5 things to know about a possible on-campus fall semester at the Claremont Colleges

In an email Monday, Claremont McKenna College Dean of Students Dianna Graves CM ’98 said in-person classes “will almost certainly end by Thanksgiving,” resulting in an extended winter break and no fall break. (Mabel Lui • The Student Life)

With 12 weeks until fall 2020 classes were originally supposed to begin in Claremont, a lot is still up in the air — including the critical yes or no on whether students will be able to return to campus. Here’s what we know so far about the 5Cs’ plans for the fall semester.

Expect decisions to be released in July

5C administrators are actively planning to bring students back to campus in the fall — but it’s not a done deal yet. 

In a virtual town hall with students Thursday, Pomona College Vice President for Academic Affairs Robert Gaines said the decision whether to bring students back will ultimately depend on how the COVID-19 pandemic progresses and guidance from state and local health officials.

“We will expect to make a final decision on that by early July,” he said. “But we’re not there yet. We don’t know what the world looks like. We don’t know what the situation with COVID will look like at that time.”

Harvey Mudd College administrators told staff in a May 30 town hall that they “hope to have a decision from the Board of Trustees in July or early August at the latest,” according to notes from the meeting.

Scripps College President Lara Tiedens told students in a May 15 email that the school would share fall plans “sometime in July,” and that “we are working closely with the other Claremont Colleges to arrive at shared decisions to sustain the consortium experience.”

The Claremont Colleges have established three consortial committees to begin mapping out new campus policies: a coronavirus response group, a housing planning group and a safety planning group.

The safety planning group includes subcommittees on contract tracing, testing, obtaining PPE, isolation protocols, communications, social distancing, rapid response and campus density.

Though some of the colleges have committed to a collective decision on whether to return to campus, it’s unclear what decisions will be made consortially, and which will stay individual. It’s also unclear whether the colleges will make announcements collectively or individually. 

“The colleges share many services across the consortium so it is anticipated that the undergraduate institutions will coordinate their reopening efforts,” Mudd spokesperson Judy Augsburger said in an email last week. 

The semester may end early

Many colleges across the country, citing a potential December surge in COVID-19 cases, have begun considering ways to end in-person instruction by that time, either by shifting courses online late in the semester or finishing early.

And although the colleges agree “it is vital for us to maintain the academic calendar as closely as possible,” Gaines said, some changes are being considered.

In an email Monday, Claremont McKenna College Dean of Students Dianna Graves CM ’98 said in-person classes “will almost certainly end by Thanksgiving,” resulting in an extended winter break. 

This may mean final exams take place the week after Thanksgiving, Graves said, and that “slightly longer class sessions or periodic Saturday classes” could be necessary to make up instructional time. It’s possible classes could begin in August, around the 21st. 

Both an earlier start to the semester, “perhaps a week or 10 days,” or a later start, “perhaps by as much as a couple of weeks,” are possible, Gaines said in the Pomona town hall. An early start could be in-person or online, he said. 

To shorten the semester and limit student travel, which is a potential source of COVID-19 exposure, fall break will likely be canceled, Gaines said. 

Dining halls would become 1C

Dining staples like McConnell Dining Hall’s pasta bar or Malott Dining Commons’ surf and turf will be unavailable to students who don’t attend Pitzer College or Scripps. Cross-campus dining will not be permitted, Graves said — students will be limited to meals at their own colleges. 

And even as students remain at their home campus dining halls, a typical dining hall meal enjoyed with friends may be a thing of the past. 

“We are used to a wonderful, almost restaurant-quality experience in the dining hall,” Pitzer President Melvin Oliver said in a recent video. “Think take-out — that’s a little different.”

Harvey Mudd administrators said in their town hall that dining hall changes may include restrictions on self-serve/buffet-style options and limiting the number of students in a dining hall at one time. 

“We will provide more options to pick up to-go packaged meals and then take them outdoors,” meeting notes said. “We would anticipate more students eating outdoors, because it’s safer.”

Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr said socially distant outdoor seating could enable students to eat together, but that the colleges are still seeking guidance on the subject.

“The problem right now — again, this is coming from the city — is that if you have a mask on, you can’t eat,” she said.

Classes would probably be both in-person and online

Not everyone might be able to attend classes on campus. International travel restrictions, for instance, could keep some students from entering the country. Immunocompromised students or faculty might not want to risk a return to the classroom.

For that reason, the 5Cs would most likely opt for a “hybrid” system even if students are on campus.

“We’re likely to have a mix of in-person and online instruction that will transpire in the fall,” Gaines said. “And that would ideally, not be for any one class. But instead, some classes would meet online, other classes would meet in person, there may be some hybrid scenarios as well.”

Claremont McKenna faculty are redesigning their courses to be taught both in-person and online, with both synchronous and asynchronous elements, Graves said. 

Though administrators have repeatedly insisted tuition will not change for remote instruction, citing the increased spending on technology, Graves said CMC anticipates some sort of  discounted tuition rate for those who continue with online courses.

The colleges have also begun considering ways to make in-person learning safer.

“Our classrooms are going to be configured differently,” Oliver said. 

CMC’s Vice President of Student Affairs Sharon Basso told Fox 11 Los Angeles in May that the school might repurpose auditoriums, gyms and fitness studios for classroom use. Classes could also regularly be held outside.

“Many times already our faculty will have small seminars outside on the lawn, so we may think about adding furniture outside so folks can do some smaller classes with social distancing outside as a possibility,” Basso said.

Graves also told the Los Angeles Times that classes could split into multiple smaller sections, extending in-person teaching hours “into the night.”

Harvey Mudd might split laboratory classes into multiple sections to make social distancing possible, according to notes from the staff town hall.

Restrictions on cross-campus enrollment, a pillar of the consortium experience, may be on the table as well.

“There are campuses who are considering making more restrictive guidelines about taking classes on other campuses,” Starr said. “As a discussion with the deans and the presidents it’s ongoing.”

Harvey Mudd is considering such an option, administrators said at their town hall.

“There has been some discussion of possibly not allowing off-campus students to take classes in person on our campus, but no decision has yet been made,” according to notes on the meeting.

Residential and campus life would look drastically different 

At the 5Cs, residence halls and typical campus life is likely to look entirely different from what students are used to. For starters, students will probably be required to wear masks when outside their residence hall or within six feet of others, Graves told students. 

Residential life poses another challenge at schools where double and triple rooms are typical. Each of the 5Cs — except for Harvey Mudd, which held room draw last month — have paused their fall room draw processes while the colleges make decisions on how to house students safely.

Because of density issues, some conventions are likely off the table. For instance, CMC spokesperson Gilien Silsby told TSL that the school is not planning to house students in triples, and neither is Harvey Mudd. 

Both schools have acquired additional housing to spread students out — and at Claremont McKenna, the off-campus apartments may be used as quarantine sites. 

Claremont McKenna has leased apartments from the Alexan Kendry complex to increase residential capacity, Graves said via email. 

“We have added off-campus apartments to our housing stock to assist with decreasing residential density,” Silsby said in an earlier correspondence. “They are nice, new apartments and we hope they will be a very attractive option for students in our room draw process.”

The college has also secured houses in the Arbol Verde neighborhood for isolation, and is working with nearby hotels to secure spaces in the case a community member were to fall ill, Graves said. 

Pomona Dean of Students Avis Hinkson and Starr warned that parties in the traditional sense were unlikely, and that other campus activities would most likely become more remote.

“We will be encouraging the use of Zoom and breakout rooms and those kinds of things to engage with clubs and small groups,” Hinkson said.

In response to a town hall attendee who asked “Will we be able to hug our friends again?”, Hinkson floated the idea of establishing “households” or “family groups” — small pods of students housed together who would be able to interact more closely than with the rest of the student body.

“We are mindful that being able to hug your friends again is important,” she said. “We’re trying to work that through in a way that will work for all students who are on campus.”

Lauren West contributed reporting.

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This article was last updated Wednesday, June 10 at 1:49 p.m. 

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