Local colleges close campuses, shift to remote learning

March 23, 2020 | Chris Maza

College campuses, like the American International College campus in Springfield pictured here, will remain empty as institutions of higher learning have switched to remote models in response to coronavirus concerns.
Reminder Publishing photo by Chris Maza

GREATER SPRINGFIELD – As the coronavirus situation in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has developed, local colleges and universities were faced with complicated decisions on how it would proceed while keeping the best interests of the health and safety of faculty, staff and students in mind.

Campuses throughout the area were closed to students, spring breaks were extended and alternative means for providing their educational programming were developed. Reminder Publishing has compiled information from the area’s various institutions of higher learning on how they are addressing the situation and the needs of their stakeholders.

Westfield State University (WSU) President Ramon S. Torrecilha announced on March 16 that the spring semester would provide courses via remote learning. He also stated all residence halls would be closed and the university would “continue to implement the remote workforce plan and other flexible work arrangements.”

“I realize that this course of action is extraordinary; however, please know that these decisions were made with the safety and wellbeing of our students, faculty, and staff as the paramount consideration during this global emergency, Torrecilha said in a letter addressed to the WSU campus community.”

He further explained the Council of Presidents determined these steps would be taken at all Massachusetts state universities. He stressed the measures were in the interest of promoting public health through social distancing and there had been no reported cases of coronavirus on campus nor had any student or employee been tested or is awaiting results.

Students subsequently received instructions and a specific schedule for removing items from residence halls. Facilities Department staff would continue its efforts to clean and disinfect all of the buildings on campus.

“The Council of Presidents and state university chief financial officers will continue to work with the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education and the Executive Office of Education to address concerns of student payments made for housing and other impacted services,” Torrecilha said. “We understand the importance of this issue to our students and families, and will share more information on this matter as it becomes available.”

Instructions about how to complete classwork with PLATO, the university’s online management system, are being provided on a class-by-class basis by their instructors. Faculty will continue to support students via the university’s web services, phone and email. Students will also have access to tutoring services through PLATO, the university’s online management system. STEM tutoring will be offered online by appointment. Library materials are also available remotely through www.lib.westfield.ma.edu/home.

Torrecilha also expressed his desire to reschedule commencement exercises to a date during the summer.

American International College made an announcement on March 17 regarding its plans to transition to distance learning, close on-campus housing and cancel events.

“These actions and decisions are necessary to allow our students, faculty, and staff to continue to learn and work effectively, while at the same time reducing risk to their continued good health and the health of others,” AIC President Vince Maniaci said in a letter to the college.

Regular spring semester classes began on March 23 and will continue through methods determined by individual instructors to be most efficacious for the subject material, including internet tools such as Zoom and Blackboard. Students in the School of Health Sciences are allowed to remain in their clinical and fieldwork placements.

“We will evaluate the ability for students to return for lab competencies at a later date based on state or federal guidelines,” Maniaci said.

The college also announced all campus housing would close and required all students to move out of their residence halls. Those who were approved to remain on campus during the extended spring break that was initially instituted in response to the health crisis were instructed to move out by March 22. Students who are currently off-campus must schedule a time to return to campus and remove their belongings by March 29. Students with “exceptional circumstances” were allowed to apply to remain in student housing.

All athletic and co-curricular student events, including year-end campus traditions and awards ceremonies, were canceled, but a decision on commencement had not yet been made as of press time.

Springfield College President Mary-Beth Cooper informed the community on March 17 that the college would resume instruction completely online on March 30. The academic schedule will include a final exam period ending May 12.

“I understand that this is disappointing for all of us, but our highest priority is charting a response to the rapidly evolving COVID-19 threat while maintaining academic continuity and integrity and safeguarding our students’ ability to finish the semester in accordance with all required standards related to federal financial assistance,” she said.

Cooper acknowledged there were many questions regarding how instruction for certain disciplines would be conducted online and reassured students the college would “tailor our instruction and services to ensure that all students will be able to be successful.”

Students are allowed, but not required, to remove belongings from on-campus residences on a staggered schedule. Those who opt to keep their belongings on campus will be able to retrieve them at a later, yet-to-be-determined move-out period.

A decision on commencement had not been made as of press time.

“We know this brings great disappointment to many of us, especially our seniors, who were holding on to hope that we could all come back to campus to finish up the year. However, we believe it is the right decision at this time,” Cooper said.

Bay Path University President Carol Leary announced on March 17 that classes would be conducted online until the end of the spring semester. Ending dates are program-specific.

Students also received instructions from Dean Anne Chapdelaine regarding retrieving belongings from on-campus housing. Leary added students would receive a credit on their student accounts based on the number of room and board days canceled as a result of the coronavirus situation and refund checks would be issued, if applicable.

The university has implemented a “temporary remote working model” for employees that will be in effect through April 7, but Leary noted not all employees would be able to work remotely.

“During this time, Bay Path will be open and we will, to the best of our abilities, keep all of our operations functioning. This means that many Bay Path employees will be working full-time remotely. Business continuity – for the sake of our institution and especially for our students – is critical,” she wrote, addressing employees directly. “This will take some getting used to for us all. But there’s one point I’d like to especially underscore: this is not a time for any of us to shy away from the work at hand. While we may not be conducting every aspect of our normal duties, this may give us a chance to work on projects that have been ‘back-burnered.’ Working remotely will present opportunities to function in new, collaborative ways. You may even be asked to assist another area where additional resources are in demand. Embrace and learn from these opportunities.”

Commencement remains scheduled for May 17 and a final decision will be made by April 8.

“I appreciate how difficult all of this is, especially for our traditional undergraduate seniors who had looked forward to the remainder of the spring semester,” Leary said. “I can assure you that no one is more disappointed than I am. Truly, I miss you and the vibrancy you bring to campus.”

Bay Path also canceled its Women’s Leadership Conference scheduled for March 27 at the MassMutual Center in Springfield. A full refund will be processed by Eventbrite in 30 business days.

The College of Our Lady of the Elms began utilizing an online format for all of its courses on March 23. Students with off-campus educational activities such as nursing clinicals, student teaching and social work field placements were advised on how to proceed in their specific situations. Graduate assistants and student employees were also instructed to consult their supervisors for guidance.

“Please understand that this pandemic continues to be an unprecedented and very fluid situation, and if conditions were to improve or change significantly in the coming weeks we may make appropriate adjustments after providing ample notice to both students and faculty,” President Harry E. Dumay said in his announcement.

On-campus housing will remain closed for the duration of the academic year and are required to vacate by April 1. Those with “exceptional circumstance” regarding housing are asked to contact Residence Life staff.

“These are students who are international, homeless, or have other issues with leaving campus,” Melinda Rose, director of communications for Elms College, said. “We are doing everything in our power to keep them safe and healthy during this crisis.”

Students will receive updates on refunds and prorated credits for housing next year from the Student Accounts and Financial Aid offices.

All events on campus have been canceled, although the Office of Student Engagement is working on creating “virtual community gatherings.”

A decision on commencement had not been announced as of press time.

Western New England University (WNE) was among the first to announce it would move its classes to an online format. On March 13, the university announced students would not return to class after their spring break on March 23 as originally planned. Instead, spring break was extended until March 29 and classes will resume online on March 30.

All events on campus, including athletics, the spring formal and senior week, were canceled. A decision on commencement was not announced as of press time.

While the residence halls were closed to most residents, there is an application process for those students to remain in campus housing if they do not have alternative living arrangements in the United States or are participating in externships, professional rotations, or other academically-related activities.

On March 18, WNE also issued a ban on all university-sponsored domestic travel, effective March 23.

The university advised faculty and staff that those identified as “high risk” by their healthcare provider would be allowed to request necessary accommodations. Employees with children enrolled in schools that have closed and those in need of mental health or medical care may request to work from home as well. Those who cannot work from home would have to use vacation, family sick leave or floating holiday time. Should an employee be subject to a presumptive positive or confirmed positive coronavirus test, they would be eligible for short term disability benefits.

The university’s Alumni Healthy Living Center also closed to all faculty, staff, students and visitors until further notice on March 17. Staff offices within the center would remain open. Those with belongings in the center can contact the security desk to make arrangements for their retrieval during regular operating hours.

Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) initially closed its campus on March 12. President Joseph DaSilva said at the time of closing the college’s staff would “partner with faculty on developing plans for the continuity of instruction.” STCC later extended its spring break with students resuming classes on March 30.

In a March 18 letter to faculty, DaSilva said the approximately 200 classes that are already fully online or utilize a hybrid model should begin instruction this week, March 23 to 28, “notwithstanding the extension of spring break.” He added an email clarifying the situation would be sent to students.

Faculty and instructors for non-online offerings continue to develop plans for remote instruction in hopes of resuming classes as soon as possible.

“An impressive number of faculty have been working diligently this week constructing ways to deliver instruction remotely (using supports that include Blackboard, Google Docs/Hangouts, Screencast-o-Matic, Youtube/open-source videos, document cameras, iPads, mobile phone recordings, email, Zoom, etc.),” DaSilva said.

To assist with student access to online resources, the STCC Library loaned Chromebooks and wireless internet hotspots to students without a home computer or a reliable internet connection.

Educational offerings that cannot continue due to the closure of clinical sites and social distancing policies are being addressed by the Office of Academic Affairs, as are classes that cannot be taught remotely. The college is working to address accreditation concerns associated with the situation, DaSilva said.

Summer and fall course offerings will launch as planned.

On March 20, Holyoke Community College (HCC) President Christina Royal informed faculty staff and students that the college would resort to remote learning for the remainder of the spring semester “up to and possibly including finals.” Classes will resume on March 30.

“We realize that a remote environment won't be the same in many respects, and I know you're likely wondering, 'What will it look like? How will HCC make sure students are getting the same quality education?' I can already tell you that our amazing faculty are determined to give our students the best education possible. In fact, the whole college is thinking about ways to enliven the student experience from a distance while also continuing to keep our doors open for the resources you require,” Royal said.

Students without access to computers may borrow Chromebooks and wireless internet hotspots from the library and certain computer labs will be open for limited hours.

Approximately 90 percent of the college’s staff is working remotely with limited in-person resources and some office rotations in order to continue the operation of certain services. Advising, financial aid, career counseling, admissions and registrar staff members, as well as the Office for Students with Disabilities and Deaf Services and the Center for Academic Program Support, will continue to serve students via email or through virtual support services. The library will also be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Priority registration was postponed until April 15 to allow for staff training on virtual registration tools. The HCC Foundation’s scholarship application was also extended to April 8.

The food pantry is preparing pre-packed food and coordinating with campus police on distribution. Those who are in need of food can contact the Thrive Center, which will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at 552-2783 or thrive@hcc.edu.

Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian announced that all physical campuses, including Asnuntuck Community College, would be closed for the remainder of the semester and the vast majority of faculty and staff would work from home.

All in-person spring commencement festivities were also canceled.

“I know how hard students and faculty have worked to get to this point, and we are looking at all options to ensure they receive the recognition they deserve in addition to the diploma they have earned,” Ojakian said in his letter to the community.

Asnuntuck Community College's Chief Executive Officer Michelle Coach told Reminder Publishing, “The college will move to an online format next week and will continue online for the remainder of the semester. Asnuntuck's buildings closed at 5 p.m. last Thursday and will remain closed until further notice. The staff are teleworking and reachable by email to assist and serve students. Every department is working to carry on their normal, daily functions."

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