College reopening prompts mixed reactions

Many of my friends are now looking at opportunities to have meaningful experiences elsewhere this fall … I’m 90% sure I’ll be taking the semester off. — Middlebury senior Celia Gottlieb

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College’s initial plan for reopening its campus this fall, which was released on Monday (read the story here), has so far garnered mixed reviews.

“It’s tricky because things are in flux and the picture is still coming into focus,” said Liza Sachelli, director of the Mahaney Arts Center (MAC). “I was grateful to read President (Laurie) Patton’s announcement, but there are many questions left unanswered.”

Sachelli has been impressed with the transparency of the process that led up to the decision to reopen this fall, she said, especially when compared with the way previous college administrations have handled crises.

“I’m encouraged with how much they’re willing to share,” she said. “I think they’re doing a lot of things right.”

Since March, when the college sent students home to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the MAC has focused on finding innovative ways to deliver live performing arts programing to the college community — and to broader audiences — using online tools like Zoom. When students come back in the fall, Sachelli and her staff will also be using their expertise to help educators solve physical distancing challenges in the campus’ classrooms and lecture halls.

“We’re pivoting to serve academic departments even more,” she said. “Maybe we will turn performing arts spaces into classroom spaces. Nothing is off the table right now in terms of the educational environment for students — on or off campus.”

Whatever happens, she added, “this will be a year where we learn a lot, and I hope that we will use this learning to open up new opportunities that we wouldn’t have explored otherwise.”

FACULTY

According to a June 21 report in the Middlebury Campus newspaper, faculty are divided over the issue of opening the campus in the fall. During a meeting last week, faculty held a nonbinding vote on the matter, and though a majority of those voting expressed support for bringing students back, a large number abstained, and many more were absent.

Several faculty members who are opposed to reopening the campus sent a letter to President Patton and other members of the Senior Leadership Group, outlining their major concerns about in-person learning and advocating for remote-only learning this fall.

Jason Mittell, who is a professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies, was one of them.

“The space question is huge,” Mittell told the Independent. “We don’t have a sense of what classrooms will look like, with everyone masked and six feet apart. The point of a small liberal arts college is small classes and intimate settings, but social distancing in a large lecture hall is a totally different animal.”

Faculty have expressed concerns about ventilation in classrooms, some of which lack operable windows, he said.

In her announcement on Monday, Patton estimated that about one-third of fall semester courses would be taught remotely, but Mittell, who will be teaching remotely, believes that estimate is low.

“Once my colleagues have a better idea of what things look like, they may rethink their choices regarding online teaching,” he said.

In which case, he wondered, “Will students want to come back just to take courses in their dorm rooms?”

According to an FAQ on the college website, tuition will be the same regardless of the mode of class delivery.

Whatever happens on campus, it will likely be infused with anxiety and unease, Mittell said.

“Students will view each other with a lot of judgment when they don’t abide by health protocols — the same way some people get upset about people not wearing masks in local grocery stores — which will create a lot of tension. How will that play out?”

Mittell also suspects there will be a lot of peer pressure around parties.

“I think it’s optimistic to the point of delusion to expect students on campus to follow hygiene protocols as stringently as we have in Addison County for the last few months.”

STUDENTS

Middlebury senior Feb. Celia Gottlieb agrees.

“Social distancing is impossible in a party situation,” she said. “Who’s going to party with masks on? Partying and not complying with health protocols would quickly undo all the other work we’d be doing to stay safe.”

After reading the college’s announcement and going through all the FAQ information, Gottlieb found herself with more questions than answers, she said.

“How are you going to get students to comply? How are you going to hold them accountable? I’m supposed to be living in off-campus housing this fall — how will they ensure that I’m following the rules?”

Gottlieb said that among her classmates there was initial excitement about the fall reopening, but then a lot of hesitation.

“Many of my friends are now looking at opportunities to have meaningful experiences elsewhere this fall,” she said. “I’m 90% sure I’ll be taking the semester off.”

Students have until July 6 to notify the college about their intentions for the fall, so there is no way to know at this time what enrollment numbers will look like.

Connor Wertz will be a junior in the fall.

“Selfishly, I’m excited to go back,” he said. “I love Middlebury — my friends, the campus, Vermont. School is not the same without them, and I’ll get all three back (to some degree) in the fall.”

But Wertz can’t help feeling that the decision to bring students back had less to do with community or education than the college’s “bottom line,” he said.

In recent months college officials have estimated that operating deficits for the current and next fiscal years will be tens of millions of dollars.

“I also wish (administration) had set up clear channels to incorporate democratic decision-making from staff and faculty,” he said. “Yes, our return may mean staff and faculty may keep jobs that might otherwise have been lost, and for this reason they may be glad. But I also know that there are serious concerns about the risk that this will bring to the larger Middlebury community. And when we have a $1 billion endowment, do we really have to make decisions like this, or is it a false dichotomy created because of the administration’s unwillingness to take a 100-year risk for a 100-year pandemic?”

STAFF

Wage continuity has been a consistent concern brought to the administration, said Middlebury Staff Council President Tim Parsons.

“We were assured our jobs were safe ... through June 30, but we have no details after that. Of course, with the decision being made this late, that is to be expected. Some staff, particularly in dining, are wondering about employment during the winter term, which is scheduled to be remote. There will probably be some students here, however.”

With so many employees working remotely right now, it’s been hard to gauge staff reactions to the fall reopening, Parsons said.

“I think it’s safe to say it’s a mirror of everybody else. Staff love this institution, we are here for the students, but also feel the responsibility of protecting our friends, family, neighbors and town. I have no doubt staff will do their utmost for both our college and the greater community.”

In her Davis Family Library office, Rebekah Irwin, Director and Curator of Special Collections and Archives, has been working on some of the challenges of operating in a large public space.

“The library, its staff, and our collections coexist in a three-acre building that — during a normal academic year — sees half a million visitors (nearly the population of Vermont),” she told the Independent. “We’re also a space filled with high-touch surfaces, hard to clean computers, and tens of thousands of books that pass between the hands of hundreds of strangers — strangers who hold those books close, take them home, eat with them, sleep with them, and sometimes sneeze on them.”

Though she and her fellow staff members face many challenges, she has found consolation in the fact that they’re not unique to Middlebury College.

“I’m constantly comparing notes and sharing planning efforts (with my counterparts at other institutions) and I know that all of my Middlebury colleagues, at every level, are also reaching out and exhaustively doing this research.”

Irwin believes it would be unfair to expect the college to have all of the answers, she said.

“No one does. I think reopening in fall is one way forward. Those of us on the ground, researching disinfectants, keeping our network running, redesigning dining halls, and yes, researching how long the virus clings to the pages of books, are participating in a shared mission to educate students. We’re all responsible for addressing these concerns, in the end.”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

Editor’s note: Ross is married to a Middlebury College employee.

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