A Message From the President Regarding Plans for the Fall
I am writing to share the news that Vassar is inviting all students back to campus for the fall. Based on our faculty survey, we anticipate that the majority of faculty will teach at least some of their courses in person, although all classes will also be available remotely to accommodate students and faculty who may feel it is necessary to study or teach that way.
These are uncertain and perilous times, which deeply affect our students, families, employees, and communities. Most unnerving is the truth that this pandemic will not end soon, and no one can predict when it will end. Amid this uncertainty, we need to act. We will be doing all we can to reduce risk—through daily monitoring, extensive testing, immediate contact tracing, and self-quarantine and isolation—and we will work hard to give students the experience of being part of a community bound by an important and united purpose to show there is a path forward, a way to grow in a time of uncertainty.
In New York State, and particularly Dutchess County where we are located, the incidence of COVID-19 is extremely low, achieved through strict norms of wearing masks, social distancing, and a careful opening up of the economy. As you likely know, I have been serving on Governor Cuomo’s New York Forward Re-Opening Advisory Committee and have participated in the development of the Guidance for Higher Education. We will follow this guidance as well as recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and all state, regional, and local public health guidelines. In several areas, we will exceed these guidelines to align with our mission of providing the highest quality liberal arts education in a safe environment that promotes caring for the community and meaningful learning. We will also keep a watchful eye on the federal, state, and local public health requirements and adapt our plan as needed.
We are committed to doing everything we can to keep our community safe and healthy on campus this fall. This is not a decision we reached lightly, and we appreciate your patience and feedback, all of which has helped to inform our plans. For this to work, we need to commit to each other, to live and work together as a community, recognizing our interdependence and caring deeply for every person’s health and well-being.
Our thinking and planning for the fall is intimately connected and shaped by this important historical juncture. We are experiencing global outrage at the persistent racism in this country—present since its founding and with us still. At Vassar, we are called to do better. We must be vigilant in addressing the structural and cultural factors that perpetrate and sustain racial injustice. In the fall, we will renew our commitment to each other using a community care model that emphasizes restorative practices, social accountability, and deep community engagement. These commitments can transform the way we live together as we recognize and accept our interconnectedness and work together to protect the health of everyone in the spirit of inclusion, equity, and anti-racist practice.
We will begin a phased return to campus starting on August 15 with students moving in in small groups. In mid-July, students will receive notification of dates for their move in. Currently, New York State is requiring that anyone entering New York from various states or international settings need to self-quarantine once in New York; however, we know these guidelines will likely change throughout the summer. We are following this issue closely and are planning for how we might accommodate these students in accordance with all public health requirements. Classes will begin August 31, and will proceed through November 20, when we will have a one-week break for Thanksgiving. During this 12-week period, students must stay on campus (other than for emergencies and in exceptional cases) to limit exposures to COVID-19. We will be arranging for vendors and Arlington businesses to be supported with on-campus services. After November 20, we expect students will leave campus (with exceptions as always for students who cannot get home), completing the last week and a half of fall classes, study period, and final exams remotely. The spring semester will begin again on campus in late-January. Efforts will be made to accommodate students who cannot get home over the winter break on campus, although most facilities will be closed for a 10-day window in December.
Classes and other activities
Our faculty have been working steadily on shaping their courses to enable the personalized and creative curriculum that Vassar students have come to know. We are equipping classrooms with needed technology to support hybrid classes that are taught both in person and remotely. We are also investing in classes that can be given outside when appropriate with adequate technology support and accessibility using tents and awnings. Indoor classrooms will be reconfigured to ensure 6 feet of distance between students and with faculty. While in the classroom, students and faculty will be required to wear masks or face coverings at all times. Other gatherings including student organizations and activities may be possible, but it will be critical to keep 6 feet of physical distance at all times and to consider how meetings can take place online when possible. Other activities will be intentionally designed to include and engage students remotely. The athletic department is working with our Liberty League colleagues and following NCAA guidelines to develop a plan to return to sport. We anticipate that decisions about conference competition will be forthcoming from the Liberty League in early July. We await those decisions as well as further NCAA guidance before we finalize our plans regarding intercollegiate athletics. Other group excursions (e.g., class trips) from campus, which are carefully planned, supervised, and approved may be possible—with added testing for participants—as we gain more experience on campus.
Students must have a coronavirus test (specifically, an FDA Emergency Use Authorized COVID-19 molecular assay for detection of SARS-COV-2 RNA) taken three to five days before you arrive. If it is positive, you must stay home until you have tested negative for COVID-19 and inform Health Services right away so we can support you in your future safe move to campus. Students will be required to have evidence of a negative test result either submitted ahead of time or presented at the time of move in. If this is a hardship or such a test is not available in your vicinity, please let Health Services know, and we will work together to find a suitable alternative, including a possible test on campus.
All students will also be required to be tested on campus within the first days of move in and tested again several days later. Any student who tests positive will be supported by our health professionals, isolated until no longer infectious, and expected to cooperate with contact tracers by providing detailed information about their interactions with others. People who are determined to have had significant exposure to anyone with confirmed COVID-19 will be required to self-quarantine, again supported by our staff. The College is working on a plan for subsequent, periodic asymptomatic testing to take place throughout the semester.
Living together safely
We will use a combination of regular self-health assessments, physical distancing, hand hygiene, cleaning and disinfecting, masking, testing, contact tracing, self-quarantine, and isolation to sustain the health of the Vassar community. Some of these measures may be enabled or supported by new technology. The utmost priority has been given to data privacy and information security, and no shortcuts will be taken to bypass our standards and policies in these crucial areas. Students will be asked to maintain a 6-foot distance from others whenever possible, and to wear a mask or face covering at all times other than when they are in their room or apartment. In the houses, students will generally live in singles and doubles and will not need to wear masks or face coverings in their rooms. The Office of Residential Life is working to make housing assignments that lower density when possible. Shared bathrooms will be marked for 6 feet of distance and students will coordinate usage to reduce density; bathrooms will be cleaned by facilities operations twice per day, and additional cleaning and disinfectant supplies will be available for students’ use. Students may socialize with each other but must keep 6-feet of distance from each other and wear a mask indoors. Outdoors, a mask will be required while in transit (walking) but masks can be removed if one is 6 feet distanced from others and stationary outdoors. Dining will be grab-and-go style for at least the first part of the semester, until we have more experience with these new ways of being together on the campus.
Students living abroad
We recognize that students living abroad may face particular challenges. For those who are more comfortable studying remotely or cannot attain a flight or visa to return to campus, we will make special effort to accommodate time zone differences as much as possible. Faculty will work to make the remote learning robust and meaningful regardless of where in the globe our students reside. For those who return to campus, self-quarantine may be required during the first two weeks in the US, and we will work to accommodate these students as needed and according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
The stakes are high
It is entirely the choice of students and their families whether or not to return to campus, and we will actively support all students regardless of whether they choose in-person or remote learning. Students who choose to return to campus must abide by our community care expectations.
This is a very serious undertaking. We will require each student who chooses to live on campus to sign a community care pledge, which commits one to uphold the expectations of the community so that we mitigate the risk of COVID-19 on our campus. This should be understood not as curtailing freedom but rather as committing to be responsible to each other. Disregard for these expectations endangers the entire community.
Students who fail to uphold the community care pledge will be engaged by the Community Care Team, comprised of students, faculty, staff, and administrators. The Community Care Team will emphasize education, bystander intervention techniques, and restorative practices. Students who travel beyond campus without appropriate approval may be asked to self-quarantine and undergo additional COVID-19 testing. Students who continue to disregard the community care pledge, and therefore the health and safety of others, may be required to leave campus and complete the semester remotely.
Similarly, we expect all members of the Vassar community—including faculty and all employees—to uphold the community care expectations in order to ensure everyone’s health and safety. We will continue to have some administrators and staff work remotely to reduce density on campus. The Dean of the Faculty and individual supervisors of employees have been asked to ensure everyone understands that this behavior is essential and that appropriate consequences will ensue if guidelines are not followed.
We have a challenge ahead of us; coronavirus will be a threat to the world for an extended and indeterminate period of time. Learning how to live together and pursue our education while also staying safe and healthy is critical for all of us and the broader community. Additionally, the pursuit of higher education is integral to young adults’ futures and the public’s long-term wellbeing, especially in light of this social, financial, and public health crisis. To be successful, we will all need to work together, and we all must do our part.
I know that for many of you the coming semester will not be all you had hoped it would be. We are here to support you, and we recognize and respect that everyone must make the choice that best suits their needs. I want to be sure that everyone understands the situation as well as possible, and makes the best choice for themselves in the face of this ongoing pandemic. Please know that I, joined by the faculty and administrative team, am committed to doing the best we can to make your time at Vassar as meaningful and safe as possible.
We know you will have many questions. Our VassarTogether committee is finalizing detailed plans for the fall. Once that work is complete, we will post it to a special website devoted to addressing every facet of our return. This will be available to you in the third week of July. In addition, Dean Alamo and I are planning on having another Student Forum in early July when you and your families may ask questions and provide input. In the meantime, I hope you and your loved ones are finding a safe and healthy way to get through this daunting time. I look forward to working with you in the year ahead.
Elizabeth H. Bradley, President
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604