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To: The Wellesley Community
From: President Paula A. Johnson
Re: Fall Planning Update
Date: May 4, 2020

As we near the end of classes, I know you are all wondering what the fall semester will look like at Wellesley. While many uncertainties remain, I want to take this opportunity to update the community on how we are planning for the fall, and outline our process and timeline for making decisions.

As a physician who spent most of my working life before Wellesley in medicine and public health, I can tell you that how we move forward in the fall depends on a number of factors, many of which are beyond our control. We will make decisions using the best data and thinking available. I am in frequent communication with leading public health officials and medical researchers, and I am also part of a group of Massachusetts college and university presidents working with the task force that Gov. Charlie Baker has charged with developing statewide guidance for colleges and universities. This collaboration will be extremely helpful as we focus on the array of COVID-related issues and what they will mean for Wellesley.

While this situation continues to unfold, here is what I know:

Our top priority is to protect the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff. Every decision we make will be guided by that.

We are dedicated to providing an outstanding liberal arts education within a residential setting. The opportunity for our students to learn from one another and from our stellar faculty and staff, and engage in spirited discussion in classrooms, residence halls, and everywhere in between, is integral to the life-transforming experience that has defined our College for 145 years. We are committed to finding ways to continue delivering that experience while keeping our students, faculty, and staff safe.

In order to maintain the excellence of our academic and residential programs in a period of unpredictable public health challenges, we will need to think differently about our academic calendar in the year ahead. Instead of two long semesters with a fixed Wintersession, we are giving serious consideration to a schedule of shorter, seven-week terms, during which faculty members would teach one course and students would take two courses. Our priority is to start the academic year in the fall and to conclude it by the summer of 2021, but we will benefit from operating with more flexibility than usual within that window. Such a major adjustment to our academic program will only be possible with the active engagement of our faculty, academic departments, and programs. We believe that a schedule of shorter terms has the potential to introduce greater flexibility into an academic year in which public health considerations may require us to pivot quickly.

We will announce our plan for the fall no later than July 1. This will allow us to see how the COVID-19 pandemic evolves and to make educated decisions, based on the best data available, while we consult with academic departments and programs about any changes to next year’s schedule and curriculum. We will use the next two months to thoroughly map out various scenarios and plan for the different exigencies they present, understanding that our plans may have to change as the situation demands. We know that in order to bring students back to campus, at a minimum we will need to have the ability to conduct both extensive testing for COVID-19 and effective contact tracing for any exposures to the virus that may occur within our community, as well as a plan for caring for any student who may become exposed to or who tests positive for the virus.

Although we will announce a plan by July 1, we may have to make adjustments, depending upon how the pandemic unfolds.

To inform our decision-making about the 2020–21 academic year, Provost Shennan and I have convened a group that is already deeply engaged in fall academic planning, and we are in the process of convening an additional group to focus on operations planning that will begin its work this week.

Fall academic planning group. We have convened a small group of faculty and administrators to brainstorm about options that will provide the greatest amount of flexibility in the fall, given the continuously evolving nature of the pandemic. This group has been hard at work for the past three weeks, and they have developed the concept of shorter terms and options for flexible start and end dates should the pandemic continue to disrupt our academic and residential programs. The members of this group include:

  • Senior Leadership: Megan Núñez (Office of the Provost), Piper Orton (Office of Finance and Administration), Ann Velenchik (Office of the Provost)
  • Faculty: Tracy Gleason (psychology), Michael Jeffries (American studies), Lisa Rodensky (English), Casey Rothschild (economics)
  • Staff: Carol Bate (Student Life), Susan Brennan (Career Education), Erin Konkle (Career Education), Ravi Ravishanker (LTS), Helen Wang (Residential Life)
  • Student: Diana Lam ’20

We welcome community input as we think through our options for the fall, and we invite you to reach out to members of the working group or submit your thoughts and feedback through this Google form.

Campus operations group. I want to start by thanking members of our union and administrative staff, including Campus Police and dining and facilities employees,, who have continued to provide critical support to our campus and to our students who have remained on campus this spring.

As Gov. Baker determines how and when to relax restrictions for Massachusetts, we hope to bring staff and faculty back to campus gradually. It seems clear that life at Wellesley this coming academic year will differ significantly from what it has been in the past. To protect the health of our community, we may need to implement changes that will allow us to observe appropriate social distancing in classrooms and in dining and residence halls. In addition, we will need to consider changes in the way we conduct community events.

Members of the Senior Leadership Emergency Team, led by Andy Shennan, Carolyn Slaboden, Piper Orton, Sheilah Horton, and Karen Petrulakis, and joined by Marianne Cooley, will oversee several small subgroups whose focus will be on operational planning for a return to classrooms, residence halls, and workplaces as soon as we can do so safely.

Collaboration with Newton-Wellesley Hospital and the Partners HealthCare network. Newton-Wellesley Hospital has been an invaluable partner in providing health care to our students on campus this past year. Throughout this crisis, we have been in close collaboration with them, and others in the Partners HealthCare network, as we determine what we need to have in place to protect the health of our community. As we think through the details of future scenarios, it is tremendously reassuring to know that thanks to this relationship, we will have access to the most up-to-date testing technology, treatments, and health care for our students.

During this time of uncertainty, I have been constantly impressed by the creativity and commitment of our community. It is often said that a crisis reveals a person’s character. I believe the same is true for communities. In the past months, we have drawn inspiration from others across the globe who have risen to the challenge of this moment. We have witnessed the courage, selflessness, and sheer determination of front-line health and other essential workers, many of whom continue to serve others without adequate personal protective equipment.

At the same time, this crisis has laid bare the deep economic and health inequities that continue to plague our society. We have witnessed these inequities firsthand as our students have moved home to vastly different circumstances, and in the tragic experience of Rana Zoe Mungin ’11, a black Latinx woman who died after being denied testing for COVID-19 several times.

This crisis has reminded us that we have much work to do to build the kind of world we want to live in, but it has also reinforced my profound belief that the values Wellesley stands for—the importance of a multidisciplinary liberal arts approach to education, our commitment to inclusive excellence, and our mission to educate women who will make a difference in the world—have never been more urgent or more relevant. The world needs young people who can think boldly, expansively, and collaboratively about the challenges ahead, finding solutions that incorporate thinking across disciplines and are rooted in a vision of social justice.

In the coming week, we plan to share additional information with students and parents related to financial support that will be available through the federal CARES Act, as well as the Wellesley Student Emergency Fund that has been established.

I look forward to continuing our important work together throughout the next academic year.