As July 1st Decision Looms, F&M Students Express Conflicting Opinions Regarding Possibility of Fall On-Campus Return

By Members of TCR Editorial Staff|| Ellyn Fritz, Amani Dobson, Anna Synakh, Isabel Paris and Ruby Van Dyk

As students anticipate the release of the July 1st decision regarding whether or not they will be returning to campus for the fall semester, their opinions on the best course of action differ widely. Many believe that returning to campus would be the right call due to the in-person basis of liberal arts education as well as high rates of tuition and housing payments, but others see issues in continuing on-campus education in the midst of the pandemic that, as of this last week, just saw the highest number of positive cases in one day. Both sides of the argument are supported by various prominent voices in higher education, which further complicates the decision the administration of Franklin and Marshall College is facing. While many liberal arts colleges have already declared their decisions to return for the fall semester, it is unclear whether or not come August these plans will remain feasible. 

Some students, such as Delaney Cochrane ‘21, are eager to get back in the fall, feeling as though the college can return safely: “ If big schools like UD and Penn State can come back safely for in-person classes why can’t we at less than 10% of their student body and faculty size?” asked Cochrane. 

Others, such as Audrey Berling, emphasized the personal cost that so many students will experience if F&M opts to not make an on-campus return: “School will definitely look different in the fall, and that’s okay as long as students are permitted to return to campus. It’s so important that our four years of college are experienced in full because we are learning so many valuable lessons at this age.” 

But other students are not as enthusiastic. One student, Samantha Milowitz ‘21, spoke to TCR and expressed her concern over the risks of returning this fall, as “colleges and universities bring together hundreds and thousands of different people from different places; this automatically spells disaster during a pandemic like the coronavirus.” 

Although Lancaster County is nearing the green zone for cases in the state, F&M students hail from 45 states, Washington D.C., and 47 countries. Across the country, states have varying degrees of severity of the coronavirus; New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey have successfully lowered their numbers, while the numbers in Arizona, Texas, and Florida are steadily climbing. 

Many students are unsure, including one senior who stated “I feel conflicted about possibly returning to in-person classes in the fall. On one hand, all I want is a return to normalcy and to go back to what I love most about F&M: the intimate and personal classroom experience. However, I am also hesitant about being around a lot of people and think it will be a really difficult switch from being away for so long.” 

Even students like Berling who advocate for an on-campus return acknowledge the fact that an on-campus return would come with the chance of contracting the virus. “If Franklin & Marshall reopens in the fall, students would be more exposed to the virus. However, I think the majority of us are willing to take that risk if it means we have the opportunity to create important experiences on campus that last a lifetime,” said Berling. 

But for Zoe Robinson ‘21, the risk involved in returning to F&M in order to create lifelong memories is far more serious. 

Robinson, a student whose health conditions place her in the high-risk category, is struggling with the decision of whether to return back even if F&M returns in person in the fall, and is skeptical of her peers’ ability to successfully socially distance. “Since I am in an ‘at risk category,’ the school’s decision and my own personal decision on what to do about the fall has created an added layer of concern that most people do not think twice about. This entire process has been extremely stressful; Talking to my own physician and parents, I’ve had to have honest conversations about the added risk that I will have to face come fall.” 

Colleges similar to F&M such as Gettysburg, have already announced their plans for the fall, all deciding to make a return. But other colleges such as Bowdoin and the entire University of California System have opted to remain primarily online. According to an email sent to Gettysburg students by their administration, the plan for next semester involves partial in-class work as well as remote learning. In the event of another outbreak, Gettysburg College has set up remote learning options. Likewise, Hobart William Smith has stated that they intend to keep students safe without “decreasing intellectual contact between faculty and staff”. 

Most colleges like Franklin & Marshall are even trying to finish the fall semester early to avoid having too many students on campus for the flu season. Gettysburg College and Hobart William Smith are planning to start their fall semester in late August and end on November 24th, and finals for the fall semester will be completed remotely. Though it is not clear exactly what F&M plans to do to make sure that the classroom environment and seminars can function properly, we can only assume that, like the other liberal arts schools in the surrounding area, they will use a mixture of in-class and remote learning.

If F&M does return in person in the fall and is even able to conduct social distancing in the academic setting, the biggest questions regard socializing between students after hours. Although some administrative officials such as Margaret Hazlett, Dean of Student Affairs, voiced optimism about F&M student’s commitment to social distancing, many students are skeptical, including students like Milowitz who wonder: “How would we make sure that all students entering classrooms have been socially distancing? If we go back to in-person education in the fall, it will mean slower progress for getting rid of this disease.” 

Despite the optimistic outlook that Hazlett expressed in regards to F&M community members adhering to social distancing, she emphasized the fact that even with a commitment to safe practices, it is inevitable that coronavirus will infect members of the F&M community: “We will have the virus on campus. It’s a given. We can’t avoid it.” As a result, Hazlett advised that students should take this into consideration when deciding whether or not an on-campus return in the fall would be their best option. “Every student should be having a realistic conversation with their family about whether or not they should return to campus. It shouldn’t just be a given that students will return.” 

Along with concerns of the viability of social distancing come questions about the enforcement mechanisms and disciplinary measures the college may adopt. Colette Shaw, Dean of Students, emphasized that traditional disciplinary measures will not be adequate in the fall. “Rules will not have the same impact as relationships, and that’s not something F&M has been great at because it will require consensus-building rather than authority-driven processes. I can have 100 hearings with students who violate policies, but brave, diplomatic community members can prevent 1000 violations and that’s what will keep us safe,” said Shaw. 

President Barbara Altmann elaborated on the expectations that will be placed upon F&M community members in the fall if F&M returns in person. “I am eager to have students back on campus, but it will work only if everyone – students and College employees alike – are prepared to take individual and collective responsibility for their health and conduct measures that make a real difference. That means masks, physical distancing, a lot of hand-washing, and no big gatherings. Everyone would have to step up,” said Altmann.

As Senior Administrators such as Hazlett, Shaw, and Altmann emphasize student commitment to safe practices, many experts are doubtful of a student’s psychological ability to make the necessary sacrifices to ensure a safe community. 

In a recent New York Times Op-ED, Dr. Laurence Steinberg, Professor of Psychology at Temple University, discussed his skepticism towards trusting young people to take COVID precautions seriously from a psychological perspective: “Most types of risky behavior — reckless driving, criminal activity, fighting, unsafe sex and binge drinking, to name just a few — peak during the late teens and early 20s. Moreover, interventions designed to diminish risk-taking in this age group, such as attempts to squelch binge drinking on campus, have an underwhelming track record. There is little reason to think that the approaches proposed to mitigate transmission of the coronavirus among college students will fare any better.” 

As many students do not consider themselves to be in a high-risk category, it seems probable that their actions will culminate in a perfect storm, allowing the virus to make its way into college communities. Dr. Steinberg emphasized his skepticism further, stating: “These plans are so unrealistically optimistic that they border on delusional and could lead to outbreaks of Covid-19 among students, faculty and staff.”

In contrast to the sort of concerns voiced by those like Dr. Steinberg, others argue the importance of the college’s making an in-person return. One of the loudest voices in this camp from the beginning was President of Brown University, Christina Paxson. In another New York Times Opinion Piece, President Paxson argues that if colleges can’t return, they will be put in financial jeopardy: “Most colleges and universities are tuition dependent. Remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue.” Furthermore, Paxson argued that a safe return is possible if testing and contact tracing are employed to the fullest extent. 

But even if all possible measures are utilized to minimize risk, the fact remains that residential life at colleges like F&M is not only a large part of the school culture but also a large part of its risk in the face of the disease. Communal bathrooms, shared bedrooms, hallways, and packed cafeterias all pose a hefty challenge in minimizing risks. A housing plan has not been finalized. There is a task force dedicated to working on housing composed of students, faculty, and staff. Dean Hazlett mentioned the fact that F&M is in a fairly unique housing situation in comparison to other small colleges as many upperclassmen are signed into off campus 12 month leases. This means that the only residential life the college has full autonomy over is that of first-year students and sophomores. She even added that the college had considered not having first-year students live on campus at all: “I’m not saying we’re doing that, but it’s been discussed.”

The financial toll of the decision can’t be ignored. Without the flow of tuition and board in the fall, a college like F&M would be seriously impacted. This being said, if F&M resumes in person, students who opt to stay online at home would still be paying their regular tuition. Dr. Alan Caniglia, VP of Finance and Administration, confirmed that: “Assuming we are residential in the fall, tuition paid by any students taking courses online will be the same as if they were taking them in person.” 

The many questions that loom in the face of the fall semester regarding testing, mandated quarantines, temperature taking, etc. will all hopefully be answered by administration come July 1, as the non-academic oriented details of a possible return are still relatively under wraps. But regardless of whether or not F&M’s July 1 decision announces an on-campus fall return, it seems clear that student’s opinions vary, and in turn so will their own decisions to return to Lancaster. 

Junior Ellyn Fritz is the News Editor. Her email is efritz@fandm.edu

Sophomore Amani Dobson is the Campus Life Editor. Her email is adobson@fandm.edu

Junior Anna Synkah is a Copy Editor. Her email is asynakh@fandm.edu

Senior Isabel Paris is the Managing Editor. Her email is iparis@fandm.edu

Senior Ruby Van Dyk is the Edtior-in-Chief. Her email is rvandyk@fandm.edu

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