A campus ‘bubble’: What you need to know about Pomona’s reopening plans

A sign on a orange and white road block in front of a large grassy lawn.
Pomona College administrators answered questions about a possible on-campus spring 2021 semester at virtual town halls Wednesday. (Regan Rudman • The Student Life)

Pomona College administrators answered questions about a possible on-campus spring 2021 semester at virtual town halls Wednesday — one for students and one for parents and friends of the college. 

The town halls followed a Monday announcement detailing what a return to campus could look like — from only single rooms to three suitcases max. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

Even if students return, classes will be online

In the parents’ town hall, Robert Gaines, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college, said Pomona’s “operating principle” is that it “will not be conducting in-person instruction” until “100 percent of students” can return to campus. 

“Instead, we will continue with remote instruction even if we are able to return a portion of our students to campus,” he told parents.

Most faculty opposed any type of hybrid instruction where some students in the same class would be in person and others online, Gaines said. This structure is the “most asymmetric and uneven,” and it has the poorest learning outcomes for students, Gaines said.

“If we do have students on campus, we would like for them to have some kind of contact with their faculty,” Gaines told parents.

However, in addition to COVID-19 transmission concerns, the college believes that such contact could academically prioritize students on campus, according to Gaines. This would go “against our core principles,” he said. As a result, the college is being “very careful” as it solicits ideas for any faculty-student interaction on campus.

What will a campus ‘bubble’ look like? It’s not clear yet 

If students return to Pomona’s campus, travel to and from campus is unlikely to be allowed, as a sort of “bubble,” officials said. It’s unclear what regulations students will have to follow, but many options — from barring cross-campus travel, to students not being able to leave campus — are being strongly considered. 

The college’s “working hypothesis” is that students “will not be permitted to travel among the campuses,” Gaines said in the parents’ town hall.

Travel off campus is still up in the air. College officials said in an email Monday that students will not be permitted to bring cars to campus, in order to minimize travel. The college is considering if students would be allowed to travel into Claremont’s downtown — but leaving campus for a hike, for example, “seems unlikely,” Hinkson told students. 

“Students will not be allowed to come and go,” she said. “We are looking at creating a bubble.”

As for on-campus life, faculty may teach their virtual classes from academic buildings, but all academic buildings would be closed to students, Gaines told students. Study spaces would be available, but they would likely be outside.

Because Pomona will not offer any in-person classes, Gaines told parents that the college is “really trying hard to figure out what kind of other experiences that students might be able to have face-to-face on campus.” 

Starr said, “there are all kinds of possibilities to think about bringing groups of students together,” proposing movie nights on Marston Quad as one potential example.

Students would only be housed in singles, with a maximum of four people per bathroom. Some suites and other configurations would be used but students would not have access to residence halls besides their own, Hinkson said.

 “We are wanting to create an environment that is comfortable, but, at the same time, we want to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to be safe,” Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr told students. 

Testing twice a week, mandatory agreements and isolation housing

Pomona plans to test students twice per week, and the other colleges are expected to be on “the same schedule of testing,” Hinkson told parents. The consortium is working on a plan to return test results in six to seven hours. 

Those who test positive will be moved into isolation under the supervision of Student Health Services, and food will be brought to them, according to Hinkson. The college is still considering what services would be available for students in isolation, she said.  

Infected students in need of care that would be “beyond the service level of our student health center” would be transferred to area hospitals, Hinkson said.

Students who have been exposed to the coronavirus would enter quarantine and be subjected to regular testing, Hinkson told parents. 

Starr told students they would need to sign a “community agreement” that addresses any new policies in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“If you are invited back and you choose to come back, you are agreeing to a particular set of policies that indeed will be different from traditional campus life,” Starr said.

The college plans to bring some students to campus, pending LA County approval

At the student town hall, Starr said plans are currently in place to bring a portion of students back to campus this spring in a “phased manner.” Administrators did not specify how many students could come back, or which students would be allowed to return.

“It would be great to have everyone here, starting on Jan. 25,” Starr told students. “That is not feasible from what we’ve seen and what we’ve been advised.” 

The number of students allowed back is contingent on awaited Los Angeles County Department of Public Health guidelines, though the population “won’t be anywhere near” the college’s typical capacity, Hinkson told students. 

“We don’t have that number yet. We assume it’ll be less than half, but we don’t know,” she said.

The college is currently accepting student feedback via survey about which groups of students should be prioritized if campus is opened next semester, such as international students, students in need of secure housing or first-year and senior classes.

“Certainly, we want to acknowledge that there are students who have hardships that might be impacting their housing, their food security, their internet access, their safety, whatever the case may be — we know that there’s a group of hardship,” Starr said to students. 

“We are really committed to safety,” Starr told parents. “And we’re equally committed to reopening.”

Automatic door openers, soap dispensers and MERV air filters: Facilities upgraded 

Pomona has upgraded facilities to keep faculty and staff to keep socially distant and minimize the spread of the virus, according to presentation slides shown at both town halls.

Air conditioning was optimized “to ensure maximum infusion of outside air on applicable buildings.” The college installed 325 soap dispensers, 275 touchless door opening devices, 175 hand sanitizing stations and 15 automatic door openers in classroom buildings across campus.

Currently, the college is halfway through replacing MERV 8 air filters with higher-duty MERV 11 filters throughout all campus buildings. The college has installed plexiglass barriers in all front-facing college departments and developed “directional signage” plans in all academic buildings to control foot traffic. 

Reusable face masks have been provided to faculty and staff, and housekeeping staff have been given specialized training and supplies.

Why is Pomona trying to bring students back to campus despite the restrictions? 

Bringing students back would not be financially motivated, Starr said. It would be for four reasons: for the sake of students struggling with timezones, housing and food insecure students, to provide dedicated study spaces and to minimize educational gaps. 

Even with some students paying room and board fees, Starr said “it will actually cost us more to … bring a subset of students back to campus than to continue in this online environment.”

Starr said that having dedicated study spaces is “pedagogically important” and that being on campus can provide students with a space to academically succeed despite any pandemic-related restrictions. 

“I know a lot of you are thinking about taking breaks in your education,” Starr told students. “And that’s understandable, because this is a hard way to go through college — it’s a hard way to go through life. But a lot of evidence shows that when students take breaks in the midst of their study, it can be really very hard to come back. There’s a lot of learning loss that happens.”

“We certainly want to do whatever we can to encourage students to enroll for all of the reasons that President Starr just laid out in terms of the continuity of one’s educational plan,” Hinkson said. “We encourage you to stay enrolled and stick with it.”

For Pomona, Pitzer, Scripps and CMC, final decisions will come in December

Pomona, Pitzer College and Scripps College said they would release spring decisions in mid-December. Harvey Mudd College plans to release its final decision regarding spring semester by Jan. 11, and Claremont McKenna College said it would release a plan on Dec. 9.

“We want to minimize that learning loss and support as many students as we can,” Starr said. “And knowing that we cannot bring everyone back all at once, we feel the only responsible position is to bring people back in a programmatic and deliberate way so that at some point, we all will be back. That’s the goal.”

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