With semester one for the books, leaders of Berkshire colleges chart course for summer, fall

Clockwise from top left, Williams College President Maud Mandel, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President James Birge, Berkshire Community College President Ellen Kennedy, incoming Bard College at Simon's Rock Provost John Weinstein, and 1Berkshire President and CEO Jonathan Butler discuss higher education plans, from summer courses to fall reopening, during a Friday morning virtual town hall program.

Berkshire County colleges are moving forward with summer enrollment and fall reopening plans, albeit with different approaches.

The leaders of the county's four colleges shared their plans Friday as part of 1Berkshire's virtual town hall series.

At Berkshire Community College, a virtual graduation ceremony is being planned in partnership with Pittsfield Community Television and will take place at 4:30 p.m. May 29. A combined in-person ceremony honoring the Classes of 2020 and 2021 is scheduled for June 4, 2021, at the traditional venue, Tanglewood in Lenox.

Staff will continue working remotely through at least July 3, with limited operations on the Pittsfield main campus. The college's South County Center has since closed, as has the campus cafeteria, with staff being laid off this week.

This summer, BCC has moved to a "mostly remote" education format.

"Interestingly, we started out a little bit slow, but we're actually exceeding last year's numbers. We've seen an uptick in enrollment for courses this summer that are being offered online," President Ellen Kennedy said.

She said the college's faculty members have been working diligently to redevelop courses for online and hybrid formats and that BCC will be making an announcement in the next few weeks about operational plans for the fall semester and a new workforce training program that will cover participants' tuition and fees.

The term "pivot" has become an in-vogue term to use among leaders to describe having to respond and quickly change operational models to adapt to lockdown and safety protocols. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President James "Jaimie" Birge commended his staff for pivoting well, including coordinating a hundred faculty to recalculate the direction of 500 classroom-based courses midsemester to remote learning modalities.

MCLA held a virtual senior send-off May 16 and is preparing to launch remote summer learning sessions. Classes for the first summer session begin Tuesday. Birge announced Thursday that faculty and staff have been asked to continue working remotely through at least June 30. Part of that decision, he said, was based on the lack of child care available and necessary to help parents return to work.

While Birge said he does not anticipate full-time faculty or staff furloughs or layoffs, the college could reduce the adjunct faculty line by 30 percent.

Birge said various designated planning committees on campus will be submitting multiple-case-scenario plans for reopening, from classes to dining to housing and other activities, during the week starting Monday, and that he expects to announce MCLA's plans for reopening the campus in June.

Some of the college leaders say they have received indicators from students not wanting to enroll in the fall if remote learning continues. Other students are considering a gap year to help them refocus their goals and readjust after what has been a stressful semester.

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Williams College President Maud Mandel said she and her fellow administrators are making decisions informed by several student and faculty surveys about preferences ranging from commencement — students prefer something in-person — to reopening. The latter will include a shift to a two-semester, reduced-course requirement model, regardless of whether the fall semester opens in person on campus or remotely.

There will be no summer research programs on campus this summer, as staff and faculty continue to work remotely as much as possible.

Some virtual celebrations will take place June 6, and the college will release a special message to its Class of 2020 on June 7 — what would have been commencement day.

On behalf of Bard College at Simon's Rock, John Weinstein, who will assume the role of provost July 1, announced new initiatives for the campus, which include an early college and high school academy. Also, the college postponed its commencement exercises but held a virtual awards ceremony to honor students earning academic prizes.

The Great Barrington campus typically doesn't offer a summer program, but it will be engaged with the Bard College system's billion-dollar global Open Society University Network slate of programs and initiatives, several of which have begun in a remote format.

Weinstein said faculty and members of a COVID-19 response planning working group will connect with individual students over the summer to gain a better understanding of what their needs and concerns are about returning to campus.

The incoming provost said Simon's Rock is planning to begin its next semester on time, on Aug. 22, whether it's in person, online or a hybrid model of attendance and participation.

All four institutional leaders have been using another pandemic catchphrase when it comes to looking ahead: "cautious optimism."

Little guidance related to higher education came out with the release this week of Gov. Charlie Baker's reopening phases, but they are expected to be released soon. Those guidelines, Mandel said, "are going to have huge impact on the ways in which we shape our processes of opening."

Friday's virtual town hall, which drew 212 viewers, was recorded and can be viewed online via the organization's YouTube channel.