Response to Petition on Fall 2020 Plans
Dear Members of the Bates Community:
Last week, senior staff colleagues and I received a petition raising various questions with respect to our plans for the fall semester. The petition offers a set of considered viewpoints on many of the issues we are dealing with at Bates on a daily basis in the context of the current pandemic. I appreciate the level of engagement reflected in the petition, and I welcome the fact that our plans for the fall are receiving close scrutiny from across the Bates community.
Decisions in a context as challenging and fast-moving as the coronavirus pandemic represent layer upon layer of judgment calls on which reasonable people will inevitably differ. Indeed, we have heard from many faculty, staff, students, and families expressing their support of the college’s plans. Any given course of action represents a balancing of risks and trade-offs and embodies, under the current circumstances, a great deal of uncertainty. Rather than respond point by point to the issues raised in the petition, therefore, the most constructive contribution I feel I can make at this point is to lay out, for the consideration of the entire Bates community, the key factors that have informed our decision making.
The Current Context
Because it may take many months or longer for an effective vaccine against COVID-19 to be developed and available at scale, we have challenged ourselves since last spring to figure out whether and how we can safely operate the Bates campus given the ongoing reality of a pandemic and the particular challenges posed by a residential community. Health, safety, and mitigating disease transmission have been paramount in our decision making, beginning with the difficult choice to transition to remote learning last spring.
Since our students’ abrupt departure from campus in March, faculty and staff across the college have joined together and worked countless hours to develop a comprehensive set of plans designed to make it safe for our campus and local communities to have our students continue their education in person. All of these plans have been developed in close consultation with infectious disease and public health experts, who have worked with us to re-engineer every aspect of campus life, including spaces, operations, and cleaning techniques, and to adopt public health practices for students, faculty, and staff aimed at mitigating the transmission of COVID-19.
Because of the extensive changes to the student experience, we have made clear to students that they are free to make a choice to return in person, to take their classes remotely, to take a leave of absence in the case of sophomores, juniors, and seniors, or in the case of first-year students, to take a gap semester or year before beginning their study at Bates.
Decision Making, Consultation, and Communication
Beginning in April, we created two working groups, composed of faculty and staff, focused on fall planning and college finances, respectively. These teams dedicated their spring and summer to analysis and problem solving so that the college could make decisions about fall planning in a timely manner, with input from faculty, staff, and students. From the outset, the two teams have actively sought input and considered feedback, ideas, and opinions from the full Bates community.
In addition to receiving comments via the web, the college has hosted fifteen major town halls, open forum meetings, and information sessions to engage with and hear from students, faculty, staff, alumni, and families, in addition to dozens of smaller meetings focused on specific topics. A web-based information hub was launched in March and continues to be updated on a daily basis with the latest information for our full community. In addition, leaders from the Bates College Student Government have met regularly with the fall planning team, providing students with a direct representative voice in planning efforts.
The work of the fall planning team resulted in a recommendation to, and a vote by, the faculty to adopt a modular semester approach to course delivery for this academic year. The team also considered a range of operational changes—including teaching modalities, classroom scheduling, dining, athletics and recreation, extracurricular programs, and cleaning regimens—that have been implemented and shared as part of overall fall planning.
The finance team has spent its time being educated on the college’s economic model. It has also reviewed sources for covering costs and potential revenue declines, and principles for evaluating the appropriateness of different actions, depending on how the financial implications of the pandemic continue to unfold. Initial cost-saving measures were decided on prior to the formation of the financial planning team and announced on April 27, 2020. Further sources of financial relief, including all of those cited in the petition—government support, use of reserves, adjusting the endowment pay-out, fundraising for COVID-19-related expenses, borrowing, salary reductions, and labor savings—have been considered by the finance team on a contingency basis as we wait to see how this academic year progresses from a financial point of view. Meanwhile, we have continued to work with national higher education associations and Maine’s congressional delegation to secure funding for higher education through the COVID-19 relief packages, and we are currently in the process of undertaking additional borrowing to protect liquidity, should that be necessary.
Updates on Factual Matters
Many of the issues raised in the petition have been addressed substantively in town halls, open forum meetings, and information sessions over the past several months, and detailed information is readily available on the Bates website. I encourage anyone interested in understanding our plans more fully to consult the following sites: students and families, faculty, and all Bates employees. Additionally, several points deserve special emphasis.
Testing is fundamental to our ability to keep our campus and community safe. For this reason, we have contracted with the Broad Institute—a biomedical and genomic research center run by Harvard and MIT and located in Cambridge—to provide testing for our entire population of students upon arrival on campus and twice per week throughout the fall semester. We will also make testing available to all Bates employees at the college’s expense.
The Broad Institute tests have strong accuracy ratings (sensitivity and specificity) that are enhanced by the high frequency of the testing we will offer. The Broad relies on a different supply chain for its tests and a different processing platform from the commercial labs that are currently experiencing shortages in testing and delays in providing results. The Broad has also focused its testing on New England-based colleges and universities, including Harvard, MIT, and most NESCAC institutions, to ensure the efficient delivery of samples for analysis and prompt turnaround on results.
Testing at this scale is a new venture for Bates and a new venture for the Broad Institute. As such, there will inevitably be issues that need to be worked out on both ends as the program gets underway. With these considerations in mind, we have done thorough due diligence on the Broad Institute and its capacity to process tests at scale, and we are confident that we have identified the best available partner to assist us in this crucial aspect of monitoring and mitigating disease transmission on campus.
Public health experts have advised us that we should expect to have some positive test results both within employee baseline testing and when students arrive, and we have made appropriate arrangements for isolation, contact tracing, and quarantine to manage these cases. Our clinical advisers have also emphasized that the frequency of testing among our student and employee populations will allow us to identify concerning trends early and react promptly to mitigate risk to the campus and community.
Finally, the suggestion has been made that we extend our testing program to the Lewiston/Auburn community. This is beyond the college’s capacity and not a sound approach. Our program focuses on using testing for a defined population of largely asymptomatic individuals who live and/or work together so that the college can address any cases that may emerge on campus and monitor trends in the rate of transmission. COVID-19 testing for the public, by contrast, is typically symptom-based or based on being a close contact of someone who tests positive. The two testing strategies cannot be mixed without eliminating the logic and integrity of the population-based approach. Furthermore, we will be at capacity in order to staff and operate a testing center for all of our students and employees.
Bates offers generous healthcare benefits to all faculty who teach at least 2.5 courses in an academic year and to all staff who work half-time or above. All employees will have access to COVID-19 testing through the college testing center at the college’s expense. Additionally, Bates health plans waive member cost-sharing for FDA-authorized COVID-19 tests and healthcare provider visits including telemedicine visits, urgent care visits, and emergency visits that result in an order for or administration of the test. Treatment of COVID-19-related illnesses are covered in accordance with the health plans employees have selected. Detailed information about health coverage can be found here, and any employee who has concerns about their individual healthcare coverage should reach out to Ken Emerson, Director of Compensation and Benefits.
Working on Campus
The emergence of COVID-19 in Maine has exerted considerable pressure on all employers, resulting in thousands of job losses across the state. From the very earliest days of this crisis, Bates has taken every possible step to ensure the health and safety of our employees while also preserving jobs on our campus in the face of daunting financial circumstances. To date, we have not implemented furloughs or layoffs, and we very much hope to be able to continue on this path.
The current petition resurfaces the issue of our single fee charges for this year that we have already addressed in response to a student petition in July. We understand that the pandemic has placed financial strains on many families. As with prior years, Bates will meet the full calculated need of every student receiving financial aid, and students and families who have questions concerning financial aid or payment options are encouraged to be in touch with the Office of Student Financial Services for further guidance. We respect each student’s personal assessment of the cost, experience, and education in determining whether they will return to campus, study remotely, or take a leave of absence or gap year.
The Weeks Ahead
Consistent with our practices since the early days of the pandemic, Bates will make decisions based on sound public health and clinical advice and careful consideration of emerging data regarding COVID-19 and the state of the pandemic.
At this point, cases of COVID-19, the overall positivity rate, and COVID-19-related deaths in Maine remain low, and hospitals retain more than adequate capacity to manage the disease at current levels. We are carefully monitoring local conditions, as well as developments with the pandemic nationally and globally, and we stay in close communication with Central Maine Medical Center and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Although we will be welcoming students from across the country, including areas with considerably more COVID-19 spread, we will test all students immediately upon arrival and require that they quarantine until they receive results, so that we can isolate any positive cases and have a baseline picture to measure against moving forward.
Nationally, our country’s success against this pandemic will depend on consistent adherence to public health practices—starting with adequate testing and contact tracing, and maintaining consistent adherence to basic public health practices, including distancing, face coverings, and good hand hygiene. At Bates, our success in sustaining an on-campus experience is no different, and will depend on each and every member of our community doing their part. We have focused our planning efforts on what we can control on our campus, but we also are subject to factors over which we may have little control. We are prepared at any time to respond to new information and developments, to adapt our practices, and to change course if necessary.
I want to thank Bates faculty and staff for your extraordinary efforts over a period of months to adapt every aspect of your work to the new reality in which we find ourselves. I also want to thank students, families, and alumni for their patience, support, and flexibility as we work through the decision making necessary for our students’ safe return to campus and to support our students who elect to study remotely.
Operating a residential campus safely during a pandemic is a daunting proposition, and we all feel a deep sense of responsibility for the decisions and risks involved. We will inevitably face unexpected challenges, but our testing program is set up to give us the early warning signals to keep our campus and community safe. As a community, we have come together to anticipate the range of scenarios that we may face, up to and including a return to remote learning. We very much hope that the re-engineered fall semester will proceed successfully. At the same time, we acknowledge that we may need to change course at any point in the constantly evolving landscape of COVID-19.
We look forward to greeting our new students and welcoming our upperclass students back at the end of this month, when we will begin a very different kind of year together.
All my best,