PITTSFIELD — Schooling is a particularly hard thing to get right during a global pandemic, as you have to balance the benefits of riskier in-person learning with the safer but less-than-ideal qualities of online learning.
This only gets more complicated when you have to sell housing, meals and other commodities to students, as they provide inherent risks you need to mitigate.
Such was the case of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts — my alma mater — and hundreds of other colleges across the country. The college has recently moved instruction fully online after a cluster of 28 COVID-19-infected students was detected in its residence areas, but it is worth noting that, for the previous two semesters, the college did a pretty good job of balancing public safety and limited in-person learning, making the wise moves of going fully online after the spring and Thanksgiving Day breaks of 2020 — periods of time when COVID was spiking around the nation.
In fact, prior to their campus-closing cluster, the college boasted an infection rate 10 times lower than that of the state of Massachusetts.
So what went wrong?
Looking back at MCLA’s reopening plans, especially where fall 2020 and spring 2021 differed, there were a few points of note, the first being the cancellation of spring break, and the second being no plans to go fully remote later in the semester, like they had done before.
Instead, they opted to start the semester with about a week of remote classes, before moving forward with a combination of remote and in-person classes, and the college continued a bizarre policy from the fall in which students who tried tuning into their hybrid courses when they were scheduled to be in-person received unexcused absences.
The college claims that their COVID-19 cluster was not tied to in-person classrooms at all, but their insistence on in-person learning, leaving their absurd three-year residency requirement intact and their scheduling of a spring semester without a spring break all had one key effect on the student population: It mentally exhausted them, which I have no doubt contributed to the creation of the cluster.
The college, at the request of its counseling services, even made March 19 — three days before they started detecting the cluster — a reading day, to serve as “a much-needed respite for students.” But unfortunately, it would prove too little, too late.
This is not to absolve students from blame who chose to break the rules and gather. But, given the unique circumstances of the spring semester, its outcome was predictable and avoidable.
In general, it’s probably not the best idea to insist on in-person learning — blended with remote components or not — during periods of time where COVID cases are likely to rise, especially if you’re a small college like MCLA, with limited capacity to deal with outbreaks. (In the fall, the college only allocated 18 beds for a quarantine zone.) And on-campus residency will always have some risk, and needs to be treated with as much caution as possible.
MCLA’s spring semester serves as a cautionary tale about how quickly a spike in COVID-19 cases can dismantle plans for in-person learning in a dramatically short amount of time. It especially shows what a tightrope selling residency to students can be during a global pandemic.
Overall, it’s hard to look at this school year as anything but a mixed bag, as while the college did manage to control the spread of the virus for 13 months, what will stick in people’s minds is the two weeks it got out of control and forced the college to go fully-remote, and that will pose a serious challenge to the college, as it looks to recuperate its dramatically falling enrollment numbers that were already slipping before the pandemic (in fall 2010, the college had roughly 1,700 undergraduate students, compared to fall 2019’s approximately 1,300) and have only worsened since (the college had an estimated 1,100 undergraduate students in fall 2020, according to its factbook).
As students finish out the spring semester remotely this and next month, MCLA has a lot of work ahead to build back confidence and trust in not only its current student body, but also prospective students who are about to decide where they want to go to school next fall, their families and the community as a whole.
I think the college can do it, but it’s going to take a lot of work and reflection, and I think it has a steep road ahead of it. Like many other higher education institutions, it’ll have to blaze a new path for itself in a landscape marred by the pandemic.