In wake of the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and the fall 2020 semester, members of the Return to Campus Group held a virtual Zoom Town Hall on May 15 to address frequently-asked questions and present a series of potential scenarios for the upcoming semester. The Return to Campus group members, who have also been working in academic, medical and campus life and logistics subgroups, each provided an update on potential changes to the College’s operations in the fall.
“We are envisioning—hoping for—the possibility of in-person classes, [but] we do need to be aware that there will have to be some online classes as well,” said Stephen Perkinson, professor of art history, associate dean for academic affairs and member of the academic subgroup, during the Town Hall.
What Might Happen?
Perkinson said that students returning to campus in the fall and enrolling in four courses is still a possibility, but he also acknowledged that the fall semester could still be entirely remote.
“That’s one possibility—everybody is back, everybody is taking two in-person courses [and] two online courses and it’s a normal semester otherwise—15 or so weeks long,” Perkinson said.
The other possible scenarios involve splitting the semester into two seven-and-a-half week halves.
“You’d have sort of semester A and semester B in the fall,” Perkinson said. “In each of those halves, students would take two courses, and there are different ways of divvying up those courses.”
He explained that one option was to have all students back on campus taking one in-person course and one online course for the first seven-and-a-half weeks of the semester and switching courses for the second half. The group also mentioned potentially bringing students back to campus in phases.
Jennifer Scanlon, William R. Kenan Professor of Humanities in gender, sexuality and women’s studies and the chair of the Return to Campus Group, said that, for some of these scenarios, the committee is considering starting and ending the fall semester earlier than usual. She added that ending right before Thanksgiving could help avoid a confluence of the flu—which often emerges on campus during the colder winter months—and COVID-19.
“An ideal scenario for us would be an August start—a little bit of an early start—and classes completed by the day before Thanksgiving, if we can work out that calendar,” she said. “And then no students on campus during December and January to give us a break during that challenging time and then for us to get those systems going again for the spring semester.”
Perkinson emphasized that the academic calendar is yet to be finalized and acknowledged that students may not be able to return to campus significantly earlier than usual, which could necessitate combining the slightly earlier start with the elimination of fall break. He said that, in this case, the transition between semester A and semester B could provide a different kind of relief from academic intensity.
“It’s not necessarily the case that you would leave campus, but that you would be transitioning from one course to another,” Perkinson said. “While that wouldn’t necessarily mean you’re just getting a long, well-deserved rest, it does mean that the tempo has sort of slowed down a little bit and you’re getting back into that ‘getting to know the new class’ mode.”
Perkinson and Scanlon both acknowledged that the College could elect to fully or partially re-open and then unexpectedly need to pivot to entirely online instruction.
“We certainly don’t want a repeat of the spring semester where mid-semester we have to send everybody home,” Scanlon said. “That has driven some of our thinking about having two semesters in one … so that we can gauge things as we go along, and hopefully we will be able to hold both of these semesters, but recognizing the possibility that we might not.”
What Won’t Happen?
Committee members also outlined popular suggestions that the group is not considering, opening the discussion by addressing the idea of a January 2021 start and subsequent summer semester.
Scanlon said that the group had decided against this option for a number of reasons, including that the outbreak may not significantly diminish by January and that it would be difficult to introduce drastically different campus protocols during the winter and amidst the onset of flu season.
Additionally, she said that a summer semester would prevent students from holding full-time internships or research positions and outside organizations, including Maine State Music Theatre, from using College facilities. Scanlon also pointed out that a January 2021 start would require all faculty and non-graduating students to complete four semesters in a row without a significant break.
Melissa Quinby ’91, associate dean of student affairs and dean of first-year students, explained that the group had also decided against creating a closed campus, another popular suggestion.
“At Bowdoin, it’s really not possible to create a closed campus because of all of the commuting from faculty and staff [and] the possibility of students living off campus,” she said.
She did say, though, that new policies might create smaller, on-campus closed communities.
“We are thinking about systems within smaller systems … the residence halls and other spaces,” she said.
Ericka Albaugh, associate professor of government, said that the medical subgroup had landed on four main components of a risk-reduction plan: requirements around hygiene, social distancing and wearing masks; regular diagnostic testing; robust contact-tracing, isolating anyone who becomes ill and quarantining their contacts.
Barry Logan, professor of biology, explained that the group has been consulting with Bowdoin staff and a group of outside experts, including a professor at Boston University’s School of Medicine and School of Public Health, who is also chairing a group that is advising universities in the Boston area on COVID-19; a professor at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; a professor at the Tufts School of Medicine who is also the associate chief of medicine at the Maine Medical Center and a biotech consultant in the pharmaceutical industry.
Logan and Albaugh said that the subgroup is encouraged by recent advancements in testing technology.
“The science around testing … is developing rapidly, even in the last week,” Logan said. “It’s developed in a way that gives us a greater sense of optimism that we’re going to be able to accomplish this. Tests are becoming less expensive and less dependent upon sophisticated instrumentation, and that opens up the opportunity to do it at larger scales.”
Logan also said that the medical subgroup had been considering how to apply social distancing and mask requirements in dining and residence halls, as well as in hallways and around the entrances to campus buildings.
“I don’t think that this is the moment, in mid-May, to lay down the rules in terms of what that’s going to look like inside residence halls or in the library or elsewhere, but … we’re thinking really hard about how to do this right and we’re getting input from, I think, the right people,” he said.
Perkinson explained that the academic subgroup was working through a series of “significant logistical hurdles” to plan for in-person instruction.
“The fact that we are anticipating needing to continue social distancing measures is going to dramatically reduce the capacity of our classrooms,” he said. “That’s going to mean that we’re going to have to think about one type of class—smaller classes—as being in-person classes, and we’re not going to be able to deliver large, in-person classes.”
By changing how courses are taught, faculty will face the responsibility of re-planning their offerings for the fall. Perkinson said that the group hoped to provide the faculty with enough time to make those changes during the summer and re-examine their department’s curriculum and requirements to better facilitate online instruction.
Abigail Killeen, associate professor of theater, and Logan discussed the ways that performance- and lab-based classes may be adapted. Killeen said that, while faculty are still figuring out how to remotely teach courses in the arts, they are committed to finding a way of doing so.
“These disciplines have a long history, and in the case of the theater, 2500 years of collaboration and perseverance in significant crisis,” Killeen said. “I’m confident and dedicated to together find a way to deliver satisfying and robust instruction.”
Logan encouraged students not to “give up” on the possibility of having access to lab or field experiences in the fall, although he acknowledged that these may only include online interpretation and analysis.
“I value that in-person experience and our dedication to it, and at the same time I want to say that I think there are things that we can accomplish, even if we are not meeting in person,” Logan said.
While lab spaces can’t accommodate full classes with social distancing, most are large enough to fit smaller numbers of students who work on independent studies, honors projects or faculty research.
“We absolutely anticipate that research opportunities will be abundant in the coming semester, just as they always are,” Logan said.
Perkinson said that the work of the Continuity in Teaching and Learning Group, chaired by Professor of Chemistry Richard Broene, is key to ensuring quality instruction for each of the various scenarios for the fall.
“[The Continuity in Teaching and Learning Group] has been spending the last several weeks collecting information on what worked, what didn’t and what are the best practices that are out there,” he said.
Perkinson also acknowledged concerns about class scheduling, particularly if instruction remains online and students—both domestic and international—are expected to log on for synchronous classes from different time zones. He also expected that scheduling would work differently even if students were back on campus for partial, in-person instruction.
Campus Life and Logistics
Quinby spoke on behalf of the campus life and logistics subgroup and explained that, in addition to considering student feedback, the subgroup is consulting with numerous departments, offices and staff members at the College. The subgroup has been taking these different voices into account when thinking about what the residential experience, clubs, the arts, athletics, religious groups, wellness activities and social events might look like in the fall.
“The campus life and logistics subgroup is developing possible scenarios and guidelines for an on-campus experience that we hope will include many of these important aspects of campus life,” Quinby said.
Sarah and James Bowdoin Professor of Digital and Computational Studies Eric Chown, who is also in the campus life and logistics subgroup, said that they were also considering ways that students could inhabit dining and living spaces without compromising the safety of either themselves or dining and staff members.
“Ideally, we would have each student in their own bedroom,” Chown said. “Under most of these scenarios, that is possible, but if everyone were to return to campus, it wouldn’t be possible, and we’d need to figure out how we could do that safely.”
Chown and Quinby both acknowledged that they are having conversations about an updated social code and about how the new rules around social distancing would be enforced, but they said that they were not yet ready to share details about these policies.
Tim Ryan ’98, Ashmead White Director of Athletics, provided an update on the upcoming fall season. He explained that decisions about academics will govern those of athletics, but that, in the meantime, he and his colleagues are working to develop potential plans for athletics in the fall.
“Two things are really clear as it relates to … a return to athletics,” he said. “Having access to testing that’s reliable and local is critically important, and … the athletic experience will just be different, and I think we’ll have to have that mindset coming into the semester.”
He said that, at the moment, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) recommends having athletes only engage in small group work and not allowing teammates to share balls, which would impact both the preseason and the regular season for many fall athletes. Despite these concerns, Ryan reiterated that the variables around testing and safety continue to change on a weekly basis and that he feels optimistic about this fall’s athletic experience.
“It will be different, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t still be an incredible experience, much as the academic experience is different online, [but] it can still be an incredible experience for people,” he said.
He also said that, while the College is sharing information and working collaboratively with other members of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), given that the member institutions are located in five different states, each institution will ultimately make its own decisions.
The campus life and logistics subgroup also discussed student employment opportunities, particularly in regard to students whose on-campus jobs help support their families or who work to contribute to the cost of their own education.
Scanlon acknowledged that there may be fewer opportunities for student employment in certain offices that cannot operate at their usual capacity while adhering to social distancing rules, but she also anticipated that new opportunities would be created, such as student technology TAs who could be trained to help faculty with the online components of their courses.
“That wouldn’t only be the students who are really completely adept at technology; just students who are more adept at technology maybe than faculty are,” Scanlon said. “But at any rate, we really believe that the College will be committed to trying to find opportunities for students to be able to be employed on the campus.”
Incoming first-year students
At multiple points throughout the Town Hall, faculty and staff directly addressed incoming first-year students, expressing excitement that they had committed to Bowdoin and encouraging them to join their upper-class peers in submitting feedback for the group to consider.
“We collectively couldn’t be happier that you made a choice to join the Bowdoin community,” Scanlon said. “We’ve talked about you, we think about you and we welcome you.”
Perkinson talked about planning first-year seminars for the fall semester, particularly given recent changes to the seminar program to incorporate more revision, drafting and peer review in the classroom.
“We’re pretty convinced that those classes are going to be in-person classes … I think it’s safe to say that that’s pretty certain,” Perkinson said.
The group also discussed how first-year orientation may be impacted by COVID-19. Quinby said that incoming first-year students would, as usual, be receiving BlackBoard updates throughout the summer, and she said that the staff of the Outing Club, the McKeen Center for the Common Good and Bowdoin Science Experience—which normally organize orientation trips—are all working to create different scenarios for an on-campus orientation.
Next Steps/Outside Purview
The committee also briefly addressed comments and questions it had received from students that were outside of its purview, including those about tuition costs and whether students will have the option to opt out of the fall semester if teaching and learning is remote.
“Please pay attention to the correspondence with President [Clayton] Rose, because that’s where you’ll find out information about budgetary decisions,” Scanlon said.
The Office of the Dean of Student Affairs has sent out information for upper-class students about taking leaves, and incoming first-year students can expect to receive information about taking gap years from the Office of Admissions. Scanlon did say that the College had elected not to limit the number of incoming students who can defer enrolling at the College but that, given the circumstances, there may be additional conditions that would apply to their requests.
Scanlon explained that the group is still collecting information from students, faculty, staff and other community members via email, but that they will soon need to deliver their final report to Rose, who will share the report with the Board of Trustees and the Committee on Governance and Faculty Affairs before making a decision in June about the plan the College will adopt for the fall semester.
Before closing the Town Hall, Scanlon reiterated that the group is committed to considering the needs of all members of the College community, including students, faculty and staff, as well as the needs of all members of the Brunswick community and all Maine residents. She encouraged Bowdoin students to do the same.
“Be Bowdoin students by exercising the Common Good and helping us get through this pandemic in ways that we will eventually be able to look back and feel really proud of and say, ‘that is Bowdoin, that is who we are,’” she said.