Opening the Gates

President Stephens announces Mount Holyoke’s Plan for 2020.

The Mount Holyoke College seal

June 30, 2020

Dear members of the Mount Holyoke community,

A little over three months have passed since the campus fell quiet. We have all missed your presence and the intellectual vibrancy of our campus. We have longed for the exchanges and engagement, the traditions, celebrations, good company and the usual work of the spring and early summer. 

We have done our very best to translate that longing into active planning for an exceptional online, flexible and immersive academic experience, as well as for the safe return to campus of some students in August. Students enrolled in the graduate programs offered by Professional and Graduate Education will find information relevant to their studies on the FAQ page. Well over a hundred Mount Holyoke faculty, staff and students have been engaged in these planning efforts, and our work has been informed by student and faculty surveys, as well as by current public health advice and intensive study in the higher education sector. I am deeply grateful for the best thinking of our own experts across the College, and for the advice and guidelines from specialists in public health and in a range of disciplines across higher education. We have benefitted from many reports and resources that have been freely shared with us, and we acknowledge the outstanding coordination efforts of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts and other representative and convening bodies of which we are a part, as well as the invaluable and close collaboration with our esteemed Five College partners.

I am aware that, in advance of this letter, some information was shared informally yesterday on social media. Our inclusive campus decision-making process is very important to our community, but always comes with the risk that confidential or incomplete information will be shared before plans are finalized. It has long been our intention to share this plan in early July, or as soon as we could possibly do so. Today is that day.

This letter and the website that goes along with it contain a great deal of information about our plan for the fall of 2020. The plan for re-populating the Mount Holyoke campus is our plan, and takes account of the particularities of our location, residential campus, classrooms, student population, resources and conventions. This plan was, however, created in a pandemic and thus in a context of rapid change and continuing great uncertainty.  Our plan for the coming semester and academic year depends ultimately on any federal and state guidelines, and on the prevailing public health conditions and any related constraints, and it is important to acknowledge that a change in direction may be necessary, before or during the semester. 

Massachusetts was among the states impacted early and we suffered high infection rates through April, though, as might be expected,  there were many fewer cases in the western part of the state. The Commonwealth’s COVID-19 preparedness plans are among the very few in the United States that appear to have led to containment; the prompt and serious measures imposed at the outset have meant a consistent decline in cases. Our good fortune in having access to world-class healthcare, the support of local hospitals, a comprehensive testing protocol with the Broad Institute, the established emergency preparedness structures of the College, and confidence in our community’s adherence to the necessary social compact all mean that, if things progress as we expect with the state’s reopening plan and we enter phase 3, we can start to welcome some members of our community back to campus.

What follows contains important updates about that return -- updates that we shall also add to, where you will always find the latest information, including a section on repopulating Mount Holyoke. Because of the rapidly changing situation and the many uncertainties, we will not make decisions about the spring semester until late November or early December, but it might help you to know that, currently, we hope to begin the spring semester in mid-January and to conclude the academic year in May.

Our actions related to COVID-19, like this plan, have been guided by these core commitments:

  • Safeguarding the health and safety of our campus and surrounding communities.
  • Assuring and enhancing the College’s core academic mission and supporting inclusive excellence.
  • Ensuring the long-term financial sustainability of the College through organizational efficacy.

We are a diverse and global community and, in the decisions we have made and the planning we have undertaken, we have focused on shared sacrifice, access, affordability, equity and inclusion.

Summary of the Plan for Fall 2020

The Curriculum and Teaching and Learning at Mount Holyoke in 2020-21. 

The hallmark of a Mount Holyoke education is deeply engaged learning across the liberal arts and with other students, faculty and staff who challenge us all to do our best work and to be our best selves. We announced on May 14 that the structure of the academic semester would be divided into two seven-and-a-half week sessions. Students will take two courses in each session, with an option to take an additional two-credit course or independent study. Courses in the coming academic year have been imaginatively designed to be accessible and engaging, whether the instruction is delivered or received in person or remotely. The faculty have developed a curriculum using Flexible, Immersive Teaching (FIT). FIT reflects our shared commitment to an exceptional Mount Holyoke educational experience and to supporting every student’s academic progress. All courses in the coming academic year have been conceived or reimagined for our students, however they are participating. You can expect a profoundly different remote learning experience than in March and April, when the pandemic required faculty to complete already established syllabi remotely, and on short notice.

  • Depending on the learning goals and class activities, as well as the size of the class, courses may involve meetings that are entirely online, or in person and online (a combination of interactions, and residential students meeting with others who are not in the classroom and are participating remotely). Students living on campus should, therefore, expect a range of learning experiences, within and across courses, and be prepared to be flexible, should a faculty member’s individual circumstances require any changes during the semester. It is possible that some students living on campus might participate in all of their courses remotely, since many courses will be delivered entirely in remote format. 
  • The class schedule will be very different in order to accommodate the new course structure, to manage the physical distancing that is required to resume in-person instruction safely, and to ensure that there are a broad range of class times to enable  those students who cannot return to campus to access courses and learn remotely across many time zones.
  • Students living on campus will have access to some spaces in the Library, though that access may be more limited than usual, and distancing protocols will be strictly enforced. All students will be able to access library materials and technology support remotely.  

Welcoming Students Back. A De-Densified Campus

Subject to public health conditions and other circumstances over which we have no control, every student who so wishes will have the opportunity to live on campus during the academic year 2020-2021. While we would like nothing more than for us all to be together on campus this fall, we believe that we can only responsibly return to campus life by de-densifying our residence halls, academic buildings and office space. After careful study of our campus facilities, applying the physical distancing guidelines that reduce the spread of the virus, we have come to the conclusion that, this fall, we can welcome only about half of our currently registered students.

Just as we have had to think carefully about how to welcome students back safely, so each student will need to think about and make the best choice for their own individual and family  circumstances. To help in that decision-making process, here is a summary of our plan for campus life in the fall:

  • We will invite new first-year students and students returning for their sophomore year to be in residence in the fall semester, and juniors and seniors to be in residence in the spring semester. 
  • Juniors and seniors will participate remotely in the fall, while first-year students and sophomores will participate remotely in the spring. 
  • Transfer students and Frances Perkins scholars will be invited to campus with their class cohort. Every student resident on campus will be offered a single room. More information, including instructions for a new housing lottery and details about orientation, is available here
  • Students in any class cohort who have home situations that make remote learning impossible and/or whose personal circumstances (current location, travel or visa concerns, health and safety considerations, for example) may apply for consideration for fall housing. More information regarding the application process is forthcoming.
  • In order to respect the physical distancing protocols, we will need to stagger students’ arrival on campus.
    • New students will move in between August 18 and August 20.
    • Returning students will arrive between August 20 and August 22.
    • All students and campus visitors are asked to abide by state travel guidelines and COVID-19 guidelines, including mandatory physical distancing and the wearing of masks or cloth face coverings in public.  
  • All students returning to campus will be required, along with all on-campus faculty and staff, to subscribe to our public health protocols at all times, including regular COVID-19 testing.

The Fall Calendar

The calendar for the fall semester is as follows:

  • Classes for all undergraduate programs will begin on August 24.
  • Residential students will depart campus by noon on November 25, and will join all other students in completing the semester remotely. Students who are unable to depart will be able to petition to remain on campus.
  • There will be short breaks within each module, as well as a longer intermission between the modules. In order to reduce risk, all residential students will be required to remain on or near campus for the duration of these breaks. 
  • There will be two final exam days at the end of each module along with one or two reading days to prepare for exams and/or finish final papers or projects.

Study Abroad

We announced on June 23 that Mount Holyoke would suspend all study abroad (including hosting visiting students from our partner institutions) for the fall 2020 semester. This was a very difficult decision, given our conviction that intercultural exchange and global understanding are crucial. In the light of ongoing health and safety concerns, and related visa and travel restrictions, we believe this to be in the interests of our community and its well-being. We will continue to monitor the situation and will make a determination later in the fall about spring 2021 programs. For more information, please visit our study abroad FAQs. 

Beyond the Classroom

We recognize that being in community and participating in other activities and in Mount Holyoke traditions is an important part of the student experience. We are working hard to design a vibrant co-curricular experience for all students, whether resident on campus or participating remotely. Residential Life, Student Involvement, the Career Development Center, the Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, the Centers and Athletics will deliver online and/or in-person opportunities to engage students beyond their classes. 

  • Varsity Athletics. Mount Holyoke College will regrettably not be participating in varsity sports in the fall 2020 semester. This was not an easy decision. We know that student-athletes greatly value their experiences as Lyons, and take great pride in representing the College in their sport(s). With health and safety concerns paramount, we could not see a way to participate in any NEWMAC conference play, or other competitions and championships requiring both close contact with other teams  and travel to other campuses. We continue to hope that competitive sports might resume in the spring semester, and to discuss with NEWMAC all opportunities to delay fall sports and  competition until next semester.
  • Club Sports and Access to Kendall Sports and Dance Complex.  It follows from the decision on varsity sports that there will be no club sports this fall, either. Students living on campus will, however, have access to Be Well programming, as well as to other recreational opportunities and to Kendall, including the gym (state guidelines permitting), though that access may be more limited than usual, and health, safety and distancing protocols will be strictly enforced.
  • Counseling Service. All students, whether on campus or remote, will have many opportunities to engage with clinicians in the Counseling Service. They will respond to immediate needs and work with the student to identify options for ongoing treatment when applicable. Whether or not remote students can receive services beyond consultation varies, depending on state laws.
  • Living-Learning Communities. While we will not host our in-person living learning communities this fall, we will continue to offer virtual and in-person opportunities for cohort based community building, with a focus on first-year students and identity based groups.

Tuition and the College’s Financial Situation

As you know, in February, the Board of Trustees approved an increase in tuition for 2020-21. While the additional costs that are required to provide for a safe return to campus far exceed the proposed annual increase in tuition, we acknowledge the many disruptions and constraints that the pandemic imposes on campus life and activities, as well as the challenging economic circumstances that our students and their families are facing. We will, therefore, offer a tuition credit of 4.5% (or $2,448) on the agreed 2020-2021 Mount Holyoke undergraduate tuition rate. Tuition is the same for all students, whether they participate in-person or remotely: it reflects the instruction, academic credit and other academic and non-academic services that are available to all enrolling students. 

A credit to room and board rates for the fall semester will be applied to reflect the slightly shorter (by one week) period in residence. Students who are not resident on campus will not be charged for room and board.

In an effort to provide additional support to our aided students, we have also adopted the following measures:

  • The minimum student contribution has been reduced by 50% to $1,374 for the year
  • Work study for all remote students will be replaced by grant aid for the period they are not living on campus. 

Like many other organizations, we face significant budgetary challenges in 2020-2021. We will have a significant shortfall in our revenues, but, guided by a spirit of equity and shared sacrifice, we will sustain and continue to invest in a Mount Holyoke education and experience, and in the faculty, staff and students who make that experience and this community what it is. We have already had to make some significant sacrifices, including foregoing any salary increases, reductions of 5.5% in the College’s contributions to retirement, freezing positions, instituting summer furloughs and the voluntary return of a percentage of senior leaders’ salaries in support of the College’s operations and student financial aid.

I want to acknowledge that these decisions and sacrifices have an impact on all members of our community and their families, and to express, once again, my appreciation for the shared commitment, especially at this time when faculty and staff are giving their all in support of our mission and our students.

Safe On-Campus Living. What to Expect.

Mount Holyoke will do all that it can to provide you with an excellent education and an authentic MHC experience, wherever you are located. There will still be opportunities to make meaningful connections with faculty, staff and each other; there will still be access to intellectually challenging courses, imaginative and engaging co-curricular experiences, career preparation, our beloved traditions and a global network of amazing alums. 

Just as life has changed in every town and city, and on every campus worldwide, so our on-campus experience will be unlike what you may have known previously or expected. For this return to in-person college life to work at all, and for the sake of everyone’s health and safety, each of us on campus will have to take seriously the protocols and restrictions in place. Each of us will need to make informed decisions, put the interests and wellness of the whole community first and commit to care and caution. What does this mean?

  • All members of the community will be expected to sign a community compact, confirming our commitment to respect all of the necessary public health measures and to protect  everyone’s health and safety. These measures will include, but are not limited to:
    • Mandatory testing upon arrival, and at regular intervals throughout the semester.  The frequency of testing is still being discussed but may be as frequent as twice per week for all students in residence and for those employees interacting closely and frequently with them. All testing will be free of charge and collected via a minimally invasive, nasal swab.
    • A daily self-review/symptoms checklist for COVID-19, including monitoring body temperature.
    • Maintaining a physical distance of six feet from others at all times.
    • Wearing a cloth face covering or mask whenever in contact with others, and outside a residence hall room or private office. 
    • Frequent handwashing, and cleaning of high touch objects after use.
  • The College has designated spaces on campus to serve as quarantine (for close contacts of confirmed positive cases) and isolation (for COVID-19-positive students). Students requiring isolation or quarantine can choose to recover at home, and will be allowed to return to campus, if they so wish, after providing documentation of medical clearance. 
  • Food service will adapt to the public health recommendations in place, but students should expect quality take-out options for the fall semester.
  • Those staff who can do their work remotely will continue to do so, in order to mitigate risk for those on campus, and to expand the facilities available for teaching and learning. 
  • Access to campus buildings for faculty, staff and students will be limited and strictly controlled by OneCard access and restricted opening hours. 

We will, of course, continue to be vigilant and to adapt to any public health concerns. Our plan is dependent on the course of the virus and compliance with any local, state, and federal guidelines. Over the course of the last week, the increase in infections has led to a reversal or slowdown of the phased re-opening in some states and increased precautions in Massachusetts. We will work diligently and  cautiously to implement our plans and to fulfill the many commitments they depend on, and we ask for your understanding and flexibility in the event we are forced to change course. You have my assurance that we will continue to be forthcoming and transparent about our plans and any decisions that we may be called upon to make at short notice.

We know that you will have many more questions than I have been able to address here. Please visit this page for additional information and frequently asked questions. We also look forward to answering your questions in a student and family reopening panel and discussion on July 6, 2020 from 7:00-8:00 pm EST. Registration details will be sent to students via email in the coming days, and the session will be recorded and posted. 

There are some things we simply don’t know yet and, as more information becomes available, we will continue to update our website. As always, you can address your questions about the College’s response to COVID-19 to

Thank you for your understanding and your patience as we have gathered the necessary experts, information and perspectives to develop this plan for the fall. While the coming year at Mount Holyoke will undoubtedly be very different, I know that it will be characteristically stimulating and engaging, and I am, as ever, in admiration of  and grateful for the community spirit and your enduring commitment to the life and work of this remarkable College.