CHESTERTOWN — Reversing its decision to welcome about 850 students to campus in just a few weeks, with another 200 or so students living off-campus, Washington College on Monday announced that all fall semester courses would move online.
This also means there will be no sports on “the hill” through December.
Citing COVID-19 trends that are “going in the wrong direction,” Gov. Larry Hogan’s new travel restrictions and health officials’ predictions that the worst of the virus outbreak is yet to come, the college has chosen to preempt what could have been the inevitable spread of the virus on campus that would put students, faculty, staff and community members at risk.
College President Kurt Landgraf said he made the decision for a remote-only start to the 2020-21 academic year after consulting with the college’s Board of Visitors and Governors and a team of faculty and staff members known as the Contingency Planning Group.
“We will not be reconvening in person as a community on August 24. … We remain hopeful for a return to campus in the spring, and will continue to plan for this result,” Landgraf wrote on the college’s website Monday, Aug. 3.
Offering online courses is meant to keep students at home.
“We are only allowing students with a significant hardship to live on campus and those requests will be reviewed in the coming week,” Sarah Feyerherm, vice president of student affairs and dean of students, wrote in an email to the Kent County News on Monday.
She said students who are approved to live on campus — which she stressed will be a very small number — will have to follow strict testing and other public health safety protocols.
“This applies to the fall semester only,” Vic Sensenig, chief of staff and vice president of planning and policy, told the Chestertown mayor and council Monday night during their regularly scheduled meeting.
He added, “The hope and the intention of the college is to turn its planning to the spring in the hopes that we can bring back our residential campus population at that point.”
For the past several weeks, according to a news release, the Contingency Planning Group had been crafting a strategy for safely reopening a campus that has been shuttered since early March when all coursework was moved online as the novel coronavirus became a global public health crisis.
This work included rearranging housing assignments and gathering spaces; limiting classroom sizes; ordering masks and hand sanitizer; preparing quarantine facilities in the event students become infected; and suggesting that faculty deliver coursework through a combination of face-to-face meetings and online instruction.
College administrators Feyerherm and Sensenig rolled out the tentative plans to Chestertown officials at their July 6 council meeting, when Mayor Chris Cerino expressed his concern that college students in general can be vectors for spreading the virus without even knowing they are infected.
On Monday night, Sensenig acknowledged that the turn that the pandemic has taken in the last several weeks has made a return to in-person instruction “impossible.”
Continuing to keep the campus closed was not a decision that was made lightly, Feyerhem told the mayor and council. She said there were “pros and cons each way, but ultimately we knew that this was the right thing for us, our students, our faculty and staff. We believe it’s the right thing for the town of Chestertown as well.”
In addition to strict testing and monitoring of the small number of students who are on campus, the college is putting together a comprehensive communication to students who are living off-campus that will include information from the health department about best practices.
Feyerherm said the college also will meet with all students who are living off-campus.
Answering a question from the mayor, Feyerherm said the expectation is a couple hundred students will be living in the greater Chestertown area.
A month ago, when the college rolled out a tentative plan to open with in-person instruction, a total of 225 students were poised to live in town or commute from home nearby.
“I don’t know how many of those will drop off because of this” decision to move to all-online instruction,” Feyerherm said, “but it wouldn’t be shocking if we still have about that many.”
Councilman David Foster wanted to know when the college would make a decision about its plans for the spring.
The college will have to be ready for any scenario, Sensenig said.
“We’ll have our intention to open in the spring but have a very realistic approach to what the conditions are at that time,” he said.
Feyerherm said one of the things that will have to be available to the college is testing with quick turnaround results. She said in some instances the lag time has been seven to as many as 14 days, which is problematic when you have to quarantine students and ask them not to go anywhere.
“That just doesn’t work,” Feyerherm said. “We didn’t have enough space to do all that and then you lose out on some days when you have no idea if they’ve been spreading.”
The big key is getting turnaround testing quickly, she said, adding that the college is pursuing options where it can do some testing on campus with results available within 30 minutes to an hour.
In his message to students and parents Monday, Landgraf acknowledged that over the last month there has been growing concern that a campus outbreak could close the campus before mid-semester, while also straining local health care facilities and putting Chestertown residents at risk.
“We have said that Washington College’s highest priorities are protecting the health and safety of our community, and providing a substantive academic experience,” Landgraf wrote in his post on the college’s website. “Given the dramatic changes that have taken place in the national landscape and increased prevalence of the coronavirus since we formulated our plan in June, I believe that we can best fulfill our educational goals with a minimal student population on campus and a curriculum of engaging and rigorous online courses.”