College transitions classes online, dorms to remain open amid COVID-19 outbreak

Presumptive and confirmed cases of COVID-19 rise to 92 in Massachusetts

Students+traverse+across+the+busy+Boylston+and+Tremont+St.+intersection.

Photo: Jakob Menendez

Students traverse across the busy Boylston and Tremont St. intersection.

Emerson College joined on Tuesday a series of universities and colleges across the state that have transitioned classes online in response to the rapidly spreading COVID-19, commonly known as coronavirus. 

The move comes hours after Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in the Commonwealth and reported that the number of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts surged to 92, more than doubling the number of cases reported just 24 hours ago. In-person classes at the college will end on March 13 and during the following week—March 16 to 20—there will be no formally scheduled classes.

Classes will resume remotely on March 23. Officials said the Boston campus will remain open until the end of the spring semester, however, students will have the option to leave or stay on campus. 

“That’s obviously very disruptive,” Baker said in regard to colleges across the state moving classes online.

In an email to the Emerson community Tuesday evening, President M. Lee Pelton announced the transition and wrote that over the past several weeks, the college’s senior leaders and members of the Emergency Management Team “have taken steps to keep our community safe while supporting the core mission of the College: teaching and learning.”

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“There are no reported or known cases of COVID-19 at Emerson, and the risk of community spread on our campus remains low at the present time,” Pelton wrote. “However, in the interest of safeguarding the health and wellness of our students, faculty, and staff as well as members of the greater community, who may be more vulnerable to this disease, the College has made the difficult decision to transition all in-person classes to online learning for the remainder of the spring term.”

Pelton could not be immediately reached Tuesday night for further comment.

Vice President and Dean of Campus Life James Hoppe said the Baker’s state of emergency declaration was the tipping point that led Emerson officials to transition classes online.

“It’s been a topic of conversation, at least for the last two weeks, because when the decision to adjust the Kasteel Well program was made that included the need to provide instruction online,” he said in an interview with The Beacon Tuesday night. “

On Friday, there were just eight cases reported in Massachusetts. Six people have been hospitalized but there have been no confirmed deaths from the virus. State Health officials reported 20 cases located in Suffolk County. 

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Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Michaele Whelan sent an email to faculty members late Tuesday afternoon with information in preparation for classes to transition online. Whalen included in the email a link to a guide prepared by the Instructional Technology Group to help faculty members with the new procedures. 

The email also stated that computer labs will be open with staff to walk professors through the different tools. Times and locations were not specified. 

“This is a difficult time for our campus and communities, one marked by widespread anxiety and rapid developments in relation to COVID-19,” Whalen wrote. “In keeping with our emergency planning process and in consultation with the faculty leaders of assembly and the unions, as well as the faculty library and technology committee, we are planning for the possibility that we would need to move all our classes in Boston online.”

Pelton’s email stated that students will be able to access housing and dining services although some services might be “curtailed.”

College officials will send several emails in the upcoming days detailing the implications COVID-19 might have on large-scale gatherings at the college such as the ERA Awards and EVVY awards, according to a statement from the Student Government Association released Tuesday night. Students can also expect to receive more information from administrators on extracurricular activities, student employment, and housing. 

The college canceled the Kasteel Well program on March 2 because of a drastic spike of cases in Europe. All castle students returned to Boston March 6 and received housing and meal plans with no extra charge. 

Suffolk University, a mere stone’s throw away from Emerson, asked students living on-campus to make plans to move out of their “University-sponsored housing,” according to a statement from the institution released Tuesday. International students are exempt from the move. The university also transitioned to online classes and said specific instructions from faculty members would be sent to students in the following days. 

“Students who move out of the residence halls will be eligible for a pro-rated refund based on the time remaining in the semester,” the statement read. 

Hoppe said he regularly talks to deans at other colleges in the area. As for not closing dorms at Emerson, Hoppe said officials made the decision with all the information available as of Tuesday.  

“We try to look at facts as much as we can … taking guidance from other folks who are experts. And then at the end it’s a group decision,” he said.

Harvard University on Tuesday asked all students to stay home after spring break and announced it would move to online classes this week. MIT has canceled all events involving more than 150 people, including classes which will now take place online. 

Babson College announced Tuesday that it would transition all classes online as a proactive measure to curb the spread of COVID-19. Officials at Babson wrote in a statement that students will be able to meet academic requirements remotely. 

In the press conference, Baker said public K-12 schools in the state would be exempt from normal attendance and school year requirements so districts can decide whether to cancel classes.

The city canceled the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Monday over fears of a rapidly spreading COVID-19.

In a paragraph directed at all students, Pelton wrote that the transition to online courses will be a “significant adjustment.” To the returning Kasteel Well students, Pelton said the Office of Internationalization and Global Engagement will release new information shortly. 

“I realize this has been an especially challenging week for you,” he wrote. 

Finally, addressing faculty members, Pelton said they would have the college’s full support during the transition. 

“I understand that, in many ways, we are asking you to rethink how you teach in order to help ensure our community’s health and wellbeing,” he wrote. 

This is a developing story. Check back for updates. 

Update 3/10/2020: This article was updated to include information from Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Michaele Whalen.

Update 3/10/2020: This article was updated to include information from President M. Lee Pelton.

Update 3/10/2020: This article was updated to include information from Vice President and Dean of Campus Life James Hoppe. 

Update 3/10/2020: This article was updated to include information from the Student Government Association.