March 17, 2020 — COVID-19 Update 3/17/20

To students, faculty, and staff,

This is the second of what will be twice-a-week messages from me, as we navigate this uncertain and rapidly changing terrain together.

Our country and the world are experiencing something we haven’t seen before. It can be scary and confusing for all of us, but as I’ve witnessed on campus and within the larger Bowdoin community these past several days, we are more than up to the challenge. I’m so grateful to all of you for taking this crisis seriously, heeding the warnings, and helping one another.

Let me start by saying again why we have asked students to return home and why we are moving to a remote learning model. Simply put, we are trying to protect those in our community, especially those at risk, while also allowing our students to complete their semester. There is a public health emergency in our country and around the world, as we face a highly contagious virus that has potentially serious consequences for at-risk individuals, and where people may be infected yet asymptomatic. The necessity of “social distancing” to avoid infection is not possible when we are all on campus, and we do not have the capacity to handle more than a few people who become ill and/or who need to be isolated (nor do the local medical providers). And, as many of you know from the news, this situation has only gotten worse since the president declared a “national emergency” just a few days ago, with restaurants, bars, and businesses shutting down and whole cities in lockdown.

The student affairs team has been truly remarkable and steadfast in helping students collect and pack their belongings and in getting them on their way to a safe place ahead of tomorrow’s deadline. They are accomplishing this with long hours and with a whole lot of help from other staff and from faculty who are pitching in with calm and a keen sense of purpose. Most students have now left campus, with nearly all of the rest heading out today. Only a small number of students—somewhere around sixty—will remain on campus.

The faculty and their partners on the staff are focused on the remote learning that will begin next Wednesday, March 25. I have no doubt that we will provide a very good remote learning experience, but developing such a program for each course, standing it up, and getting into a rhythm won’t be easy. This is unfamiliar, to say the least, at a college that prides itself on close, personal interaction among faculty, students, and staff. There’s definitely going to be a learning curve. Sometimes, the technology may not work the way it should, and sometimes our expectations will get ahead of the reality. But with patience and understanding we will make this work, for as long as we need it to work. And we can take some comfort in the knowledge that faculty and students across the country are working through the same challenges. I couldn’t be more grateful for the work that our faculty and staff are doing to retool courses in such a dramatic way so quickly to allow our students to successfully complete the semester—thank you!

I know there are still a lot of questions, some we haven’t thought of or can’t answer quite yet. But we’ll keep tackling those questions and posting our thoughts and advice online in the various FAQ pages on the Bowdoin website. A new FAQ for faculty was posted Saturday, and we will keep expanding it in the days ahead. I will also be hosting three more virtual “town hall” meetings with colleagues on Thursday. Look for an announcement today with the schedule, login instructions, and how you can submit questions, either before or during each of the sessions.

As if things weren’t complicated enough, many of you were presented with an entirely new set of challenges when school and daycare closings were announced over the weekend. We had already been moving to have a number of employees work from home, and we are asking supervisors to be mindful of the challenges of doing so with young children simultaneously needing care and attention. Remote work, especially with children at home, will also present a learning curve and its own set of challenges, but again, with a little bit of patience and understanding, we will make it work.

Of course, not everyone can work from home. There are essential services and operations that can only be accomplished on site and, as Matt Orlando wrote on Sunday, we will work to adapt schedules and allow these essential workers with children at home to take extra time off without their having to dip into vacation or sick days. Let me also repeat what was in an earlier message and is in our FAQs: any hourly colleagues who cannot work their regular hours because of this crisis will be paid their normal wages for their normal hours. We are also striving to help our casual employees—who are so important to everything we do at the College and who will likely lose hours with the cancellation of campus programs and events—first by seeking to find work for them in other areas of the College.

In deciding to move students off campus and to go to a remote learning model, I was very mindful of the economic implications, not only for the College but also for local businesses, especially hotels and restaurants that depend on all of us and our visitors. I was in touch over the weekend with our two US senators and asked them to do what they can to ensure that any federal stimulus bill includes cash to shore up these businesses during this crisis. I am hopeful that this will happen.

I know it’s not lost on anyone that the markets have declined sharply and the economy is slowing substantially as a result of this crisis. This will have an impact on us, in terms of the distribution from the endowment and on the campaign. It is too early to know the extent of the impact, and we will continue to focus on finishing the jobs of getting our students to a safe place off campus and of standing up our remote teaching model before turning to the budget. The Schiller Coastal Studies Center and Harpswell Apartment projects will continue to completion, with both expected to open in August, but I have delayed the start of the Mills Hall and Center for Arctic Studies projects for the time being (they were to begin this Thursday). We have every intention of building these facilities, but it just isn’t prudent to begin the projects now, given the current crisis and economic uncertainty. Once we emerge from all of this, we will look at a new timeline for construction.

Through all of the concern and uncertainty, the Bowdoin community has pulled together, as it always does. We’ve received a substantial number of gifts from alumni in just the last few days to support the unanticipated costs associated with all of this, and a number of families have told us to keep their students’ room and board refunds and to use them for this same purpose. This generosity and thoughtfulness speaks volumes about the confidence and pride that they have in everything that you do.

While no one knows for sure, unfortunately the next few weeks are likely to bring more difficult news and tougher challenges. We are as well prepared as possible for this because of the amazing work of so many here, and we will continue to prepare during this very fluid situation. Thank you for continuing to support one another, for keeping one another safe, and for everything you are doing for the Bowdoin community.