It would be less than accurate to proclaim that Vassar had returned to normal (whatever that word means during a pandemic) as classes resumed for the Fall Semester. The campus was dotted with signs reminding those who had returned to keep their distance, and more than 20 tents had been pitched throughout the campus to serve as temporary outdoor classrooms. And everywhere, people were wearing masks. But as students, faculty, and staff embarked on this new “normal,” there were plenty of indications that Vassar was up to the challenge.
More than 2,120 students had returned to campus as classes began August 31, while 334 chose to continue with the remote learning model they had started midway through the Spring Semester. About 40 percent of the faculty opted to teach remotely, but many had worked for much of the summer on ways to engage their students in classrooms, science labs, and other venues.
Intercollegiate athletics were cancelled for the fall season, but teams were engaging in small group workouts focusing on skills instruction and strength training and conditioning. Certain teams in non-contact sports are conducting practice sessions with 10 or fewer athletes at a time.
Fewer than 1 percent of those who returned to campus tested positive for COVID-19 when they arrived, and the College had plans in place to isolate and care for them while protecting other students, faculty, and staff. Students were required to sign a pledge promising to remain on campus throughout the semester and to adhere to the College’s Community Care guidelines. The College is providing daily updates on testing and confirmed cases on campus on the VassarTogether Dashboard.
All reports indicated that those who did return to campus were mostly adhering to those health and safety guidelines and protocols established by VassarTogether, a task force of administrators, faculty, students, and staff. Reminders were delivered with good humor. All around campus were signs promoting safe behavior. “Are you practicing #Safesix?” (meaning keeping six feet of distance from others), one read.
President Elizabeth Bradley, who has remained on campus since the outbreak of the pandemic except for a brief vacation, recorded a video to promote the “We Precedes Me” approach to community care that was shared on Vassar channels as students returned. She said she was gratified by Vassar’s response to the crisis. “I’m delighted—but not surprised—by how everyone in the Vassar community has responded to the challenges of starting the Fall Semester here on campus,” Bradley said. “It is what we at Vassar do when we face adversity—work hard to adapt so we can address the challenges. I am especially grateful to the members of VassarTogether and the Community Care Team for developing and implementing the protocols and community expectations to keep us healthy and safe.”
Dean of the Faculty William Hoynes, who cochairs VassarTogether with Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana, said all reports he was receiving had caused him to be optimistic about Vassar’s chances of successfully combating the effects of the pandemic. “All indications are that the students are taking our guidelines very seriously, fully supporting our plans as they return to campus,” Hoynes said.
In his role as Dean of the Faculty, Hoynes said he had been working closely with many of his colleagues in developing the best ways to teach, given the challenges presented by the pandemic. “The faculty has been very creative in responding to some of the limitations we are facing,” he said.
Professor of Biology and Associate Dean of the Faculty Kathleen M. Susman said her colleagues on the science faculty had been especially creative in how they planned to engage their students in labs in the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences and Olmsted Hall. “In many cases it is easy to return to in-person labs because they are adaptable for social distancing, and the air-flow systems in the Bridge and Olmsted make them two of the safest buildings on campus,” Susman said.
She added that the science faculty members had devised ways to include students who are taking classes remotely so that they can observe the lab activity and take part in many of the experiments. For example, students working remotely who are taking the Introduction to Physics course will be able to perform many of the experiments in their homes, she said.
While all intercollegiate athletic contests were cancelled for the fall, Vassar coaches and trainers devised ways to keep the teams together. Early in the fall, workouts were limited to small groups, but Director of Athletics and Physical Education Michelle M. Walsh said she and her staff were hopeful that coaches could expand their practice activities later in the semester. “Like the rest of the College community, our ability to expand activities will depend on how things evolve and the overall health and well being of those of us who are on campus,” Walsh said. She added that the Department of Athletics had adapted some of its programs and seminars to online programming.
Student-athlete Emma Tanner ’22, a member of the women’s soccer team, said her spirits were lifted just by being able to reunite with her teammates as she returned to campus. “The cancellation of our competitive season was a tough pill to swallow at first, but ultimately it was the right decision for the safety of our team and the greater Vassar community,” Tanner said. “We are all trying our best to maintain some sense of normalcy and create team camaraderie from a distance.”