Fall 2021 semester still uncertain, planning in progress with July set for official announcement

By Erica Quinones

News Editor

With the spring 2021 semester ending, returning students await the official announcement of the fall 2021 structure.

“The start of the fall is four months away, and if you pull back four months now, to the beginning of this semester, you realize things changed a lot in four months,” Interim Provost and Dean of the College Dr. Michael Harvey said. “So, everything we’re expecting may of course change…My main word for the fall is that it’s going to be ‘normalish.’”

In the return to “normalish” operations is the return of students to on-campus living.

According to the April 9 Contingency Planning Group update, Washington College was approved to host upwards of 900 students by Kent County Health Department, and off-campus housing was expanded for the campus community.

There will still be isolation and quarantine dorms on campus, with the College utilizing Corsica Hall as an isolation dorm and Reid Hall as the quarantine dorm to manage COVID-19 infections and exposures in the student population.

Regarding move-in, WC currently anticipates a regular first-year move-in a week before classes begin. They do not expect a staggered move-in like what students living on-campus experienced in spring 2021. 

Testing on arrival is another aspect of move-in being considered. According to Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Sarah Feyerherm, it could be a “gut level” decision, perhaps depending on the student’s vaccination status. For example, students who are not vaccinated might be required to quarantine and submit a negative COVID-19 test prior to arrival.

However, they are not currently considering a mass, initial quarantine period after move-in, according to Dr. Feyerherm.

There are also discussions surrounding general COVID-19 protocols, including the College’s general testing policy.

While there will be “some level of testing still happening,” according to Dr. Feyerherm, the College is considering a switch to rapid, antigen COVID-19 tests for surveillance testing. 

The College currently utilizes PCR tests for surveillance. A switch to antigen would shorten the time between test and result and cost less than continued PCR testing, according to Dr. Feyerherm. However, the College would have PCR testing on-site for COVID-19 positive test confirmations.

More general COVID-19 regulations on campus may also appear slightly different next year.

Dr. Feyerherm said mask mandates and social distancing will still be in place, although there is the possibility of vaccinated students experiencing slightly different protocols than unvaccinated students.

These regulations may be visible in campus facilities, which will have freer access for students in the fall semester. 

Because “access is just so hard to manage,” Dr. Feyerherm said they are focusing less on where students can go and more on issuing rules to follow when they get there. So, spaces like the John S. Toll Science Center atrium, Clifton Miller Library, and Hodson Dining Hall may have seating that is more spaced out to promote social distancing.

The increased freedom to access campus facilities is related to the decision for the fall 2021 semester to see a return to in-person instruction. 

“Our goal for the fall is to have uniformity of instruction as much as possible,” Dr. Harvey said.

According to Dr. Harvey, WC modified the class schedule in order to accommodate COVID-19 regulations. They did so by spreading classes more evenly across the regular time slots, rather than allowing them to cluster during the most popular time slots.

The College also modified maximum capacities for classes to reflect the six-feet social distancing guidelines. However, with the announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that three-feet distancing is acceptable in spaces which meet the air flow requirements, they will revisit classroom standards, according to the April 9 CPG update.

However, because COVID-19 is an ongoing influence, there are questions surrounding how the College navigates COVID-19-related absences, because exposed students cannot attend in-person classes.

“Hopefully, there’s a way they can negotiate and work with faculty members. Our faculty members have always been very willing to do that,” Dr. Feyerherm said.

Part of that navigation arises in questions around the continuation of online learning possibilities.

While there is an assumption that most students will be learning in-person, Dr. Harvey said there are already structures in place to handle student accommodations for learning.

“You can have the baseline expectation that things will be in person, but you can still have room for individual exceptions on a case-by-case basis, and we want every student to succeed,” Dr. Harvey said. “I’m ready to work with departments, if they need assistance in formulating plans, but our expectation is that for the overwhelming majority of our students, it’s going to be in-person.”

One of the largest questions still under review is whether or not students will be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Dr. Feyerherm. 

The April 30 CPG update said that the College plans to release vaccine requirements for the fall semester by June 4.

According to Dr. Feyerherm, the Response Team is considering what decision will make “the safest campus” and which will create a campus that most resembles the “normal WC experience.”

In approaching those questions, the College is examining the decisions that other institutions make, WC students’ vaccination rates without the mandate, and if a mandate would influence the rate enough to “make us a safer campus,” according to Dr. Feyerherm. 

According to Dr. Harvey, current surveys show that between 80% and 85% of students said they are either vaccinated or will be vaccinated. 

Part of gauging the possible influence of a mandate is examining if the College can successfully convince students who are uncertain about receiving the vaccine, but not against it, to be vaccinated. 

Dr. Feyerherm said the College is using every opportunity possible to tell students that they believe vaccination “is a really important piece to our success in the fall.”

According to the April 30 CPG update, COVID-19 guidance for the fall semester will be released no later than July 1.

Featured Photo caption: Washington College is still considering what the fall 2021 semester will look like as the spring semester comes to an end. Elm File Photo.

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