautions but we believe our beautiful campus and a New England fall will be particularly well-suited to these activities. 

Health and Safety

The pandemic will require a number of safety measures and alterations to the usual experiences. All of these measures have the goal of reducing the risk of transmission of the virus on campus and in our community. Though statistics indicate that people of college age generally have not tended to have serious complications with the virus, the risks are not zero for students. Among staff and faculty, and among students with certain underlying health conditions, the risks are generally higher and, for some, much higher. Deciding to study on campus will be an important exercise in solidarity of each one of you with others in the community. That will also make it an interesting challenge and an unforgettable learning and life experience. All of us will need to ask ourselves how to enjoy community without putting ourselves and others at risk. We acknowledge that it will require a lot of good will, and we know it will be hard to keep up the discipline that COVID-19 necessitates. But there is no other way. Given how critical this is, all members of our community will be required to sign and abide by a Statement of Shared Responsibility.

Health and Safety Requirements

These are some of the requirements for living on campus: 

  • The necessity of daily symptom self-monitoring and reporting.
  • Asymptomatic testing on a frequent and regular basis (upon arrival, a few days later, and possibly as much as twice per week throughout the term). The tests are a combination of observed and self-administered, and there may be FDA approval by August 24 to be completely self-administered. 
  • Mask-wearing/face covering in all public settings is a must.
  • Physical distancing protocols are a must.
  • No large social gatherings.
  • Significant limitations on many athletic and club activities, performances, events, and large-scale gatherings, some of which may need to be cancelled if solely in-person.
  • Some restrictions on travel off campus, both in the area and beyond.
    No visitors on campus, including outside speakers and Five College students.

The health of the Amherst College community is dependent on all individuals adhering to the health and safety requirements. Therefore, there will be appropriate consequences for any member of the community who fails to adhere to these measures. For students, depending on the severity or frequency of the infractions, those consequences could ultimately include dismissal from campus, although they would be allowed to continue their studies remotely.

Financial Considerations 

As always, we are taking a number of steps to balance the financial needs of our students and their families while maintaining the value of an Amherst education. Amherst remains as committed as ever to meeting the full financial need of all of our students, and we are making several significant one-time enhancements to our financial aid offerings to address these extraordinary circumstances. As previously announced, we have replaced the summer earnings component of the financial aid package with a grant from the College. In addition, we are pleased to announce that we will also replace the term-time student employment component of the financial aid package for all aided students with a grant from the College. Together, these adjustments will increase the Amherst grant for most aided students by $4,600. We understand student and family financial situations might have been impacted during the pandemic, and we will work with families in January, once their calendar 2020 financial picture is complete, to make any further need-based adjustments to their aid package. Students enrolled for either the fall or spring semester, or both, will have the opportunity to take a class in a new January term, at no additional charge. Note: Students studying remotely will pay less. Students who study remotely will not be charged the room and board component of the comprehensive fee, totaling $15,910 per year, nor will they be charged student fees, which are $1,000 per year. In addition, for students studying remotely who qualify for financial aid, we will increase the allowance for personal and living expenses to $9,000 per year. 

Please email questions to covid19-info@amherst.edu.