Dec. 7: Winter 2021 announcement

Dear Members of the Bates Community,

I write to share important news about a shift in our calendar for the winter semester in response to developments in the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the new plan, Bates will extend the winter break by approximately one month and invite students to return to campus on Friday, Feb. 12, in time to complete two COVID-19 tests and receive results before the beginning of classes on Wednesday, Feb. 17. 

The revised calendar will mean that the winter semester will extend through Tuesday, May 25, with no Short Term. Commencement will be scheduled for Sunday, May 30, rather than Sunday, May 23, as currently planned. It is likely that the pandemic will influence the shape Commencement will take for the Class of 2021, and we will provide further information to students and families as we learn more about the status of the pandemic over the next few months.

The Rationale for a February Return to Campus

Since March, we have consulted extensively with medical and public health experts who have been offering guidance to us on managing the college during the pandemic. These include our clinical partners at Central Maine Medical Center, national experts in infectious disease at the Mayo Clinic and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The Public Health Imperative

All of these sources paint the same picture. Trends in infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths have worsened steadily over the past six weeks, nationally and in Maine, and they are likely to intensify over the holiday season as people travel and families gather indoors. Maine, which had a very low COVID-19 positivity rate over most of the fall, has seen its cases climb sharply since early November. The seven-day moving average for new cases in Maine has more than doubled over the past month, and the rolling average for new hospitalizations hit an all-time high just before the Thanksgiving holiday. These trends were also reflected in our own experience of increases in positive COVID-19 cases over the month of November before students left for break. 

Our Chosen Course of Action in Response

Protecting the health and safety of our community has been, and remains, our number one priority. Based on the course of the pandemic nationally and in Maine, and consultation with experts, we have concluded that it is not prudent to bring students back to campus, as planned, in early January. Our students would be traveling at or near the height of the current surge in cases, potentially creating health risks for these students and significant challenges for the college and student well-being once they arrive on campus.

Given the rate of community spread in many areas of the country, we could anticipate having a number of positive COVID-19 cases during arrival testing in January. If that were to occur, our isolation and quarantine resources might well be taxed to capacity, forcing us into fully remote instruction for at least some weeks and undermining the logic of an in-person return to campus. 

By contrast, we are advised that the outlook with respect to COVID-19 transmission is expected to be meaningfully better by early to mid-February, with an improving trajectory as we head into the warmer months of spring. Delaying the return of students to campus until February moves us farther away from the height of the second wave of COVID-19 infections and from the worst period of the annual cold and influenza seasons. This revised schedule will also remove from our academic calendar one of the coldest and darkest months of the year, addressing a primary student concern about the quality of life on campus during winter in the pandemic.

Eliminating Short Term vs. Conducting Module C Remotely

The shift in the semester calendar will mean that Bates will not be able to offer Short Term. The only way to preserve Short Term would have been to begin Module C, as scheduled, on Jan. 13, and conduct the module remotely. However, we know from our experience over the past nine months that students and faculty overwhelmingly value the on-campus, in-person experience, and remote learning presents significant challenges for a number of students. 

Even with all of the public health challenges, personal challenges, and unknowns of the fall term, over 90% of students chose to return to campus for the fall semester, and three quarters of our faculty chose to teach their classes totally or partially in person, with similar percentages scheduled to do so in the winter semester.

With these considerations in mind, we have decided to use the four weeks that would normally be devoted to Short Term to create a longer winter break that gets us beyond the worst of the current COVID-19 spike, rather than to default to a solution that would require seven weeks of remote learning. In short, our chosen approach optimizes  the chances of our being able to offer the entire second semester as an in-person living and learning experience. 

The loss of Short Term for a second straight year is a disappointment for the college and for many of our students. I hope, however, that the prospect of having the entire student body together and in residence through May will offer substantial offsetting benefits. 

There are a small number of students who, because of this change, will be unable to fulfill the requirement to complete two Short Terms before graduation. Given the extraordinary circumstances of these past two academic years, the Academic Standing Committee of the College will waive this graduation requirement, and the college will provide a refund to those students denied the opportunity for a second Short Term. In departments where Short Term is used to fulfill major requirements, adjustments will be made to accommodate this new reality and ensure that students are not penalized for the loss of a Short Term course this spring. 

Information and Assistance for Students and Families

I realize that these changes directly impact the plans and expectations of students and families, and I sincerely apologize for any inconvenience or disappointment they may cause. 

This week we will be sending emails with more information tailored to the circumstances of specific groups of students (international students, students eligible for a Short Term refund, students with high financial need, student-athletes, etc.). In addition, we will host two virtual information sessions on Monday, Dec. 14, one for all students at 12:30 p.m. EST and one for all parents and families at 8 p.m. EST. Details about these sessions will be forthcoming.

Please know that we stand ready to work with you as we all adjust to the new plans. 

A Closing Note

I am profoundly grateful for the flexibility and understanding shown by Bates families in  putting their trust in us to keep their students safe, while also providing them with the ability to maintain forward momentum in their college education. I deeply appreciate the level, pace, and effectiveness of the work and planning sustained by our faculty and staff over a very intense past nine months. And I am so impressed with the hard work and positive spirit of our students who have adapted every aspect of their lives on campus to keep themselves and others safe. All of these efforts have made it possible for us to complete a remarkably successful first semester under pandemic conditions. 

I regret that we find ourselves, once again, with a need to appeal to everyone’s flexibility and good will to adapt to a new set of challenges presented by COVID-19. With the recent good news about vaccines and the prospect of a coordinated national strategy for pandemic response, however, I very much hope that the worst will soon be behind us. When we reconvene in February, the winter and spring will be a journey toward warmth and light, and hopefully a much brighter outlook for the coming summer and next fall.

In the meantime, I wish you and your loved ones health, safety, hope, and joy for the holiday season.

Sincerely,
Clayton