An Update—August 6, 2020

To the Bowdoin community,

I hope you and your families are safe and well, and that you have been able to take time to rest and recharge. With less than four weeks to go until the start of classes, I would like to update you on our planning and progress for the fall semester.

COVID-19, Right Now


There was hope that summer would bring some relief from the COVID-19 pandemic—that if there was going to be a second wave, it would come later in the fall when people were back indoors. We now know that those predictions were wishful thinking, as infections in the US have surged in recent weeks and now approach 5 million cases with more than 150,000 deaths.

While conditions in Maine have been better than elsewhere in the country, none of this bodes well for the fall. In the past few weeks, we have seen a number of colleges and universities shift from plans of fully opening or opening mostly in person to having no one or very few students on campus, and from hybrid models to everything online. We expect this trend to continue.

There are still many unanswered questions and various predictions about how all of this will play out. We know that face coverings, physical distancing, personal hygiene, and reduced density make a huge difference in reducing transmission of the virus, but it is also clear that human beings have trouble with isolation and that the fatigue—and in some cases, the politics—associated with compliance is contributing to the spike in cases.

Our Fall Plan Is Unchanged, for Now


So far, the plan for Bowdoin that I announced on June 22 remains intact, but I can’t overstate the vigilance required of everyone if we are to meet our dual goals of protecting the health and safety of our campus and local communities while also delivering an excellent education for our students. Everything we’ve put in place is aimed at achieving these priorities.

By having on campus only first-year students, students for whom studying from home is next to impossible, a group of seniors with honors projects, and residential life staff, we decrease the density on campus significantly—a result that is further enhanced with single bedrooms, tents for outdoor classes, and limits on the size of gatherings.

By partnering with the Broad Institute—a leading scientific institution—for one of the most rigorous testing programs in the country, establishing an effective contact-tracing program, coordinating with our local hospital, and providing ample space to isolate those students who test positive and to quarantine others who may have been exposed, we significantly improve our chances to contain the virus and to treat those who become infected.

Our decision to provide all classes online (with the exception of first-year writing seminars) has allowed us to focus all of our resources on an online curriculum that builds significantly on what was learned in the spring, one that is anchored in the informed recommendations of the Continuity in Teaching and Learning Group (CTLG), and supplemented by outside experts. Our decision to provide iPads to all students and to any faculty who want them ensures that an excellent digital experience is fully accessible and that we can deliver on the CTLG’s call for universal design and equity in the learning process.

Overall, we are in good shape heading into mid-August. But I need to be very clear: even with a conservative plan focused first and foremost on health and safety, what we seek to do in the fall is not risk-free. Even if we have full compliance with the protocols, we could well see outbreaks of COVID-19. In fact, we may very well find that students arrive on campus with the virus.

We will do everything we can to minimize and to manage that possibility. Students coming to Brunswick will be required to test for the virus before traveling to campus. Anyone infected will remain at home. Students will be tested again immediately upon their arrival, three times per week for the first two weeks, and then twice a week until they leave campus before Thanksgiving. We will isolate and treat anyone who has a confirmed positive case, and we will quarantine anyone in contact with that person. As I am sure you are well aware, individuals with preexisting health issues who become ill with COVID-19 can be at much greater risk for serious consequences. If you have health issues and are planning to return to campus, please consult with your physician to ensure that they approve of your decision.

My biggest worry is a breakdown in compliance with the key protocols designed to keep everyone as safe as possible, in particular the use of face coverings, physical distancing, personal hygiene, and serious limits on the size of gatherings. This concern extends to our upperclass students living off campus. As we have seen across the country in recent weeks, the virus spreads when these protocols are ignored. Each of us—faculty, staff, and students—needs to take responsibility for all in our community by following the guidelines and protocols. This will give us our best chance of keeping everyone as safe as possible, of successfully completing the fall semester as planned, and of bringing our upperclass students back in the spring.

Things Could Change


So, this is where we are today—affirming our approach but also carefully evaluating it as we learn more about the spread of the virus. What could cause us to decide that we cannot have students on campus, either before the semester begins or once we are underway? There is no single trigger or a clear line. Instead, there are a number of things we will consider. We are closely watching the trends nationally, regionally, and here in Maine. The availability of testing, which is crucial to monitoring compliance and staying a step ahead of any outbreak, is critically important. While our work with the Broad Institute continues to confirm our confidence in their program, an unexpected breakdown in the availability of testing could cause a decision to not have students on campus. There is also the human factor—breakdowns in compliance with our safety practices, testing program, and/or contact tracing. In addition, other criteria will be considered, like the source of any infection (is it isolated on campus or from “community spread”?), the capacity at the time of local and regional health care providers, the stress on campus resources and those in town, and a government request or mandate, among others.

Personal Challenges


To my colleagues on the faculty and staff, I want to thank you for the amazing work you are doing to provide an excellent Bowdoin education to our students on and off campus. I know that so many of you are doing this work while managing significant challenges in your lives—illness, family unemployment, the inability to travel to visit and care for loved ones, as examples. For those with children at home, this is a particularly stressful time as you consider the prospect of school in the fall being fully or partially remote and the implications of this for managing childcare and work. While we don’t have all the answers, we are very much aware of the challenges and will continue to work with you to help where possible.

Student Town Halls and Information


In the weeks leading up to arrival day, we will keep reaching out to students and to faculty and staff to answer your questions and to further explain our plans for the semester. First up is a series of student town halls to be held next week, organized by class year:

Class of 2021 – Mon., Aug. 10, 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. (https://bowdoin.zoom.us/j/93408021080)
Class of 2022 – Tues., Aug. 11, 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. (https://bowdoin.zoom.us/j/97536359089)
Class of 2023 – Wed., Aug. 12, 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. (https://bowdoin.zoom.us/j/96179863510)
Class of 2024 – Thurs., Aug. 13, 7:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.(https://bowdoin.zoom.us/j/92692580266)

Students may submit questions ahead of time at townhallquestions@bowdoin.edu. Please be sure to indicate your class year in the body or subject line of your email. Questions may also be asked during the individual town halls, and participants will have the opportunity to “upvote” questions.

We are also continuing to add to the various sets of responses to frequently asked questions and have created an archive of community messages and of biweekly campus planning updates. I encourage you to look at these for up-to-date information. For our students, if you can’t find answers to your questions, please reach out to academic advising, the dean’s office, counseling, student aid, career exploration and development, or any other office. You can find contact information on the Bowdoin website.

Accomplishments Still Abound


While all of this planning and preparation has been going on, the summer has also seen the usual examples of scholarship and achievement that we’ve come to expect from members of the Bowdoin community. Several members of the faculty—including Natasha Goldman in art history, Page Herrlinger in history, Michèle LaVigne in earth and oceanographic science, and Alison Miller in education—were awarded substantial six-figure grants this summer for their scholarship and research. Students completing funded summer internships are focused on cancer research, obsessive-compulsive disorder in children, journalism, climate change, voting systems, coastal fisheries, education for underprivileged children, financing local agriculture, and helping to build the first autonomous flying car, to name a few. Other students are conducting research on the role of race in health care, controlling disease in aquaculture stocks, Greek and Roman mythology, the contours of aging in Maine, and the racial history of Chicago through the legacy of sport and the lens of family. These are just samples of the research and community fellowships pursued this summer by more than 160 Bowdoin students and a reminder that, through all of the chaos and anxiety of these times, our community continues to advance knowledge and innovation and to live up to the high standards of a Bowdoin liberal arts education. All of us look forward to the day—hopefully soon—when we can return all of our focus to these pursuits.

Thank you for all you are doing individually and as a community to stay safe, to keep others safe, and to help us craft a successful fall semester.

Sincerely,

Clayton