Dear Colby Community,
In March, as the global health pandemic emerged in the United States, we made the difficult decision to close the campus, a decision that, in hindsight, was the right one. We said at the time that we would be guided by three principles: protecting the health and safety of the Colby and local communities, maintaining an exceptional educational program, and, whenever possible, facilitating experiences that enrich our core educational mission and foster growth in our students. By moving to remote instruction, we were able to protect the health of our community at a time when there was little knowledge of COVID-19 and to provide for an overall successful completion of the semester. However, we were not able to facilitate the rich and meaningful experiences and daily interactions that are ultimately a hallmark of the Colby experience.
With everything we have learned in the intervening months, especially the scientific understanding of the virus and how it is transmitted and can be managed, we now believe it is possible to bring our students, faculty, and staff back together in the fall in a way that will meet all three principles. We will have to implement strict safety protocols that will make the Colby experience different in some ways than we normally expect. But I am also persuaded that it can be an outstanding year if we all understand the risks and take appropriate steps in our everyday interactions to mitigate them. This will truly be a time when we will all need to focus on ensuring that our personal behavior is entirely aligned with the common good.
I write today to outline the health-related investments we are making and the protocols we are implementing to resume our in-person academic program on August 26. As I write this, I also recognize that, while Maine (and certainly Kennebec County) has successfully minimized the number of cases of COVID-19, other parts of the country and other nations are facing growing threats from the virus. We are monitoring the situation closely, and it is important for everyone to understand that we will be prepared to modify plans at any time to protect the health of our community.
A Plan Guided by the Latest Scientific Knowledge
We are fortunate to be partnering with exceptional teams and organizations to inform our planning for reopening, including an epidemiological team from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, medical leadership from Massachusetts General Hospital and MaineGeneral Health, and the COVID-19 testing program at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. The plan we have developed in concert with our partners and through broad consultation of campus groups is a multi-layered, integrated approach to safety that will continue to evolve according to the latest scientific knowledge and developments. One critical component is robust testing to drastically reduce the possibility of community transmission. I detail many elements of the program below, and additional information will be forthcoming and available on our return-to-campus website, covid19.colby.edu. After seeing the additional messages and reviewing the website, do not hesitate to reach out to the deans and other staff with specific questions about the planned changes or your individual circumstances.
Testing, Tracing, and Quarantining
Colby’s testing program, which will be administered through the Broad Institute, will likely be among the most extensive offered in higher education and will require the participation of all members of the campus community—students, faculty, and staff. Students will be tested prior to arrival with test kits provided by Colby, and all community members will be tested three times during the opening weeks of the semester. Thereafter, everyone will be tested twice per week, a rate that scientific models have demonstrated will greatly limit the spread of the virus by detecting infections in individuals prior to them becoming contagious. To put this in perspective, we expect to administer roughly 85,000 tests in the first semester alone, a number that almost equals the total number of tests administered in the entire state of Maine since the start of the pandemic.
The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests we are using are minimally invasive and easily self-administered in the lower nasal cavity. Students, faculty, and staff will bring their testing kits to a campus collection point on their designated testing days. Test results will be returned to the individual and the College within 24 hours, allowing for any required mitigation efforts to be instituted quickly. We have leased additional housing for quarantine and isolation of students, who will be provided with a range of support services, including facilitating their coursework, attention to medical and mental health, and food delivery.
Additional Mitigation and Prevention Measures
While the testing program will significantly enhance safety for our community, our integrated program includes several other important measures:
- To provide ample housing for students, we will open the College’s newly constructed Lockwood Hotel on Main Street as a student residence for this year only and expand transportation, as we did for the Alfond Main Street Commons.
- All members of the campus community will be required to complete a daily self-assessment through a mobile application, a practice that has proven to be very effective in capturing early symptoms of infection in health centers around the country. Students with indicators of risk to the community will be required to quarantine pending test results, and faculty and staff will be asked to remain at home until negative test results are confirmed.
- We are designing a comprehensive contact tracing operation to support our testing program and minimize the chance of outbreaks.
- We will require face coverings, a simple but effective means of limiting transmission of the virus, in most spaces, including classrooms and campus buildings.
- We are reassigning classrooms to allow for distancing, spreading out courses more evenly throughout the day and into the evening, and using outdoor spaces during warmer months.
- A redesigned dining program will include an expanded Take-4 to-go program with longer hours and adjustments to dining hall procedures (e.g., reduced seating, elimination of most self-serve options).
- Our cleaning and disinfecting protocols will be significantly enhanced throughout campus using hospital-grade cleaners and frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces.
Restricted Visitation and Travel
The impact of our testing program and safety protocols will be enhanced by major changes to our visitation and travel policies. While it is impossible to entirely close off our campus, we will not have campus visitation for admissions or visiting speakers, and we will not be allowing families and friends to visit as we normally do. Our major fall events, such as Family Homecoming Weekend, will not be held, and our most public-facing venues, like the Colby College Museum of Art and the athletics center, will, for the time being, be closed to the public.
We will also enforce travel restrictions for our community, largely eliminating professional travel for faculty and staff and requiring all members of the community to declare any necessary travel out of state with the understanding that a return to campus might require a quarantine period.
One consequence of this will be that we will ask all students to stay on campus during October break. We are committed to making this a “staycation” with great programs to allow students to decompress mid-semester.
One of the lessons from last spring’s move to remote learning centered around the challenges many students faced when they were removed from the carefully designed learning setting of campus. We are committed to creating an optimal learning environment for all students, and we are best able to do that on campus. We also know that changes to our routines this coming semester may add to existing stress. With that in mind, we are augmenting our counseling services with additional counselors and tele-counseling programs, and we are working to structure our academic program in ways that are largely familiar, with the length of the semester intact and courses with their typical rhythm.
We will be starting two weeks earlier than originally scheduled, on August 26, ending on-campus instruction on November 24, with reading period and finals completed remotely. As I noted in an earlier message, this earlier start date will promote safety by allowing for more activities (including classes) to take place outdoors, and it will mitigate risks associated when the community returns to campus after a fall break, when flu season typically begins. Students will arrive on a staggered basis, beginning with first-year students, between August 21 and August 24. Dean of the College Karlene Burrell-McRae will share information about arrival and orientation later today. Students who normally arrive early, such as residential life staff, will be receiving separate communication about move-in dates.
While we are planning for most of our courses to be taught in person, we recognize that some faculty will need to teach remotely for health and other reasons, and some students, including international students, will need to take courses from home. We will not be able to make all courses available to students taking them remotely, but a core selection will be fully online. We will work individually with faculty who need accommodations for teaching or who have concerns about being back on campus.
To our students, I want you to know that the decision to enroll on campus this fall is yours. If you choose to take a leave, we will welcome you back when you are comfortable being here. If you choose to take courses remotely, we will work with you to design a schedule that meets your needs. We will be providing more information to faculty, staff, and students about various options in follow-up communications.
There are so many elements of the cocurricular program at Colby that enhance our educational mission. Students learn and grow through their engagement in civic and community efforts, athletics, arts, clubs and campus leadership positions, and much more. We will have to reimagine these experiences this year in ways that I hope will be gratifying and fulfilling. For example, if it is not prudent for our students to volunteer in area schools, could we create an online tutoring program that would serve local children who have had their formal education severely curtailed by the health crisis? Our arts organizations and clubs should be able to operate fully with the right precautionary measures in place. The presidents of the NESCAC institutions have agreed to implement flexible rules for athletics this year that should provide for exciting opportunities for our student athletes and coaches, even if the normal schedule for competitions is likely to be disrupted. These programs, and the overall health of our community, will be supported by our beautiful athletics and recreation center opening in August.
All that said, we are not likely to have large events like we normally do, with speakers, musical acts, and even campus social events. This is a semester that will require a shared commitment to safety in all interactions and in the planning of all of our events.
Collective Community Responsibility
There is no doubt in my mind that our community is strongest when we are together, but every one of us has to realize that we can only stay together if we have an unbreakable, shared commitment to following the safety protocols assiduously and always acting in the best interest of the community. We cannot put one another at unreasonable risk, and we certainly cannot do that to our neighbors in Waterville. I have asked the leadership of SGA to help establish a social compact that we can all agree to and sign onto. Like many of you, I have read the articles warning of students misbehaving and flouting safety rules, and I am not naïve to the challenges of widespread conformity with rules that restrict student behavior. However, I also believe in the goodness and empathy of our community, and I know that we can draw on the very best parts of ourselves to protect one another and the chance to stay together to benefit from Colby’s rich and transformative education.
The changes I describe above are not simple to enact, but we have a great team in place that is up to the task. The changes also represent a significant investment—as much as $10 million this year. That is an investment in the health and safety of our community and in the possibility of carrying out our educational mission at the highest level. I believe it is the right thing to do given the challenges we face and the opportunity we have to reconvene for an exceptional academic experience on Mayflower Hill.
I am looking forward to meeting the Class of 2024 and to welcoming all students, faculty, and staff back to campus in August.
David A. Greene