Email crafted on March 12, 2020
Dear Colby Community,
Earlier this week I wrote to you about the College’s preparations for responding to COVID-19 in a rapidly evolving situation and with top colleges and universities moving immediately from residential to remote learning for the remainder of the semester. I said at the time that three principles would guide my decision-making: securing the health and safety of our community, continuing our educational program, and, if possible, maintaining the distinctive experiences that enrich a Colby education.
This week I met with several hundred individuals to better understand our options, risks, and risk-mitigation strategies. I spoke with students in a variety of settings, faculty in specially called meetings, staff from across the College, parents, alumni, Waterville residents, public health officials, local medical leaders, and national experts on infectious diseases. I also received hundreds of emails from students and their families.
As many of you know from our conversations, my goal was to do all I could to maintain our residential program. I proposed a model whereby we would delay spring break and continue courses for five more weeks before taking the break and finishing courses and taking finals from home. Like many of you, I thought it would be plausible to make that work given that Maine has been a safe area thus far. As a parent of college students and Colby’s president, I desperately wanted to preserve the ability of our students, and especially our seniors, to fully experience spring semester on Mayflower Hill.
Following our conversations and in-depth analyses of risk scenarios, and seeing how the world has literally changed overnight, I no longer believe that we would be able to adequately secure the health and safety of our community—the most sacred obligation we have to you—if we continued with our residential program. This is a devastating decision for me to make, and I know it will be even more distressing for many of you. My heart breaks for all of you who looked forward to the remainder of this spring semester on campus and all the joys, challenges, and discoveries this time of year typically affords. My greatest joy comes from being with all of you and having this campus alive with the energy and wonder you bring to it. It is deeply painful to imagine the remainder of the spring without all of our students present, and I could not be sorrier that we have to move in this direction.
Let me say briefly what this means from a practical perspective, understanding that you will receive more detailed information from the deans very soon. I also believe I owe you more information on the factors that led to my decision, and I summarize those below. But first, the most important practical information with much more to come later today:
We will continue our classes through the end of this week and hold regularly scheduled activities through Saturday, March 14. We ask all students who can reasonably do so to move out by Sunday, March 15, when the College will begin a two-week spring break. That period will allow students to move home when possible and our faculty to retool their courses for online and remote delivery. Remote courses will begin on Monday, March 30, and continue through the normal schedule of classes and finals.
For some students, moving out on this timeline may create special hardships. That’s true for many international students and for others whose particular situations require a different consideration. You will receive information today about a process for requesting on-campus accommodations or a later move date. In addition, we will be working with students who will need assistance with remote learning capabilities to ensure they are able to continue their education in full. I am also setting up an emergency fund that the deans will manage for those who need help with travel and other issues. In the coming days, you will also be receiving information about reimbursement for prorated room and board fees.
You will have many questions about these changes, and I encourage you to hold them until you have received more detailed information today and directions for accessing campus resources for addressing the variety of issues that are sure to arise for many of you.
Finally, let me offer a brief summary of the most salient issues that led me to this decision. This summary will not capture the complexity of the decision and the many factors involved, but I have had to change my thinking dramatically in the last few days and it is important for you to understand why that is the case.
- Our discussions with hospital leaders, epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, government officials, and other experts made clear that in the case of a local COVID-19 outbreak, which we should expect, we would have insufficient capacity to address the health challenges. The nature of our campus, with close-knit quarters and shared facilities, makes us especially vulnerable to a widespread contagion. In addition, should there be cases in Maine or on campus, we could quickly lose our authority to act in the best interest of our community, including allowing students and others to leave. The government would likely assert that authority and thereby preclude us from acting on our community’s behalf. It is also the case that in our local area the health infrastructure is already strained and would have challenges dealing with a significant number of cases of this virus.
- The openness of our campus, normally one of our greatest strengths, creates a vulnerability for us in terms of our ability to protect against visitors and others unintentionally bringing the virus to our campus. We have looked at many policy and procedural changes that would limit visitors but none gave me the assurance that we could adequately address this significant risk.
- Yesterday the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, citing the rapid increase in infection worldwide and the expectation of continued transmission over the coming weeks. Nationally, public health agencies acknowledged that, and the U.S. has moved from efforts to contain the virus to efforts to mitigate transmission, and the federal government announced the suspension of travel from European countries for 30 days, beginning tomorrow. And here in Maine, even without a known case yet, the University of Maine system made the decision to transition to online instruction for its 23,000 students. These are all important factors, but the suspension by the U.S. government of travel from Europe, which already affects many of our students, especially our students studying abroad and their families, is also an indication that similar suspensions could be enacted domestically. This creates an urgency to act. If we were to have a serious situation on campus it could well be that transportation options for our students would be quickly eliminated, creating greater risk for them and our broader community.
- While most of our students are in the low-risk category for serious complications from infection, that is not true for a significant portion of our faculty and staff and certainly for members of our local community. Our obligation is to all of these individuals, and I cannot in good conscience place them at unnecessary risk. That would run counter to everything we stand for in our community.
- With respect to our educational program, I have been encouraged by the commitment of our faculty to creatively and thoughtfully create remote-learning experiences for students that will be of high quality and will allow students to fulfill the learning goals for all classes. We will be imperfect in these efforts, but we will learn together how to best support learning and engagement through a different medium.
Later today you will be receiving additional information that will help with your planning. I urge you to read these messages carefully and to seek any help you need. We are committed to carrying out these important and urgent changes with your best interests in mind and with a full appreciation of the challenges they create.
To our seniors, I hold out hope that the global spread of this virus will subside quickly and that we will be able to welcome you and your families back to campus in May for the full celebration and recognition you deserve through commencement and related activities. We will stay in touch with you as more information becomes available.
The Colby community means the world to me and to my family. I would never want to take any action that harms this community, and while I know that the decisions I describe above will not be well received by many, I also know that not acting in this case could endanger our students, faculty, staff, and neighbors in ways that are untenable. These are unprecedented times. And in the most difficult moments, I am always confident that the strength, resilience, and compassion of the Colby community will triumph.
David A. Greene