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1 Year Ago, Amherst College Was Among First To Go Remote: 'We Had Some Very Challenging Meetings'

Jorge Rodas (left) and Lucheyla Celestino, sophomores at Amherst College, talked last fall about their experience living in the bubble the college has created in response to COVID-19.
Carol Lollis
Daily Hampshire Gazette / gazettenet.com
Jorge Rodas (left) and Lucheyla Celestino, sophomores at Amherst College, talked last fall about their experience living in the bubble the college has created in response to COVID-19.

One year ago Tuesday, Amherst College announced it was sending students home early for spring break and that they shouldn't come back. Classes would go remote, the college said, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among students, their families and the local community.

"In the end, we decided this was the only option that made us feel confident that we have a good chance, a better chance of meeting that goal," Amherst College President Biddy Martin explained at the time.

Some professors were worried about how they could teach classes remotely. Some students were concerned, too.

"We were expecting to stay a full semester here and all of a sudden were told to say goodbye to our friends," Shreya Venkat said that week. "It's also difficult because a lot of seniors are graduating, and we might not see them after they graduate."

Amherst College's announcement on March 9, 2020, took many people by surprise. But other colleges and universities around the region followed suit over the next few days.

Kevin Weinman, the college's chief financial and administrative officer, looks back at the decision a year ago — and all that's happened since.

Kevin Weinman, Amherst College: Faculty took about two weeks to redo their course delivery almost entirely, and resume teaching, a couple of weeks after we sent students home.

As we got ready for the return of students here in the fall, we spent months preparing, you know, setting up our testing center, and coming up with the various protocols that we would put in place to keep students safe here on campus.

We've done 82,000 COVID tests since the students returned in August. We've had about 60 [or] 65 positives over that stretch of time — so [a] very low positivity rate. Our students have been terrific and cooperating with some very stringent restrictions on what they can and can't do, and trying to preserve the bubble here on campus and keep everybody safe.

Adam Frenier, NEPM: When we spoke with college president Biddy Martin a year ago, some students were wondering if the college was going a little too far by sending them home. Looking back, was that something you were nervous about, maybe overreacting by taking the measure to tell them not to come back from spring break?

We were one of the first colleges to announce that we were sending our students home. And it wasn't until two or three days later — you know, I think really when the NBA shut down its season was when it became more real for the country as a whole.

So we did go through two or three days when our students in particular were extremely upset, for understandable reasons. This is a major pivot point the college was taking. And with other colleges not having taken that step yet, it was difficult. We had some very challenging meetings, particularly with our seniors, who quickly realized that this might be the end of their on-campus experience at Amherst. There might not be a commencement and so forth – and they were going to have to say some very hurried goodbyes to their classmates.

So sure, it is always difficult to be one of the first out with the announcement. We did have their spring break coming up a few days later. So what we wanted to avoid was having students scatter for spring break, and then having to come to that realization while they were away. And at that point, they're separated from their belongings, from their course materials, from their computers and so forth. And so we needed to make a decision. And Biddy was quite courageous in, you know, making what ultimately clearly proved to be the right decision.

Looking at what things have been like at Amherst this year, what are the COVID-19 testing requirements on campus?

We have a very comprehensive and stringent set of requirements. We have students go through our testing protocols three times per week. Staff and faculty who are frequently on campus get tested twice per week and infrequent visitors get tested when they come and go. So... on average, every person authorized to be on campus in the fall semester was tested nearly 40 times. And so that was incredibly helpful to have assurance that if there was presence of the virus on campus, we could catch it quite quickly, move people into isolation and quarantine and avoid what you've seen – broader outbreaks on other college campuses across the country. That high testing frequency has been a really critical thing.

But tests are only – they're after-the-fact measures. We really need students, faculty and staff to be following all the other protocols so that they don't contract the virus in the first place. And the community has just been really great about all the requirements around mask-wearing swearing and distancing and so forth.

Let's talk about the financial situation of Amherst College. Many colleges have taken a financial hit during the pandemic with increased costs and lost revenues. And there's been some federal stimulus money to help, but how has Amherst been affected financially during all of this?

Yeah, we've been impacted certainly the same way that colleges and universities have nationwide – really on both sides of the equation. One is a significant increase in expenses to keep campus safe. Our testing program is extremely expensive. We've hired additional staff. We provided premium pay to our custodians, our dining workers and other student-facing workers on campus. We've rented tents. We've invested in remote learning technologies.

So we estimate about a $15 million expense impact from the virus, at the same time that we have a significant impact on revenues. When students have either taken a leave or a gap year or are learning remotely, that's some amount of tuition, room and board revenues that are not available to us.

We've decided to take a longer view here. Amherst has ... been around for 200 years. Hopefully we'll be around for two hundred more, and we know that this is a challenging year financially. We've built up a strong endowment over years and years of alumni generosity and careful investment. We've done some additional spending out of the endowment this year to offset some of these additional expenses and lost revenues.

What do you think the fall semester in 2021 is going to look like at Amherst College? And do you foresee a time when things return to normal?

Well, we know things are going to return to normal. If there's one thing that we've learned here is that the interest in and demand [for] an on-campus residential collegiate experience is there. And, you know, we all miss it – students, faculty and staff miss it. So there will come a time when things will return to normal. The question is when? And I wish I knew the answer to that.

There's obviously a lot of promising signs with the three vaccines that are terrific. And August is a long time away when we would bring students back, and a lot can happen between now and then for virus loads to go down, for the vaccine to become more prevalent and so forth. But it's a little too early to to tell. We're very hopeful as we look ahead to [the] next academic year. But it is also hard to imagine, you know, some of the measures, safety measures we put in place not still being necessary to some degree, at least. So a lot of planning is underway right now and we'll have more to say as the months go by.

Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.
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