The College’s decision for a remote fall semester

The College has always said that we would put health and safety first, and that our plans would be subject to constant review.

The Mount Holyoke College seal

August 10, 2020

Dear members of the Mount Holyoke community,

Late last week, I wrote to say that we-- the leadership of the College and Mount Holyoke’s Board of Trustees-- felt compelled to change direction, and so not to bring to campus, as planned, around half of Mount Holyoke’s enrolled students. I promised that we would follow this announcement with further details and an explanation. We have always said that we would put health and safety first, and that our plans would be subject to constant review. When we announced our plan at the end of June, I underscored that this was our plan, and that it took account of our location, student population and resources. Everything we have done since then has been focused on a safe return to residential life at Mount Holyoke, as well as an outstanding remote or hybrid academic experience. It was with great sadness, then, that we concluded that the conditions are still not such that we can offer a safe and meaningful residential, in-person experience.

With infection rates increasing across much of the country and in some international locations, as well as in Massachusetts, and clear evidence of the national struggle to contain this disease, we could no longer justify causing hundreds of students to travel long distances, many of whom would be taking public transportation, thus risking their own health and that of others en route. Our decision to move entirely to remote delivery of the Mount Holyoke experience was further motivated by the following:

  • Increasing restrictions imposed by the state of Massachusetts with respect to travel and other conditions related to reopening that significantly impact campus life and operations.
  • Our commitment also to safeguard the health and safety of faculty and staff, as well as people in our surrounding towns, and especially those individuals and communities in higher risk groups because of age, gender, race and/or socio-economic status.
  • Emerging evidence, related to the previous point, that the majority of courses will now be conducted remotely, and that other engagement activities, including new student orientation, would also mostly and necessarily be delivered online.
  • Concern about just how many students might have to be quarantined or to self-isolate on campus, and the ways in which physical distancing and health and safety measures would impact the student experience.
  • Growing evidence that it is exceptionally difficult to manage with complete confidence the individual behaviors of large numbers of people living and working in close contact, especially in a collegiate or similar setting.
  • Concern that, if current trends continue, we might have to send students home again on short notice.

We made this decision with deep regret, knowing that it would bring great disappointment to students and their families, as well as to many faculty and staff. Many of you were also frustrated by the late notice, this decision coming as it did just ten days before many were due to travel, and just a week before our student leaders were to return. We acknowledge both the dashed hopes and the inconvenience caused by the timing of our decision. In turn, I hope that you will trust that we, too, were hoping and planning to re-open, and that the entire Mount Holyoke community has worked with great integrity, dedication and anticipation toward a return to campus life. We changed direction with genuine concern, having spent many weeks planning and implementing extraordinary health and safety protocols, even as we were monitoring trends, modeling infection rates and hoping that the inexorable rise of cases would then begin a decline that could have made travel to campus and a return to residential education safer for a larger number of our students. Meanwhile, our faculty and staff have invested in an exceptional remote experience, in Flexible Immersive Teaching and in developing their courses for the new structure, schedule and mode of delivery.

Students will have received on Saturday the detailed communication from Marcella Runell Hall, vice president for student life. We are, in addition, constantly updating the COVID-19 FAQ. Families of new students are invited to join our orientation panel, scheduled for August 11 with staff from Student Life and Student Success and Advising, and, in the coming days, our faculty leadership will offer additional Zoom webinar opportunities for all students to learn more about the academic program.

In 1918, Mount Holyoke’s residential campus remained fully operational in the midst of the influenza pandemic. The College reorganized its spaces into makeshift hospitals, over two hundred students fell sick, and one died. We are a college, this is a pandemic, and we have determined that we will not put lives at risk. Nor, thanks to contemporary technologies, will we have to put lives on hold. We will continue to work with diligence and determination to open the gates, safely, and to hope that our plans for the spring semester will hold. We had so looked forward to meeting new students and welcoming back those who are continuing their Mount Holyoke education. For now, we will do everything we can to maintain the connection with you, to build a community of exceptional leaders and learners online, and to ensure that your experience bears all the hallmarks of the rigorous, challenging and engaged Mount Holyoke that we know. Times of great challenge also bring great opportunity. What we bring to this as individuals and as a collective will shape not only this extraordinary semester, but our College’s future.

With my very best wishes,