College cancels classes as coronavirus spreads

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Graphic by Katherine Irving '22.

Abe Asher, Managing Editor

Macalester has cancelled classes for the week following spring break and is giving all students the option of completing the semester remotely.

In an email sent to students, faculty and staff on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 11, President Brian Rosenberg also asked that Macalester community members reconsider spring break travel plans with an eye towards avoiding seriously affected areas.

Macalester’s leadership has been working nonstop on its coronavirus response this week as the virus has spread in the U.S. and caused the cancellation of a number of events across the country. The World Health Organization (WHO) has now organized the outbreak as a pandemic.

As of Wednesday night, more than 150 colleges and universities had cancelled in-person classes for varying lengths of time in an effort to stop the spread of the virus.

A number of those schools, including Grinnell College, Oberlin College and Amherst College, are requiring that students vacate their dormitories in the coming days — placing a burden on students who cannot easily travel home.

Grinnell and Oberlin are allowing students to petition to stay on campus, but have not guaranteed that they will accept all such petitions.

Macalester, Rosenberg wrote, wants to avoid placing that burden on its students.

“On some level, it would be easiest to follow the example of many other highly selective colleges and universities and simply send students home and try to continue instruction remotely,” Rosenberg wrote.   

“We are aware, however, that this would create hardships that would fall disproportionately on the least affluent and most vulnerable members of our community, as well as on many of our international students, and we take that reality very seriously,” he continued.

Rosenberg promised that the college will do everything in its power to “accommodate the needs of those who cannot simply ‘go home.’”

Associate Dean for Student Services Denise Ward echoed Rosenberg’s concern.

“We know that we have a lot of students that can’t go home,” Ward said. “Our goal is that the longer that we can maintain operation but be safe doing it, we’re going to do that.

“We’re very aware that if all of a sudden you said, ‘Okay, everybody out,’ it would have to be humane and we’d have to help them make alternative plans for people that needed support on that,” she continued.

Of course, as Ward and Rosenberg both acknowledged, there are a number of circumstances in which Macalester would have to functionally shut down its campus.

The college is communicating frequently with officials at the Minnesota Department of Health, which could recommend at any point that colleges in the state close.

If someone at Macalester in particular were exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19, that would change the calculus as well.

“Right now we’re in containment phase,” Medical Director Steph Walters said at Tuesday’s highly-charged faculty meeting. “If we got a case of COVID-19 on campus, the Minnesota Department of Health contacts that student and is interviewing them about everyone they came within six feet of in the last 14 days.

“They live in Dupre, they work [for] Bon App, they are on the baseball team, they were just in Hamre Center two days ago… and so on and so forth,” she continued. “That is hundreds of people. The sick person is isolated; the hundreds of people… are in quarantine.”

That is the kind of circumstance that the college is trying to avoid. For now, though, college facilities, including the dining halls and residential halls, will stay open during spring break and the week of March 23-27, when there are no classes.

The work study program will continue during that time frame, though the college has not said whether it will guarantee students’ awards in the event that students decide to leave campus or if they are for whatever reason no longer able to work.

But college departments are adopting to accommodate the heightened risk of infectious disease spread. The Laurie Hamre Center for Health & Wellness, for instance, has canceled walk-in appointments and is considering going to a largely telehealth-based model for most services it offers.

Ward also confirmed that Macalester has health supplies backordered and a very limited supply of masks and other personal protection equipment.

The college, meanwhile, is increasing the amount of hand sanitizer available on campus, setting up extra stations in places like the library.

One other piece of good news for students is that coronavirus testing at approved locations will be covered for anyone with Macalester health insurance.

“Member cost sharing will be waived, including copays, coinsurance and deductibles, for COVID-19 diagnostic testing provided at approved locations in accordance with [Centers for Disease Control] CDC guidelines,” Ward said.

Though dining services will remain operational for the foreseeable future, Bon Appétit is planning its next steps in concert with the college should the crisis intensify. General Manager Amy Jackson said that no decision has been made about whether hourly employees will continue to be paid if they no longer have work.

In asking students to reevaluate spring break travel plans, Macalester is following Carleton College — which has encouraged its students to stay in Northfield over the college’s two week spring break.

“If you plan on travelling to a part of the country where there has been more community transmission of COVID-19, you run the risk not only of coming into contact with the virus, but of being unable to return to campus should national or state officials decide that your return is prohibited or unadvisable,” Rosenberg wrote.

“If you plan on travelling to an event that involves large crowds of people, you increase the risk to yourself of community transmission,” he continued. “Be smart and sensible, and think about the well-being of the community.”

Despite Rosenberg’s warnings about spring break travel, however, it is exceedingly unlikely that college will ask students, faculty or staff to report their specific travel plans.

“I’m not sure what you would do with that information even if you had it,” Rosenberg said on Tuesday. “That’s probably the topic that we talk about every hour — what do we do about spring break. But events after that we will evaluate as they come up.”

Carleton has notified students that they may be required to quarantine if they travel over spring break to affected locations and return to campus.

“It is almost certainly the case that some large scale events for the rest of the semester will be canceled,” Rosenberg said. “We have made no decision at this point about the biggest events, things like commencement. We will just have to see.”

The MacConnect trips to New York City and Seattle that were planned for spring break have already been cancelled, as has the choir trip to San Francisco. Several sports teams are waiting until the eleventh hour to make decisions about their spring break travel plans.

Online classes, at this point, seem likely.

Beginning this week, the college has asked its faculty members to begin working with the software program Zoom and to think about how they might transition their classes online.

English professor Andrea Kaston Tange said that the Digital Resource Center and library are preparing to help faculty members take their classes online, and will offer workshops either during the week of spring break or in the days following spring break to provide technological support.

Should classes transition online, it is expected that professors will use a mix of synchronous and asynchronous teaching methods — meaning classes taught online while students participate live and lectures pre-recorded by the professors.

“99 percent of the institutions are creating this as they go,” Ward said. “We may have dusted off some old general protocols, but this one [has] gone to a level that none of us have had to deal with before.”

Hannah Catlin contributed to the reporting of this article.

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