At MCLA, the demand to meet student needs will extend beyond the school year

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NORTH ADAMS — Josie Burlingame and Jake Vitali are among the hundreds of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts students who would have walked through the iconic iron campus gates and across the Amsler Campus Center Gymnasium stage next Saturday as part of the college's 121st commencement exercises.

Instead of Friday evening farewell dinners with family and friends spread across Northern Berkshire eateries, the Senior Class Council will be hosting a virtual "Senior Happy Hour," "to help make the most of our situation," MCLA 2020 Class President Burlingame said. The certified fitness trainer and aspiring athletic manager/coach will be tuning in from her hometown in Leicester.

On Saturday morning at 11, members of the MCLA Class of 2020 will gather with their families, or on their own, in front of a screen to tune into a virtual livestreaming senior send off. The college has committed to hosting a formal ceremony on campus at a later date. For now, as the COVID-19 public health pandemic persists, this is the best and safest thing the college can do.

"My heart goes out to all high school and college seniors who will not be receiving a commencement after all of their hard work. If the MCLA administration had given up on providing a celebration for us, I would have been heartbroken. I believe they are also making the right decision to not have a date set, given the current magnitude of uncertainty," Burlingame said.

As for Vitali, a journalism student who serves as an MCLA student trustee and president of the campus radio station, WJJW 91.1 FM, he plans to get up at his family home in Billerica and watch the class video premiere with his parents.

"I think I'll still crack a bottle of champagne once it's over," he said. Then, he's looking forward to a takeout lunch from his hometown favorite Chinese restaurant.

"(The celebration is) small, but good enough," he said.

During a May 4 Skype interview, MCLA President James Birge gave credit to students, faculty and staff for navigating a rapid transition into remote learning norms.

"I'm tremendously proud of the people here, things that they did so quickly and so thoroughly. Over the period of a week, more than a hundred faculty transitioned 500 classroom-based courses to remote learning courses," he said.

Then, over a carefully planned two-week period in April, some 700 students who were able to, returned to campus while using social distancing practices to retrieve any belongings they did not take with them over spring break. Vitali described it as a "somber" affair.

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As applicable, some 800 students received a total of about $1.5 million in refunds for room, board and parking fees that would have been assessed for the spring semester. Students receiving federal work-study grants, as well as non-work-study student employees received paychecks through April.

Under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the college received $1,309,397 in student relief aid. The MCLA Office of Advancement also oversees a new MCLA Resiliency Fund, to help support students facing financial hardship because of relocation, job loss or other effects of the pandemic. The fund was kick started in mid-March by an anonymous donor who was concerned that students wouldn't have the equipment and technology at home to maintain a campus connection.

As of May 7, more than $90,000 had been distributed to 140 students in need of emergency aid, according to a Resiliency Fund report. The funds, so far have been used to help students with food, utilities and rent; laptops and IT necessities; course materials and summer program scholarships.

"We're been doing a lot of messaging to students to say if there's something that you need because of the pandemic, let us know. We had a pretty quick response to providing resources for students. That will expand even more, now that we have the CARES Act money," Birge said, noting that federal relief funds not devoted to student financial aid will be channeled through the Resiliency Fund.

Applications to the fund will be accepted likely through the fall, on a rolling basis. Students who received funds but are experiencing additional needs are encourage to reapply.

Classes were completed this past week by all students, who then prepared for final presentations and exams. Professors will calculate final grades for students; but students, given the circumstances that not all remote learning experiences have been equal, will have the choice of accepting the grade or a credit/no-credit assessment of their work.

Meanwhile, college administrators have been mulling over summer semester plans and trying to divine what the spring budgeting season and fall back-to-school forecast will bring.

As the pandemic wears on, Birge and his staff anticipate increased student need and requests for scholarships to help ensure enrolled students can stay enrolled. At the same time, the CARES Act funds do not support the college's operational costs, so Birge said the college's finance team is looking at reducing operating lines, while anticipating as much as a 15 to 20 percent reduction in new student enrollment.

Given the uncertainty in the allocation of state money, Birge said MCLA is building three contingency budget models for the upcoming fiscal year, with a finance meeting planned in June.

In looking at the next steps, Burlingame said the Senior Class Council was fortunate enough to receive $25,000 from the Student Government Association to help plan free Senior Days events, for whenever seniors can return to campus for a proper celebration.

Vitali said he looks forward to coming back to campus as an alumnus. But he's uncertain what kind of state he'll be in. "Our future plans are all dream scenarios right now. Nothing's definite," he said.


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