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CANCELED: Smith, Amherst, Mount Holyoke colleges sending students home amid coronavirus fears

  • Lucia Gerber, a Hampshire College student taking an art class at Amherst College on Tuesday, March 10, talks about her last class at Amherst after the administration made the decision Monday to send students home over concerns about the new coronavirus, or COVID-19. Smith College also announced it would be canceling in-person classes Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Dylan Gallant, left, Andrew Hamel and Paul Schissel, all of Massachusetts and all engineering majors at UMass, talk Tuesday about Amherst College’s decision Monday to send students home over concerns about the new coronavirus, or COVID-19. Smith College also announced it would be canceling in-person classes Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Julia Finnerty of Boston, left, Maya Bhandari of Texas, Spencer Ferguson of California and Jiwoo Park of Colorado, all seniors at Amherst College, talk Tuesday about the administration’s decision Monday to send students home over concerns about the new coronavirus, or COVID-19. Smith College also announced it would be canceling in-person classes Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Ella Rose of Oregon, left, and Nicholas Govus of Pennsylvania, both Amherst College students, talk Tuesday about the administration’s decision Monday to send students home over concerns about the new coronavirus, or COVID-19. Smith College also announced it would be canceling in-person classes Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Julia Finnerty of Boston, left, Maya Bhandari of Texas, Spencer Ferguson of California and Jiwoo Park of Colorado, all seniors at Amherst College, talk Tuesday about the administration’s decision Monday to send students home over concerns about the new coronavirus, or COVID-19. Smith College also announced it would be canceling in-person classes Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Kathy Colon, an employee at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, talks Tuesday about Amherst College’s decision Monday to send students home over concerns about the new coronavirus, or COVID-19. Smith College also announced it would be canceling in-person classes Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Navya Ravavarapu of California, a freshman at the University of Massachusetts, talks Tuesday about the possibility of the school closing after Amherst College’s decision Monday to send students home over concerns about the new coronavirus, or COVID-19. Smith College also announced it would be canceling in-person classes Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Navya Ravavarapu of California, a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Jack Champagne, a freshman from Massachusetts, talk Tuesday about the possibility of the school closing after Amherst College announced Monday it would send students home over concerns about the new coronavirus, or COVID-19. Smith College also announced it would be canceling in-person classes Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

  • Hilary Kornblith, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, talks Tuesaday about the possibility of the school closing after Amherst College’s decision Monday to send students home over concerns about the new coronavirus, or COVID-19. Smith College also announced it would be canceling in-person classes Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS 

Staff Writer
Published: 3/10/2020 3:30:50 PM

AMHERST — Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges announced Tuesday that they will cancel in-person classes and hold the remainder of courses through alternative means due to concerns over the new coronavirus, following in the footsteps of Amherst College and Harvard University.

In an email to the Smith community, college President Kathleen McCartney cited spring break and “a duty to protect and care for the most vulnerable among us” as main factors in making the decision.

“We believe that spring recess travel presents a potential threat to Smith,” McCartney said in an email to the campus community. “Because so many members of our community are planning to leave, their return, from many places, could present a significantly increased risk of exposure to the virus.”

At Smith, only those who have demonstrated that they have no option but to remain on campus will be allowed to stay in college accommodations, according to a press office announcement. These guidelines include exceptions for people from countries with travel restrictions, those who have Smith College as their legal residence and those in “other extenuating circumstances.”

Those guidelines are similar to those implemented Tuesday by Mount Holyoke College, which will continue in-person classes through Friday, extend spring break by one week through March 29 and begin alternate modes of instruction on March 30. All students must move out of on-campus housing by March 20 except for those with no option but to remain on campus, according to a message that President Sonya Stephens sent to campus Tuesday evening.

“I have been hearing from students all afternoon, and I know that there will be deep disappointment among you that you are having to leave campus at such short notice,” Stephens said. “Seniors, my heart goes out to you especially.”

The colleges’ decisions come one day after Amherst College’s announcement that it would enact remote learning, becoming the first college in the state to do so. Harvard also announced a switch to remote learning on Tuesday, and a string of other colleges and universities also have taken this step. Later in the day on Tuesday, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency.

Smith College staff “will be determining a process for prorated room and board refunds,” according to the college’s website, and are helping those who need financial support arranging travel home. 

None of the colleges has made any announcement about changes to commencement at this point, though Smith posted on its website that “we do not feel we have enough information yet to make a final decision” on this matter.

“We ask that students and families ensure their travel plans are as flexible as possible should cancellation or rescheduling be required,” Smith’s website states. Mount Holyoke did not mention commencement in its message.

Students, faculty, community respond

Amherst College students on Tuesday expressed anxiety and sadness about the situation.

“I believe the administration was genuinely trying to do what’s best, but it’s really frustrating for us and our futures,” said Julia Finnerty, an Amherst College senior from Boston.

“I was just crying last night after I got the news,” she added.

At Amherst, students have until March 16 to leave campus unless they successfully petition to remain on campus over spring break, which was slated for March 14-22.

Some students have vented frustration over the decision, such as senior Jiwoo Park, who remarked that the college is “sending us out to get the virus.”

Freshman Ella Rose also noted that she feels less safe in her home state of Oregon, though Massachusetts later joined Oregon in declaring a state of emergency.

But others, like Maya Bhandari, see sending students home as a more responsible option than keeping everyone on campus.

“The college doesn’t have the resources to deal with an outbreak,” Bhandari said, “so instead they want to prevent it.”

Smith College junior Sophie Guthrie, an intern at the Gazette, said that for many students, Smith canceling in-person classes felt inevitable after Amherst’s decision on Monday. With the suspension of in-person classes, Guthrie will also be unable to complete her internship.

While she initially felt “alarm and anxiety,” Guthrie, who lives in New Mexico, said she now feels “a little bit of relief to know what’s going on.”

But “so many people’s lives are upended” by the decision, Guthrie added, noting that the situation is “definitely a lot more messy for me than I thought it would be for someone who does not have to deal with (the virus) directly, health-wise.”

Others in higher-risk groups, such as elderly people and those with certain health conditions, face additional anxieties, she noted.

Ilan Stavans, a professor at Amherst College, said he has witnessed “stress, sadness, even depression” among the community since the announcement.

“I saw students cry, I saw students overwhelmed by the idea that they have to go home — sometimes to states that are in a state of emergency, like California or New York,” he said, just hours before Massachusetts also declared a state of emergency. He added that seniors seem particularly upset at the thought of spending the last few months of their undergraduate experiences away from campus.

But ultimately, Stavans believes that the college made the right decision — and one that he expects to see other colleges, as well as K-12 schools, replicate in the future, depending on how the virus spreads.

“This is a difficult time, and on a number of different spheres, the decision seemed to me to be looming and almost inevitable,” Stavans said, “and it was more the when than the if.”

Even so, he said, “I think there’s a sense of shock. The students are rattled by this, and rightly so. But I’m convinced that the decision was made in the utmost serious way by the administrators, and I have absolute respect for it.”

Although Stavans agrees with the decision, he said he’s saddened to have to hold classes remotely.

“It goes against the very values we cherish as a society: social interaction, minds at play in the classroom and the sense of discovery that we get from being with one another,” he said of the online courses.

The college will hold workshops with faculty later this week to teach about remote learning tools like Zoom and Google Hangouts and what to do in situations where students may not have a laptop available at home.

Neither Amherst nor Smith campuses will completely close, and, at least at Amherst, faculty will continue their work on campus. It is not yet known how Smith faculty will complete the remainder of the semester.

Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said Amherst College’s decision to implement remote learning for what could be the remainder of the spring semester will have a significant impact on the town’s restaurants, stores, inns and other businesses.

“If it goes to May, the community could be hurt by lack of business from graduation, from parents and from students,” Bockelman said, observing that every institution has to make decisions in its best interests. “I think they’ve taken into account all the ramifications of their decisions.” 

Other colleges

Other area colleges are also grappling to minimize the impact of coronavirus on their communities. At Hampshire College, all public gatherings of 50 or more participants are prohibited, with the exception of private rental events in the Red Barn and academic classes or events limited to the Hampshire students, staff and faculty, according to an email sent out to the college community.

Hampshire community members who are returning from countries with a Level 2 or Level 3 travel warning, or who may have been exposed to a person with a presumed coronavirus case, are barred from returning to campus for at least a 14-day quarantine period without symptoms, and students returning from abroad must stay at home and finish courses remotely. Students must report all international travel to college officials, but the college is asking all students to stay on campus during spring break.

The college is currently still helping students plan for fall 2020 study-abroad semesters. For staff and faculty, Hampshire is making plans “which will include minimizing worry about using or depleting one’s sick days.”

Holyoke Community College is currently “operating on the assumption that we will continue face-to-face classes,” said Rachel Rubinstein, vice president of Academic and Student Affairs, but continues to actively monitor the situation.

“Like all our community college partners in the state, we’ve asked faculty to prepare for online instruction if necessary, and we’re offering a lot of training and resources around that possibility,” Rubinstein said.

HCC has also canceled out-of-state student trips to New York and Washington, D.C., and with spring break coming up, is asking all students to report international travel to the college.

University of Massachusetts Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy sent an email to the campus community on Tuesday stating that UMass is “putting in place contingency plans should a disruption to instructional delivery occur.

“As the situation involving COVID-19 is so fluid and changing hourly, it is essential that we plan in advance should the University need to limit physical access to campus, including in-person course instructional delivery,” Subbaswamy said.

Students at colleges that have not made the call to cancel in-person classes are left waiting.

“I don’t know what I’ll do if I have to leave,” said Navya Ravavarapu, a UMass freshman from California. “I don’t know if I’d go home.”

Gazette reporters Scott Merzbach and Dusty Christensen, as well as intern Todd Pengelly, contributed to this report.Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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