Students voice concern over fall semester in open letters, petitions
April 17, 2020
Members of the class of 2021 Class Council composed an email to the administration voicing their concerns about the prospect of continuing remote learning into the fall semester on Monday. Raising similar concerns, Izzy Miller ’23 wrote an open letter addressed to the Return to Campus Group and to President Clayton Rose. Since its release on Thursday morning, Miller’s letter has received 70 signatures from members of the student body.
In both cases, the decision to write to the administration was born out of a desire to facilitate more transparent discussions about the College’s decision making. After speaking with their classmates, both Miller and the 2021 Class Council found that students had many lingering concerns about the upcoming school year. With the administration and the Return to Campus Group working behind closed doors to formulate their recommendation for how best to proceed, the students felt it was time to open up the conversation.
Both the email and Miller’s open letter expressed students’ mounting frustrations about the limitations and the inequities of remote learning, as well as their concerns about the potential of paying full tuition for another online semester in the fall. Both messages also exhort the College to consider creative solutions, such as implementing a “Closed-Campus Model” or switching to a “Spring-Summer Semester Model,” in order to ensure that students will be able to resume their studies on campus in the future.
For President of the Class of 2021 Council Brittney McKinley and her fellow Council members, the goals of the email were twofold: they wanted more information to better answer their classmates’ questions in Class Council meetings, and they wanted to be heard.
“[It] kind of just came about out of a feeling of confusion … Even if [the administrators] didn’t have answers, we just wanted them to know [that] these are the things that people are worrying about—especially as an incoming senior class,” said McKinley in a phone interview with the Orient.
“I think that we wanted to open a more specific channel [of communication] between just [the] administration and the [incoming] senior class,” she added.
Similarly, Miller’s top concern is voicing her peers’ suggestions.
“My first goal was simply to make my opinions and the opinions of the general student body known,” wrote Miller in an email to the Orient. “I want to start a transparent dialogue. This is an unprecedented and overwhelming time, and I think the College needs to know that the student body has opinions and, frankly, good ideas … I need to make it apparently known that there are creative ways to keep the College safe from [COVID-19] without throwing in the towel and declaring another remote semester.”
According to McKinley, students expressed the most concern about the consequences of remote learning.
“People were most concerned about tuition price … that was one of the main things we wanted to talk about,” McKinley said. “Paying for a Bowdoin education online works for now because we’re in a crisis, but for an entire other fall semester—we just didn’t think it would be fair.”
Miller also expressed concern over the inequities posed by an online learning model and the importance of better accommodating all students moving forward.
“I think the College is responding relatively quickly to the petitions that have been presented thus far (specifically, the universal pass-fail decision). And I think compared to my friends at other, larger, universities, Bowdoin is doing an excellent job looking out for everyone,” Miller wrote. “But ultimately, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think student needs have been accommodated.”
Additionally, she hopes that her letter would lead to much-needed concrete solutions.
“The general sentiment that I’ve observed has been that of frustration and upset. But I’ve also yet to hear solutions. I think given the [Coronavirus] crisis, we’re in sort of a stand-off where it feels like nobody can win. That’s why I chose to focus my letter on the future,” she said.
In their messages, both Miller and the Class Council also emphasized the high probability of widespread student deferrals for the fall term if the College decides to extend remote learning, and the financial impact of such an occurrence.
“I can’t be sure what people will do if next semester goes remote, but like I said in the open letter, I expect a massive number of semester or year-long deferrals … It’s nearly impossible to rationalize paying Bowdoin tuition for a semester online,” Miller said.
Since the Class Council sent the email on Monday, members of the administration have been quick to reply. McKinley noted that Rose, the deans and the head of the Return to Campus Group—Director of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Jennifer Scanlon—all responded via email to the Class Council expressing their appreciation for the students’ concern, but they provided no new information for the time being. Rose also replied to Miller, acknowledging the receipt of her letter.
As the options for the fall term continue to be debated, however, Miller and McKinley both expressed the importance of returning to campus for themselves personally and for their classmates.
“College is about so much more than curriculum, and so much growth and learning (and fun) is completely lost when we take classes alone in our bedrooms. At this point, I refuse to believe we’re doing a remote semester in the fall,” said Miller. “I understand that remote education is what needs to happen right now to keep everyone safe. But this is not a long-term model. It’s not what we’re paying for. It’s not why we chose Bowdoin.”
In his emails sent out to the community, Rose has continued to emphasize that the decision about returning in the fall has yet to be made.
“Each of us has an overwhelming desire to have everyone back on campus in the fall and to resume something that resembles ‘normal’ Bowdoin life,” Rose wrote in an email two weeks ago. “We do not know if it will be possible to bring everyone back to campus for the fall semester, but I want us to carefully examine if it can be done (and if so, how) in a manner that accounts for the presence of the virus and would be safe for our community.”
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I share all the concerns and fears these students expressed in their letter. We are living through a pandemic that, if we are not careful, will kill so many people we love. I don’t want to die. I don’t want my wife or children or parents or anyone you love to die. I want to live.
Have faith – “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” – that we will care for each other and thrive. Have faith that, if we return this fall it will be safely, for everyone, and their families, and all people. Have faith that we can address inequities and, through love and generosity, make justice real. Have faith that distance learning can sharpen our minds and open our hearts. Have faith that, though this is not the life we wanted, through small acts of love we can make it the life we need.
I have faith: in my students, and my colleagues, in our staff and administrators. I have faith in Bowdoin. My classes this fall will be excellent because all of us will do our best under the situations in which we find ourselves.
Keep faith, now more than ever.
I completely sympathize with the current students’ frustration around online learning and the many challenges and inequities that it poses. I commend these students for opening up a more transparent conversation with the administration, and I appreciate the solutions the students have provided. However, I would encourage the students to employ more compassion and understanding for the unprecedented situation in which we find ourselves. Of course this is not the college experience you anticipated, and of course online learning isn’t intended to be a long-term model. This is the current requirement to keep people safe, and it may well be our reality for the 2020-21 school year. This is a worldwide crisis that could persist for many months until a vaccine is developed and distributed. That is, sadly, the reality of the current moment, and we all need to make adjustments and be patient. As someone starting graduate school this fall, I am also dreading an online experience. However, I would rather we exercise immense caution than re-open campuses and risk massive exposure. Please trust that campus administrators are doing their best, and know that it is no one’s goal to keep students away from the community we all love.