Smith president reverses course on bringing students back to campus this fall

  • The Grecourt Gates of Smith College on Elm Street in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/5/2020 12:52:49 PM

NORTHAMPTON — After initially planning to welcome around 60% of its student population back to campus in the fall, Smith College on Wednesday rescinded this invitation to students and announced that it will offer all courses remotely in the upcoming semester.

“Given new scientific evidence, as well as recent and troubling trends nationally and in Massachusetts, I have come to the difficult conclusion that we should not bring students back to campus for the fall semester,” President Kathleen McCartney wrote in a message to the Smith community on Wednesday.

The decision is part of an effort to “keep our campus and local community as safe as possible during this period of high risk,” McCartney said.

McCartney cited several factors that guided the decision, including a leading health official’s statement that the virus has entered a “troubling new phase” and is “extraordinarily widespread”; the fact that there are nearly 5 million confirmed cases in the United States, with increasing community spread in Massachusetts and around the country; the virus’s potential for rapid, asymptomatic transmission; and reports of COVID-19 outbreaks occurring swiftly after schools and camps reopened elsewhere in the U.S.

The decision applies to all students except “an extraordinarily small number” of “those who demonstrate a complete inability to meet academic and learning outcomes in their home environments,” according to the college’s FAQ page. Students who fall under this category can apply for residence. Ada Comstock scholars who have already been assigned on-campus housing will also be allowed to stay on campus.

Steve Waksman, a professor of music and American studies at Smith, said that he was relieved to hear the announcement and would “absolutely” like to see other colleges follow suit.

“It never seemed to me like the plans that were announced to ensure safety were as foolproof as they should have been,” Waksman said, “so I felt like it was by far the right decision.”

He added, “while I realize foolproof is a high bar, I think the colleges are putting the communities that they reside in at risk, and I think the communities deserve better than that.”

Waksman acknowledged that Smith, which has a $1.9 billion endowment according to its most recent reports, is in a better position than some colleges to withhold campus housing for one semester. But schools with smaller endowments might decide to prioritize their survival over public health, Waksman said, and the federal government needs to provide support to incentivize safety.

“I think without financial support, too many schools are going to make decisions for the wrong reasons,” he added.

Northampton resident Kenzie Helmick agreed that the decision to go all-remote for the fall semester is in the best interest of public health, even if it will be disappointing for students.

“It’s one of those things where it sucks, but it’s smart,” Helmick said, though she thinks that students should receive “a really hefty tuition compensation” to account for the remote learning experience.

Returning international students who are already in the U.S. may stay in the country while studying remotely, according to the FAQ, while new international students can begin their education remotely or request a deferral.

Limiting the number of students and employees on campus will reduce exposure at Smith and in the region, McCartney said, and will also reduce interstate travel.

“As critical as higher education may be,” McCartney said, “none of us wants it to be the driver of a second wave of virus transmission in our host communities.”

Locally, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Amherst and Hampshire colleges plan to welcome students back to campus — around half of the student populations at UMass, Mount Holyoke and Amherst were invited back, and all students at Hampshire are welcome to return.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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