VANESSA PAOLELLA/THE BATES STUDENT
In a letter sent to students on Friday, President Clayton Spencer wrote that Bates intends to announce its plans for the 2020-21 academic year by the end of June. This is in line with other NESCAC institutions which have promised to disclose their plans between mid to late June.
She indicated that Bates’ overarching goal is to get students back on campus with as little disruption as possible, however they will continue to plan for alternative modes of education.
“The essence of our educational model is that our students live and learn in a residential community through a rich array of experiences inside and outside the classroom,” Spencer wrote. “It is thus our fervent hope that it will be safe to welcome new and returning students in person in the fall, and we are actively working toward that goal.”
This message comes after a live Q&A session featuring Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Leigh Weisenburger and Spencer last Tuesday night at 8 p.m. EST. The live stream was viewed by more than 450 parents and students.
During the hour-long session, Spencer, as well as Weisenburger at times, answered questions submitted by parents beforehand and from the live chat about Bates’ prospects for the fall.
This is the first time that the Bates administration has discussed potential scenarios for teaching and the challenges which must be met to bring students back in the fall. Spencer additionally addressed pressing questions regarding public health, financial aid, study abroad, housing and commencement concerns.
There are no definitive answers yet, however Spencer warns that no matter what Bates decides, students must be prepared for changes in the fall.
“There’s no such thing as ‘back to normal’ wherever we are in the fall,” Spencer said during the Q&A. “It will be a new experience, an adapted experience in various ways…Every college is sorting this out, and there are no easy, snappy answers to any of this.”
While there are no student members of the Fall Planning Committee, the Student Government has stepped up to represent students and share their perspective with committee members. Decisions will be made based on the health and safety of students, faculty, staff and the community, Spencer said.
Spencer noted that there are many possible ways that Bates may choose to run classes this fall. Even if Bates allows students back on campus, some students may not be able to return due to visa restrictions, for example. Because of this, Bates may run in-person classes, even as it accommodates other students with online classes.
Flexibility is a key consideration for planning the fall semester. Individual students may need to switch to online classes as they are quarantined, or the entire student body might once more need to make the shift if cases in Maine, or on campus, escalate beyond Bates’ capabilities.
She noted that Bates is considering modifying its academic calendar to be more adaptable to disruptions caused by COVID-19. Potential options include beginning the semester in October or changing the academic model for the fall.
Twice, Spencer mentioned the possibility of breaking the fall semester into two seven-week sections separated by a break for finals and grading. Students would be expected to take two intensive classes in each section; this model would allow for more flexibility, and theoretically less stress for students, if Bates were forced to swiftly transition to online classes as it did in the spring.
Faculty who have “real, known risk factors” will likely be unable to teach in person, even if students return to campus. These faculty members might instead rely on remote options for teaching.
Williams recently released a seven-page memo detailing five proposals for the fall semester, however some are notably more viable than others. These options range from complete cancellation of the fall semester to online classes, with hybrid options in between. It is likely that Bates is considering similar options as a peer institution.
Bates is currently working with its healthcare partner, Central Maine Medical Center, and other health experts to create an institutional plan for the fall. According to Spencer, If students are allowed back on campus, numerous actions will need to be taken to mitigate health risks.
These actions include frequent sanitation, managing transmission risks, and “de-densifying” large-gathering places such as Commons and dormitories. Bates is also working on strategies for quarantining students with confirmed and potential cases of COVID-19, if the need arises.
Spencer also proposed that students may need to wear masks while walking around campus.
“I think it’s unrealistic to think that a residential college is a place for social distancing,” Spencer said. “But we need to do the best we can to mitigate risk and protect the health and safety of our community.”
Much of Bates’ ability for maintaining public health on campus will rely on ample access to COVID-19 and antibody tests for identification and tracing, as well as the healthcare capacity of Lewiston’s hospitals, Spencer said.
Additionally, she noted that class sizes may need to be adjusted to meet state regulations. As of now, regulations allow for gatherings of no more than ten people; after June 1, this limit is set to increase to no more than 50 people. However, this may change quickly if a second wave of cases rises.
Institutional Finances & Financial Aid
Spencer wrote a letter to the community regarding Bates’ financial situation on April 27, including information regarding the current and projected financial impact of the pandemic as well as the measures being taken to mitigate future losses.
In the spring, she estimates that Bates will incur a net loss of $1.5-2 million due to room and board reimbursements and emergency financial assistance to students. Bates projects that it may also need to fund an additional $6 million for 2020-21 financial aid.
While these losses are grim for Bates, Spencer and Weisenburger maintained optimistic outlooks for families concerned about financial aid. Weisenburger said that enrollment for the Class of 2024 is on track, and financial aid is currently running “more or less” as budgeted.
However, many families are almost certain to request aid reassessments this summer due to altered financial situations. Weisenburger noted that Bates has already earmarked extra funds to meet students’ increased financial needs.
At least one parent asked whether Bates’ tuition rates would change if Bates is only able to offer online classes. Spencer responded that “we’re going to have to figure this out with our families and with the market and figure out what we’re doing.”
Little is known about how fall sports may look this year. According to Spencer, Bates’ first priority is to figure out how to safely get students back on campus and manage public health concerns for the fall semester.
“Then, immediately the next [question] is ‘what about all the other aspects of the experience,’ and athletics is a big one,” she continued.
Bates athletics has formed a committee of athletic administrators and coaches to evaluate Bates’ options for fall sports. The same kind of contingency planning happening in the Fall Planning Committee is also occurring in athletics, Spencer said.
Director of Athletics Jason Fein is a member of a NESCAC sub-committee with other NESCAC athletic directors, she said. Additionally, she told parents that he has also been in communication with athletic directors of Maine colleges, in case student-athletes are restricted to only in-state competitions.
Bates will support students who are able to study abroad safely in the fall; students whose programs are canceled may register for fall classes and join the summer housing placement pool, Spencer said.
“If a student is still on the books to go abroad, we hope they can go abroad just like we hope we bring our students back,” she said.
However, travel restrictions, visa applications and uncertain public health situations makes it likely that many study abroad programs will not be able to run.
Housing can take a few forms in the fall depending on factors such as how many study abroad programs get canceled, if international students can come back, and how many first years come to campus in the fall. Spencer prefaced her answer with “until we have all the moving pieces later this summer, we’re not going to know exactly how things fall out.”
However, she did explain a few potential outcomes of these situations, such as if international students could not return to Bates due to visa restrictions, there could be plenty of beds on campus.
These beds could potentially make up for those displaced by canceled abroad programs. If international students are able to return and Bates has a fully enrolled first-year class, “We could have very tight housing” Spencer said. This could be solved by converting faculty apartments into student apartments which has been able to accommodate everyone in past situations.
However, if all study abroad programs are canceled, international students are able to return, and a fully-enrolled freshman class comes to Bates, housing could become a bigger issue.
Class of 2024 Enrollment
During the Q&A, Weisenburger noted that enrollment projections for the Class of 2024 are on target for the fall as of now. She also revealed that the acceptance rate is currently hovering around 13 percent. Nearly 7,700 students applied to Bates this year, making it the second-largest applicant pool in history.
“We seek a first year class of about 500 students each year and we’re on track with that,” Weisenburger said. “[We even have] some breathing room there, knowing that some students might choose to take a gap year, or for reasons tied to visas, [or who] might not, in fact, be able to enroll or be on campus next fall.”