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Williams College President Outlines Fall Reopening Plan

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Williams College
Williams College President Maud Mandel

Williams College President Maud Mandel says the liberal arts college in northwest Massachusetts will reopen its doors this fall. The school sent more than 2,000 undergrads home in March to finish the spring semester remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. WAMC spoke with Mandel to find out more about how Williams plans to safely carry out classes and student life under the threat of a second wave.

MANDEL: So, we have announced that we are fully opening the campus. Which is to say all students are being invited back, but there will be significant changes to the nature of life on campus including many courses that will still be remote, students living in a different kinds of housing configurations, obviously practicing social distancing and face masking, and engaging in co-curricular activities in very different ways and than has been true historically on our campus.

WAMC: Now, the status of sports this fall, what's that looking like right now?

We know how important athletics is, is to so many of our students and because of that, we're trying to do what we can to promote safe engagement with athletics, both varsity and non. But that means that we won't, for at least the fall semester, be able to do competitive or tournament sports, because we are trying to encourage our students to follow the social distance and face masking guidelines of the state. However, they will be encouraged to engage in team training activities, in safe play on campus and working with their coaches to stay strong and build their craft.

You alluded to this a moment ago but what's dorm life going to look like in the pandemic era?

So Williams is very fortunate in that we have a large number of single rooms. So I think many of our students will be in singles. But we're organizing ourselves around the 'pod model', which is something that many colleges are using, which means that small groups of students, somewhere in the range of six will share a bathroom and will function like a family. Which is to say in that group of six, they won't be required to wear masks and they will be able to interact with each other the way a family might that is following social distancing rules outside of the house but inside the house are in full contact with each other. And we'll follow a similar system here where students have a group that they're associated with.

From your vantage point, what would the tipping point be that would make you maybe second guess that decision to reopen? Would it be an outbreak of a certain size on campus? Or what's the worst case scenario in the planning there for it at Williams?

Sure. Well, we have to of course, think about this. It is our true hope that it doesn't come to that. But we'll keep our eyes on a number of things. First and foremost, it's guidelines from the state on where, the direction of how things are happening throughout the state and the guidelines we get from the governor. More close to home, we will be in close conversation with hospital partners in the Berkshires to make sure that they continue to feel that they can manage whatever situation they are confronting as the disease progresses throughout the fall. And then of course on campus, we have to be in a situation where we can tend to anybody who is COVID positive. Then that requires, of course, being able to care for them medically but also to provide food and all the things they need to flourish on campus. So our decision to change directions would rest in such numbers that that would be challenged

Do the students have the option of not returning the campus this fall?

They do. Part of our plan has really been to build flexibility into the plan. And so we are encouraging all students to consider if life on the campus is one, in the configuration we're describing, is one that they want to engage in. But if they don't, students have the opportunity to take a gap year, if they're incoming first years, or a leave of absence, if they are ongoing students. They can also choose to take all of their courses remotely and simply not come back to campus. So the student could stay at home or live somewhere else and take their entire academic program remotely. And I'm sure some of our students will consider that option as well.

What have conversations been like in higher ed about the reopening process? Are you comparing notes with other colleges attempting a similar feat?

Yeah, we're- I mean, I would say we are all in much closer contact with each other than we've ever been historically. And that's saying a lot since we do all talk to each other a lot. But in this moment there, because this is an unprecedented situation and a real crisis for the country, but also in higher-ed, we have spent a lot of time learning from each other, exchanging information, and good ideas and collaborating in finding solutions.

Financially speaking, has Williams weathered this uncertainty relatively well? What’s it looking like on that end?

Yeah. Williams is a fortunate institution in that it has been well stewarded and well supported by generations of alumni who have provided the base, strong basis that we have here. So we went into the crisis financially strong. We've had to take precautions, like many institutions, but we've been in the fortunate position of not having to furlough anybody who works here. So we've been able to support all members of the community, and also the many families who are members of the extended community as well. And that doesn't mean that we don't have to keep our eye very carefully on the budget and make sure that we're living within our means. But thus far, I think we've been able to weather it really well under the leadership of some of the key figures on campus who've governed that process.

There's been concern expressed with a chance of a second surge in the Coronavirus here in the states, and certainly, the country as a whole is trended upwards significantly over the last month or so. What would it take to second guess the plan to reopen entirely?

Well, that's a really good question. I mean, I'm keeping a very close eye on it. I should say that I have been in close conversation throughout this experience with a number of experts and advisors, many of whom have close relationships to Williams, who are specialists in epidemiology or immunology or who are medical doctors, and who are alumni or parents of ongoing students. And so I've been in very close conversation with them. And they, of course, track from the perspective of being experts, the development of the disease and the degree to which a campus like ours can protect itself. And so it would really be in conversation with those partners. And as I said, with local, again, the local hospital and the state governance, governing bodies that would lead me to change directions. But of course, we very much hope that that will not happen.

What were conversations like with faculty and staff about the plan?

So this has been a really engaged conversation for months. We've had, starting really right after we, as we transitioned to the remote learning environment a few months ago, we immediately started to think first very broad and open ended ways about what the fall might look like. And then quickly transitioned to a model where we explored both a fully remote semester and a fully on campus semester. And both of those were committees that I put together that were peopled with staff, faculty and students. So it was a collaborative conversation. Williams has a long tradition of shared governance and the faculty governance structure was very involved also, as time went on, in considering different pathways. And so I would describe it as a highly collaborative conversation over months.

A lot these plans to re-open rely on students following a very complex and thorough series of safety protocols. How do you make sure that students actually tend to those rules? Is that a dynamic that you can really have that level of control over?

So I've- People ask me this question a lot. And what I would say is that, in fact, they're not that complicated. There really are three basic things that students have to do that then govern everything else. Wear masks when they're outside of their living spaces, but in indoor spaces stay six feet apart from each other, and to wash their hands a lot. These are the sort of the three guiding principles of living safely with COVID. And, of course, I can't expect that everybody is going to do that 100% of the time. But what I'm really trying to stress with all members of the Williams community is that this isn't really a set of rules. It is a set of practices in which we are all engaged to work together in the communal responsibility of keeping each other safe. So this isn't about me keeping myself safe. It's about me wearing a mask so that my neighbor is safe and the custodian is safe, and the faculty members are safe and the student next door is safe. And that this is really our collective responsibility right now, if we want the campus to remain open, which I believe is something that students want. And so I've really been trying to talk about it that way. And to think about this not so much as a set of rules but rather a set of best practices in which we all have a stake.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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