Amid mounting fears of a potential novel coronavirus outbreak, Berkshire County college administrators are facing dramatic decisions about when to keep campuses open and when to shut them down as a precaution.
On Wednesday morning, Williams College President Maud Mandel made a call she said was "among the hardest I’ve ever made" — to cancel in-person classes for the rest of the semester, from Friday on. The campus will move to "remote learning" instruction for the remainder of the spring semester, beginning April 6.
"My heart goes out to everyone, and especially seniors, for whom this is the last semester on campus," she wrote in a memo addressed to the entire campus community.
But, she added, "A densely-packed campus is ripe for contagion."
No one has tested positive on the campus for COVID-19.
Nevertheless, Williams students are among a growing number of college students nationwide who are abruptly being sent home packing. More than 80 campuses have effected plans for spring closures.
Mandel is far from alone in having to make this call. Administrators of Western Massachusetts campuses, including Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges, made similar decisions this week.
These announcements are being made at a time when students are in the thick of midterm studies, spring break travel and senior thesis work, among other things.
On Tuesday, students at the Williams Record reported on how rising coronavirus concerns were beginning to affect student life, including ending college-funded international travel and campus events. The student newspaper reported that some campus community members asked the administration to avoid having students leave campus.
But, Wednesday's announcement to cancel campus classes for the semester sent a wave of emotion throughout the campus community.
Junior Nicole Chia-Tien Chen, a sociology major, was studying in the library when she got the email. "About half of the people there got up and left and the other continued studying," she said.
She said she wonders how students will be able to transition from being on a resource-rich campus to screen-based learning, away from professors, classmates, laboratories, art studios and libraries.
"I cherish being in my classes," Chen said.
Chen, who comes from Taiwan and China, was meeting up with other international classmates at a local coffee shop Wednesday afternoon.
Maysa Shaer, a sophomore studying art history, arrived having just gotten off a phone call with her father to discuss next steps. She has family in Jordan and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. For international students in particular, having to leave campus creates additional challenges entangled with visa and flight restrictions and the fear of leaving the U.S., only to find they might not be allowed back in, depending on the policies of various governments.
"It was a little emotional this morning, but after having initial conversations with family and seeing friends, things seem to have calmed slightly," said Seynabou Diop, a junior from Senegal studying economics and religion.
Chen, Shaer, Diop and several of their friends are taking up the college's offer to students to petition to stay on campus because of extenuating circumstances.
But, Shaer says being allowed to stay raises additional questions, such as "If I stay on campus, how am I supposed to feed myself? How much access on campus will be restricted?"
Chen said some students are considering pooling together their room and board reimbursements to find alternative housing near the campus and support one another.
Katya Khalizeva, a junior biology student from Russia, said she feels for her professors as they try to find workarounds on the fly for things like lab work.
The students said they are eager for more information to guide them, in the short and long term, as they question whether the college will call students back to campus for summer internships and fall classes. They wonder if they will be able to graduate on time and with the desired educational experiences they hope to carry with them into the future.
"You can tell on campus that there's a new sense of community, that we're all going through the same thing together," Chen said.
Throughout the day, there were informal conversations and lots of hugs within the Williams community, as well as a few organized group screams — literally a gathering of students screaming outside.
"That was really cathartic," Chen said.
Other campuses changing plans
The University of Massachusetts on Wednesday announced its plans to cancel on-campus classes, requiring its more than 74,000 students to migrate off campus and find somewhere to access classes online from now to April 3.
At Bard College at Simon's Rock in Great Barrington, an Infectious Disease Task Force made up of 11 campus leaders, from the dean of academic affairs to the campus physician, has tasked itself with staying up to date on all the latest state and federal guidelines for responding to COVID-19. The group has asked students to share their travel plans as spring break approaches so they can track travel delays and restrictions that might occur. Classes are continuing as scheduled.
With the number of cases of coronavirus more than doubling from the day before, Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency Tuesday.
After that announcement, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President James "Jamie" Birge announced his decision Tuesday evening to cancel classes for the week, after the upcoming spring break, to allow time to deep clean campus spaces and residence halls.
"Moreover," he said, "this additional time allows me to work with my colleagues to organize a coordinated campus response to COVID-19."
MCLA students will need to leave residence areas by 7 p.m. Friday for the start of spring break. They can return to campus March 29. While there will be no classes until March 30, campus offices will remain open throughout the break period.
Berkshire Community College has begun to cancel events, like the "40 Under Forty" awards ceremony, scheduled on its main campus in Pittsfield, as well as its South County campus based in Great Barrington. Classes still are scheduled to continue throughout the spring.
In a Wednesday memo addressed to the campus community, BCC President Ellen Kennedy said that the college is upholding state guidelines and mandates in managing its operations in the wake of coronavirus concerns.
"Our primary focus is to continue to provide a safe learning and working environment for our students and employees," she said.
College spokeswoman Christina Wynn said that BCC's response differs from other institutions because it is a nonresidential campus. But, should the need for remote learning arise, she said, another unique challenge is presented: "When [our students] go home, they may not have internet access," she said, noting that many BCC students rely on the use of the college's computer labs to do schoolwork.
Just beyond the campuses, surrounding towns are beginning to grapple with the potential for colleges closing their operations and students being sent home.
Amid monitoring how the coronavirus might affect Town Hall and the town as a whole, Williamstown Town Manager Jason Hoch said he has heard concerns from business owners and the local chamber of commerce about the potential economic impact.
"We're all just starting to wrap our heads around what it all means. For now, it means fewer students shopping and dining. It could mean fewer parents coming to town and visiting athletic teams coming, staying overnight, buying meals," Hoch said.
"It's a question of how far out a tail does this have. If it's short term, it's a bump in the road. If it's longer term, it's a bigger challenge."