March 22, 2020

Dear Students,

I am writing to those of you who remain on campus to say hello and extend my best wishes as you head toward the start of classes tomorrow. I hope you’ve had ample time to enjoy the sun this weekend. I walked around campus yesterday, hoping to see some of you, but, alas, there was almost no one to be seen. I learned afterward that some of you were in one area I didn’t think to go—on the courts at the Greenways!

The campus was very quiet and, in my failure to see any of you, I felt a deep sense of sadness about what we face, the “we” that extends across the world. I’m sure you also feel that way at times. There is no way around a sense of loss and anxiety except denial, which takes its own toll. Hopefully, you have also found ways to keep yourselves occupied with pleasurable diversions, sources of joy, and rewarding work. I wonder whether you are eager to jump in tomorrow. I try to imagine what it will be like. The faculty is obviously committed to creating a strong intellectual experience for you, even at a distance. I’d love to hear from you and get a sense of how it’s going, what it’s like, how you are. I miss you.

Before I close, I want to remind you of the importance of physical distancing or of interacting at a distance of six feet. The spread of the virus continues to accelerate. Very few, if any, communities will remain free of it. Because of the lack of testing and of other preparations in this country, we are left with “social distancing” and hygiene as our primary tools for slowing the spread. And these tools can work to slow the rate at which COVID-19 takes hold, giving our health care workers and systems a much better chance of keeping up with the large numbers of people who will become ill and need care.

This morning a physician at Mass General said something that others have said and found helpful:

If we are doing this right, it feels like we’re doing nothing for no good reason.

You will be doing these things for very good reason, to protect yourselves, the people around you, our staff, the larger Amherst community, and people far beyond who may need critical care at a time when hospitals have become overburdened.

You are far more creative than I am. You’ll come up with interesting and workable ways of being physically separate by six feet, but socially connected.

Please take this seriously.

Enjoy the beginning of the rest of the semester in all its radical otherness. And write to me, if you have time and inclination. I would love to know how you are and what you’re thinking about and learning.