Area colleges wrestle with whether to resume in-person instruction in fall

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

Staff Writer
Published: 6/1/2020 4:52:31 PM

AMHERST — Now that area colleges have cleared the hurdle of completing an unprecedented, remote semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic, another question is on the horizon: Will colleges welcome students back to campus in the fall?

For most colleges in the Valley, the answer is still unclear. 

In a message to students and families last Tuesday, Smith College President Kathleen McCartney wrote that “it would be premature at this time to announce any plan, given that public health guidance and medical knowledge continue to evolve,” adding that the college will confirm its plans by early July.

While college officials are hoping for an “in-person fall semester,” they “continue to develop contingency plans for a range of approaches to our curriculum,” she wrote. 

The University of Massachusetts Amherst has stated it will announce a decision about fall plans by the end of June and is currently weighing multiple scenarios, while Amherst College will decide in late June or early July about whether fall classes will be held in person or remotely.

At UMass, six working groups are forming recommendations for a “Fall 2020 Plan of Operation,” University Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy wrote in an update to the UMass community. While no concrete plan has been released yet, Subbaswamy said that students should not expect a return to normal campus operations in the fall.

“There is no doubt that a portion of our teaching and learning will continue to be delivered remotely in the fall,” Subbaswamy wrote. “At the same time, we are building the infrastructure to gradually repopulate campus and resume in-person operations as the public health situation permits.”

Amherst College officials continue to “work hard on planning for at least three different scenarios for fall, each with variations,” according to college President Biddy Martin in an update to students last month. A college spokesperson declined to elaborate on these scenarios, citing “the lack of some key information” on factors such as testing availability. 

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal wrote in a recent message to students, faculty and staff that while no one knows what fall will bring, the college will continue to plan and communicate regularly with its community throughout the summer. 

“Our ability to remain flexible has propelled us forward to this point,” she said, “and this same adaptability will fuel our success in the future.”

But, she added in another update, the college is also preparing for “a fall in which we will likely still depend on videoconferencing technologies for our gatherings.”

Striving for on-campus classes

At Mount Holyoke College, officials continue to develop plans for resuming in-person teaching in the fall, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Jon Western wrote in a message to the college community, but “must prepare for every eventuality,” he noted.

“Even with the best-case scenarios,” he wrote, “we know that a significant number of our students likely will need to access the curriculum remotely.”

The college is currently pursuing a recommendation to divide its academic semesters into two 7½-week sessions for the 2020-2021 academic year as officials chart out how to resume instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Western.

This program could accommodate “both in-person and remote components,” according to Mount Holyoke’s Vice President for Advancement Kassandra Jolley.

Students will take two courses during each of these sessions and have the option to take a third, two-credit course or independent study.

“We will be spreading out class times and increasing our ability to manage the physical distancing that likely will be required to resume any in-person instruction safely,” Western wrote.

“The broader range of class times also permits those students who cannot return to campus to access courses and learn remotely, across many time zones, with a schedule that is manageable,” he added. “This model also allows us, should health and safety conditions allow, to bring more students to campus by creating appropriate intervals in the academic schedule.”

Hampshire College has so far taken the strongest stance on returning students to campus, with college President Ed Wingenbach announcing last month that “as long as the State of Massachusetts allows colleges to open,” school officials plan to welcome students back to campus.

Wingenbach said that Hampshire’s circumstances make social distancing “viable.” The college has an anticipated fall enrollment of 550-600 students on an 800-plus acre campus; single dorm rooms for students; “surplus housing for quarantine or isolation if necessary”; and on-campus access to COVID-19 testing.

“Altogether, Hampshire’s circumstances are ideal to open safely in the fall and maximize community health,” Wingenbach wrote. “If we are unable to open, I cannot imagine any college will.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at


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