MCLA campus

After few COVID-19 cases in the fall semester, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts prepares to welcome students back amid high rates of virus transmission.

NORTH ADAMS — Spring semester at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts will kick off the same way that the fall semester ended – online.

Remote learning will start Jan. 26 and last for less than one full week of school, according to a letter sent to students and faculty.

“Beginning February 1, we will return to our blended learning course design, and staggered attendance in the classroom,” wrote Catherine Holbrook, the college’s vice president of student affairs.

The announcement, which comes as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in the region, notes the high rates of local spread in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

But, the school hopes to reduce on-campus risk through quarantine, testing and hybrid learning.

The initial remote period will allow returning students time to quarantine as they wait for two negative test results mandated by the school.

Students driving directly from home are encouraged to take their first test in the 72 hours prior to returning to campus but will not be released from quarantine until they receive a second negative through the campus testing process.

Students returning to school from any other state but Hawaii will be required to quarantine for 10 days if they cannot produce a negative test from their home state in the 72 hours prior to their arrival, per state travel restrictions.

During the quarantine period, asymptomatic students will be allowed to leave their rooms to pick up meals, according to the announcement.

In the letter, Holbrook stressed the success of the school’s hybrid model during the fall semester. The school recorded just eight total cases throughout the fall on its COVID-19 dashboard, for a positivity rate of 0.23 percent, though the rate only reflects testing that took place on campus.

“We have maintained as safe an environment as possible,” Holbrook wrote. “During the fall semester we were one of the safest places in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

The college said it would implement “an even more robust testing program” and increase testing volume in the spring compared to the fall. She also urged students to remain on campus as much as possible during the upcoming semester.

“All trips to travel home or frequent trips to the surrounding area or downtown greatly compromise your safety and that of the community,” she wrote. “Given the current high rates of positivity in the state and elsewhere, we strongly encourage you to minimize your travel off campus until the curve has been flattened.”

Students who have been vaccinated will be required to follow the same protocol as those who have not.

MCLA students must also be vaccinated for the flu by the end of February per a statewide mandate. Massachusetts announced last month it would extend the deadline from the original date of Dec. 31.

“We will not make accommodations to allow students who have not gotten this immunization to shift to remote learning,” Holbrook wrote.

Meanwhile, Williams College students will not begin to return to campus until February. Hybrid learning resumes at Williams on Feb. 17. 

Fred Puddester, the college's treasurer and vice president for finance and administration, said that the spring semester will look similar to the fall, with respect to quarantine, learning and mandatory testing.

"Students will arrive over time," he told The Eagle. "They'll get tested immediately upon arrival, they'll go immediately into quarantine, and they won't come out of quarantine until they get two negative tests."

The biggest shift at Williams will be the addition of 400 extra people on campus, as more students choose to return to school in-person. About 1,800 students will be living in dorms or in nearby off-campus housing during the spring semester, according to Puddester.

"Many of our peer schools had about this amount in the fall and they were successful," he said. "And the students get a lot of credit for this. We put these rules in place, but frankly it doesn't work if students don't adhere to public health guidelines."

Francesca Paris can be reached at fparis@berkshireeagle.com and 510-207-2535.

Francesca Paris covers North Adams for The Berkshire Eagle. A California native and Williams College alumna, she has worked at NPR in Washington, D.C. and WBUR in Boston, as a news reporter, producer and editor. Find her on Twitter at @fparises.