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Lesley to Adopt a “Mostly Virtual” Model for the Fall 2020 Semester

After communicating with “medical and public health experts and…stakeholders across our diverse community” about the impacts of COVID-19, Lesley University has decided to adopt a “hybrid, mostly virtual” educational format for the Fall 2020 semester. This decision is primarily due to Lesley’s location “in a region that was one of the pandemic’s early hot spots.” There is potential for a second surge of the coronavirus before the end of the fall semester; due to this and the previously-high case counts in Massachusetts, the administration is deciding to err on the side of caution.

There also isn’t enough space on campus to adequately separate students from each other to practice social distancing. As President Steinmayer pointed out in her July 15 email to the Lesley community, “our residential facilities [cannot] be reconfigured to provide single rooms with private baths to protect the health and safety of our community.” Due to those constraints, the majority of campus buildings are to remain closed “at least through the end of 2020,” when plans for a potential 2021 re-opening can be reassessed.

Due to Lesley’s location and limited on-campus space, administration has decided that the safest format going forward is to hold “most fall classes” online. As Lesley has offered online classes “for decades” now, an entirely new online learning platform and standards did not need to be created. Rather, the “Virtual Academic Experience Task Force, comprised of faculty, e-learning specialists, and Information Technology staff,” has spent this time away from campus “further [refining] and [improving the] virtual academic experience to mirror, as much as possible, the vibrancy and interpersonal relationship building that characterize the Lesley learning experience.” This enhanced virtual experience promises to offer more opportunities for connection with faculty and peers, as well as “the tools and support” that students need to thrive at home. This includes “virtual office hours and advising,” as well as chances to collaborate with other students during virtual “small group discussions and peer study meetings.”

However, there are still a handful of courses where “physical face-to-face activities and/or access to campus facilities” is necessary for student success. Those select few courses are being customized “to meet all the most current recommendations of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” so student and faculty safety can be ensured.

Only “those whose work is dependent upon resources that the campus offers that are not accessible remotely, or whose remote access impacts the integrity of the work that they need to complete” will be permitted to come back to campus in the fall. More specifically, these are “art students who need to utilize studio space, students in our Threshold Program, low-residency graduate students, fall student-athletes, as well as students needing housing as a result of housing insecurities or those with special academic or technology needs.” These students will only be permitted to access “those parts of the campus related to the work that they need to accomplish.”  While these groups are invited back to campus in September, President Steinmayer has made it clear that no one will be forced to return “or participate in select on-campus activities this fall.” Rather, she leaves this decision up to “students and their families” and advises them to do what is best for their unique situations.

If eligible students choose to return to campus, they will find that Lesley’s fall semester plans have been “built modularly,” which means that each group of students will only be permitted to interact with those in their module. This is designed to protect other groups of students in case of “an outbreak in one module.” If any student “develops symptoms or tests positive [for the coronavirus],” they will be required to self-isolate. Anyone who may have come into contact with that student “will be required to quarantine for two weeks.”

Since “Lesley residence halls will not be open during the fall,” outside accommodations needed to be sought out to provide housing for the handful of students returning to campus. “Local hotels” will be housing those students approved and willing to be on campus in the fall. This will enable Lesley to offer “single rooms and single bathrooms” to students for maximum safety. Beyond social distancing as much as possible, returning students will also be required to participate in “health and safety protocols” designed to “[reduce] the spread of COVID-19.” These include signing an “agreement that sets the rules and protocols for social distancing, face coverings, and hygiene,” undergoing a “testing program…[provided] through the Broad Institute,” and continually self-monitoring “for symptoms [of the coronavirus].” Community members may also be asked to quarantine upon arrival to campus.

Whether you’re at home or on campus this fall, classes will begin on “Tuesday, September 8,” with the semester ending on “Tuesday, December 22.” Midterms and finals “will be taken online,” and all on-campus buildings “will be closed from November 20 through January 1, 2021.”

For those remaining at home, Lesley has promised to provide you with the “hands-on materials and specialized software” needed to complete your coursework remotely. Students in “certain art and design courses” will be given “kits with the materials and supplies needed.” There will also be “curbside pickup of some materials” offered by the Lesley Library, as well as “virtual research assistance.”

President Steinmayer also addressed the financial impact of COVID-19 on Lesley University in her email. While acknowledging the “significant” effect of the pandemic on Lesley’s “operating budget,” which may necessitate a rise in tuition costs, she also announced Lesley’s commitment to “significantly increasing aid to eligible students.” The administration will also “award across the board tuition grants to all full-time traditional undergraduates and Threshold students to offset any increase to tuition for the 2020-21 academic year.” These grants will “appear as a credit for the fall” on student account statements. Fees “associated with a physical presence on campus” will also be either “eliminated or reduced.” This is in recognition of the “economic hardship” that the pandemic has brought to so many students and their families.

President Steinmayer took a moment in her email “to acknowledge the natural disappointment we all feel that this fall’s back-to-school season necessarily will be different from other years.” It’s clear that other Lesley students share her sentiments. Rising junior Liana Freeman said, “I know it’s safer that way, but I’m still devastated to not be on campus.” Other students agreed, stating that the move to online classes makes them feel “unmotivated” or “more concerned” to start the semester, as so much of their learning experience will need to be reconfigured for the foreseeable future.

The underlying force driving all of this unprecedented change, however, is the need for safety. It is crucial for Lesley administration to act in the best interest of students and their families during this time, when ensuring one’s health is everything. Annika Vlock-Drewitz, a Social Work major (who helped with some of the reporting for this article), put it best when she said, “I personally am relieved that we will be mostly online. I think it makes the most sense for keeping us all safe.”

Although the switch to mostly-online learning is one that no one is excited to see, it is the only way to ensure that the coronavirus remains contained and that Lesley community members are as safe as possible. By taking the difficult yet necessary steps to socially distance ourselves as we head into the fall, we are working to “slow the spread” as much as possible, with the hopes that our efforts will see us reunited on campus in the Spring 2021 semester.

If you are a student who anticipates needing technology support to prepare for online learning in the fall, reach out to Dean Mays at nmays@lesley.edu.

In this 2018 photo, students are being welcomed to campus at the beginning of the new semester.

 

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