By Daniel Robillard || Investigative Reporter
During the Franklin & Marshall Town Hall for Students and Parents held on July 28, President Barbara Altmann addressed the recent decisions by Lafayette College and Dickinson College to move classes online for the fall semester. “We keep tabs on our colleague schools—there’s a network of presidents that communicates frequently these days,” Altmann said. “So far, most of the other private schools and universities in Pennsylvania are still planning to bring students back.”
While most of F&M’s colleague schools are indeed planning on bringing students back to campus for the fall, many seem far better prepared to do so than F&M.
Most other small liberal arts schools in Pennsylvania have already provided students with exact dates for staggered move-in approaches as well as students’ specific rooming assignments. For example, Gettysburg College has already provided information about the specific dates and times that students in both on and off-campus housing will be tested and provided students detailed step-by-step move-in procedures. Other schools, such as Bucknell University, have elected to rely on initial at-home COVID tests for each student, which have already been shipped to students last week.
In an email sent to students on Thursday, with just two weeks until several groups of students are scheduled to begin arriving on campus, Dean of Student Affairs Margaret Hazlett was unable to provide any new information on move-in dates, room assignments, and other key details. “We had hoped to provide more housing information today, but we are awaiting confirmation of some critical details,” Hazlett wrote. Hazlett acknowledged that “there are important questions yet to be answered,” and was aware that “the wait is frustrating,” but assured that the College “will provide an update as soon as it is available.”
One of the topics discussed at the virtual Town Hall on Tuesday was the testing company that F&M is hoping to use in the fall. Addressing the recent decisions by Lafayette and Dickinson to move to online instruction for the fall, President Altmann said that “one of the main reasons why they decided that they could not continue on their trajectory towards reopening with students on campus is that neither could guarantee they could provide the necessary testing.”
Altmann went on to announce that F&M would be working with the Broad Institute, a research group of MIT and Harvard founded in 2004, to provide all of the College’s needed testing at the start of the semester and throughout the fall. Noting that the Broad Institute is “one of the best outfits doing this in the country,” Altmann chalked-up much of F&M’s ability to return to campus safely to its capability to assure the necessary testing provided by the Broad Institute.
However, the level of certainty with which President Altmann and the College can guarantee F&M’s necessary testing ability is still unclear.
Several hours after the virtual Town Hall, Alan Caniglia, the College’s Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and the senior administration official handling F&M’s testing contract, told The College Reporter that he was unable to “divulge the name of the outfit that we are hoping to use for testing, as we do not yet have a signed contract.” Karen Zusi, a spokesperson for the Broad Institute, was unable to provide details or a list of schools that Broad will be working with for the fall semester, saying, “we are still in discussions around developing the program and assessing needs and logistics.”
According to the Broad Institute, its testing program for colleges and universities “is being developed for institutions in Massachusetts and surrounding regions, including the rest of New England and eastern New York state.” Discussing how the potential testing contract would work, Caniglia said that the group can “guarantee results within 24 hours,” but noted that “this does not include the time needed for the samples to be shipped and received at the lab” which he estimated would be another 24 hours.
This past week, Broad has performed about 9,000 tests each day, with a testing capacity of 35,000 tests per day—a number that will likely have to substantially increase in order to handle the large influx of tests from colleges and universities in the coming weeks. “We are working to increase capacity, and results typically are being returned within 24 hours from receipt,” Zusi told The College Reporter.
“While this will be very expensive,” Caniglia said, “their pricing is better than any of the alternatives.” According to the Broad Institute, the cost is currently expected to be around $25 to $30 per test. Broad, which up to this point has primarily been providing testing for much of Massachusetts, estimates that it will be able to contract with up to a few dozen colleges and universities. With about 74% of students planning to return back in the fall—as well as the hundreds of faculty and professional staff that will require testing—F&M is looking at an initial testing price of at least $50,000, which does not include the hundreds of additional tests that the College will likely need throughout the semester. This puts further pressure on an already strained financial situation, with the College likely to lose several millions of dollars in room and board revenue from international students and students deciding to study remotely—about 21% of the student body.
F&M’s plans to reopen in a few weeks come as recent outbreaks associated with colleges and universities across the U.S. have been skyrocketing, highlighting the likelihood that most schools will experience outbreaks of COVID-19 when they return for the fall. A New York Times survey has identified nearly 7,000 cases among Division I universities across the country—a number that is likely much higher. F&M has said it is not currently tracking the number of cases among students in off-campus housing, and the College has still not made a public decision regarding whether or not students will be notified of new COVID-19 cases on campus leading up to and during the fall semester.
Throughout the pandemic, President Altmann and the senior administration staff have repeatedly emphasized the desire of the College to be as transparent as possible with students. However, with the campus’s reopening less than two weeks away, many students have become frustrated with the administration’s inability to provide concrete details about the fall semester—or even when they will be allowed to move into dorms that they have yet to be assigned.
Rasheed Adewole ’21, a Government major, is planning to return to live on West James in the fall “because the idea of remote learning from home sounds very depressing, especially as a senior.” Although he appreciated that F&M hadn’t rescinded its plans to reopen like schools such as Dickinson, Adewole expressed his growing frustration over the College’s lack of communication with students. “I think that the College has had very little transparency in regards to reopening in the fall and that worries me,” Adewole told The College Reporter. “Many students living off-campus like me are still unsure of when we are going to be getting tested and how often it will be.”
While the F&M administration has struggled to transparently and coherently communicate with its students, many point to one of their fellow classmates as standing in stark contrast to the administration—George Cho ‘22. For many students, Cho, who is a student representative on the F&M COVID-19 Task Force Housing Working Group, has been a wealth of information, juxtaposing what many see as an uncommunicative administration who has been unable to provide important and basic details to students. For the past several weeks, Cho has posted detailed updates and video reports to the “Franklin & Marshall College Admitted Class of 2022” Facebook page, which is a private group.
“While I deeply appreciate and understand the difficulties the school faces in this situation, I am disappointed that the most detailed, useful information comes from a student representative through Facebook posts to which not everyone has access,” said Marina Malcolm ‘21, a Neuroscience major.
Adewole said that he hoped the Administration will be able to display more transparency during the fall semester, when things like following the quarantine guidelines are essential for ensuring a safe return to campus. “F&M can certainly ensure that its students follow the [quarantine] procedure if it were to be more transparent and empower some of its students to help rally their peers behind the cause,” Adewole told The College Reporter.
Junior Daniel Robillard is an Investigative Reporter for TCR. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org
August 4, 10:45AM Update: Dr. Caniglia informed The College Reporter on Tuesday that the College had signed a contract with the Broad Institute on Friday to provide all of the College’s testing for the fall.