Mount Holyoke College makes ‘very difficult decision’ to not bring students back this fall

  • Mount Holyoke College, photographed April 8, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2020

SOUTH HADLEY — Just days after Smith College announced it would be reversing course on its fall reopening plan, citing public health reasons, Mount Holyoke College officials say they’ve also “made the very difficult decision” to have all classes presented remotely in the coming semester.

In an email sent to the campus community Aug. 7, President Sonya Stephens said she knew this news would be a “deep disappointment” to students — predominantly first- and second-year students — who had been preparing to come back to college in just a few more weeks.

“We share that disappointment,” Stephens wrote. “Since March, the Mount Holyoke community has met the challenges forced upon us by the coronavirus, and, with dedication and focus, we have planned for the much desired and long awaited reopening of our campus.”

But Stephens said the “current path of COVID-19 in the United States, and its devastating consequences,” means bringing some students back for in-person classes poses too many risks for everyone involved.

“Our every effort has been devoted to delivering an outstanding academic experience and to protecting the health and safety of everyone on campus and in the surrounding communities,” she said.

Stephens said more details on the change in plans will be presented on Monday, but given that many students and families were already making plans to return to campus, “we wanted to ensure that you were alerted to this change in direction immediately.”

There will be some exceptions. Students who use Mount Holyoke as their permanent address, such as foreign students who can’t travel home at the moment, can continue to live on campus. And students who “are unable to meet academic outcomes in their home environments” can apply for fall housing.

Stephens said a plan devised after the pandemic first struck to revamp how courses would be taught at Mount Holyoke still remains in place. What the school calls the Flexible Immersive Teaching (FIT) model breaks down each semester into two 7½-week sessions that are designed to provide “rigorous academic experience regardless of a student’s location,” she said.

Shakia Johnson, a Five Colleges dance instructor who is based at Mount Holyoke, says the news is difficult to take, as she had been planning over the summer to teach a mix of in-person and online dance courses. She notes that teaching dance online already has unique challenges, given you can’t replicate ensemble movement and engagement via a computer.

“I also feel bad for the incoming students, that this will be their first experience in college — not on campus but at home with mom and dad,” she said.

On the other hand, Johnson said she certainly was aware of the safety issue. She also wondered about “a lack of equity” between students whom she would teach in-person and those she’d interact with only online.

“It’s harder to get to know a student if you can’t be there in person with them,” she said. “So in a way, teaching everyone online is at least all on one level.”

And Corinne Demas, who taught literature and writing at Mount Holyoke before retiring last year, says she thinks the college’s decision is a good one regarding safety “but I am no less sad about it.”

“[T]his just confirms all of my concerns about how serious things really are,” Demas said in a email. “One of the things that makes Mount Holyoke wonderful is the warm, personal, and supportive teaching environment. It’s hard to replicate that online.”

Reopening plans for Amherst College and Hampshire College remain intact.

Amherst College’s last planning update was posted on the college’s website Tuesday, when it announced a partnership with LetsGetChecked to provide at-home COVID-19 tests for all students older than 18 who are living in the United States and returning to campus this fall.

At Hampshire College, spokeswoman Jennifer Chrisler said the 525 or so students will be housed in single rooms and a community care agreement is in place to minimize COVID-19 spread.

“We remain confident that, with our regular program of asymptomatic testing, combined with community adherence to health and safety protocols and behavioral expectations, our faculty and staff can deliver a genuinely Hampshire education, safely,” Chrisler said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.