EDITORIAL BOARD: Reopening is hard, but students deserve better

After 14 months, mountains of public health guidance and a whole lot of announcing and backtracking, it seems that the 5Cs will return in full to Claremont for the fall 2021 semester.

Students are excited to return, as they should be. Living on campus, surrounded by classmates and friends, is a quintessential part of attending the Claremont Colleges.

But as housing and other campus plans begin to take shape, some students are realizing that they may be in for a different experience than they expected. In many cases, it’s not even clear yet what that something different will be.

The reopening process has presented 5C administrators with unimaginable hurdles, from evolving coronavirus conditions in Los Angeles County to erratic enrollment and admissions numbers. The Editorial Board recognizes that in many cases, the colleges are doing the best they can to meet the circumstances head-on, working in tandem with county officials, proactively setting aside residential spaces for the classes of 2024 and 2025 and securing housing in nearby apartment complexes to get as many people housed as possible.

That said, it’s quickly becoming apparent that the 5Cs continue to follow the playbook they established when students were booted off campus last March — one they’ve fallen back on consistently since classes went remote. The colleges have quietly pressured faculty to shoot down students’ advocacy, obfuscated plans and dropped deadlines on students with mere days of notice — not to mention leaving staff in the lurch and axing programs at the last minute.

Administrators seem to view general uncertainty as an excuse for abrupt announcements and opaque explanations that often leave the community astonished. And when these decisions drop with no notice or input from students, families or sometimes faculty, the result can be a collision course.

The latest case study: Like many colleges around the country, the 5Cs are facing a housing shortage as students who took time off return, joined by remaining members of the class of 2021 and incoming first-years who deferred their entries, creating what are likely to be some of the largest student bodies in recent memory. Bear in mind that administrators have long had in hand numbers on class sizes and estimates on new enrollment — and thus a decent idea of what capacity the campuses would have to house certain students and not others.

So why are students only now finding out that they may be pushed to off-campus accommodations in emails from administrators, if not when they go to sign up for rooms and find no options available? Why couldn’t they have been given an idea of what to expect, say, weeks ago when they committed to live in college-sponsored housing, with administrators emphasizing the importance of rebuilding community all the while?

Let’s be clear: A room is a room is a room, and while this particular snag may inconvenience or disappoint students, living a couple of minutes from where one intended isn’t the end of the world — although we do hope Scripps College students’ concerns about the Claremont Collegiate Apartments are addressed and that those who need accommodations are fully heard. This episode, though, sends a signal that warrants consideration.

It would be one thing if this were an isolated incident. However, we know that administrators will have to make many decisions as August approaches, and somehow, as the “actual” return to campus looms, we’ve heard less about the 5Cs’ plans lately than we did last summer and winter.

And speaking of 2020, have we learned any lessons from the colleges’ insistence that they would coordinate on returning to campus, only to continually move the goalposts and leave families with scattered and inconsistent decisions and policies? Or administrators’ adherence to outdated schedules and grading policies that hurt students’ well-being? Could we take a minute to reflect on the parallels between these episodes and the reasons students could be forgiven for questioning whether their best interests are always front and center?

Here’s what we believe may help going forward: As a rule, once you know how conditions and limitations are evolving, get the community in the loop sooner rather than later; shape decisions around the people they will affect rather than backpedaling once the consequences of those decisions become apparent; make timelines and full context for policies readily available instead of relegating that information to gossip or forcing people to scrounge for it.

We’re all doing our best to emerge from this crisis, and we appreciate the immense challenge that reopening poses. But there is so much left to figure out, like class procedures, interaction between schools, guidelines on social distancing and masking and plans for employment and student support. All the Editorial Board is asking is that as we work on new ways to learn and live together, we focus on doing it right, with transparency, integrity and compassion.

TSL’s editorial board is comprised of its editor-in-chief and two managing editors and does not necessarily represent the views of other TSL staff members.

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