In a shift from previous plans, Emerson will transition to a fully in-person academic semester on all campuses this fall for students, who will now be mandated to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, the boldest step the college has taken to signal its foray into a post-pandemic world.
The Wednesday afternoon email from President M. Lee Pelton pivots from plans set just two months ago to continue hybrid learning into the fall semester, which begins on Aug. 31, with the option of switching to fully in-person learning at the beginning of or during the fall term depending on the state of the pandemic.
“Today, it is with measured optimism that we announce that Emerson expects to return to in-person learning and to a more familiar pre-pandemic, on-campus environment for the 2021 Fall Term,” Pelton wrote. “I am confident that our careful and well-researched planning with the aid of excellent medical guidance will enable us to respond quickly and appropriately, just as we did this academic year.”
Erik Muurisepp, assistant vice president for campus life and “COVID Lead,” said the college is developing ways to reverse course and reinstitute hybrid learning should the state of the pandemic require it.
“As we’ve learned a lot this year and COVID—always have backup plans,” Muurisepp said. “We are having conversations and planning what ifs, and having lots of scenarios if we needed to adjust in various ways.”
Emerson, following the lead of nearby Northeastern University and Boston University, will require students to be vaccinated in order to participate in fully in-person learning barring medical or religious exemptions, with “an expectation” that faculty and staff will also get their shots.
First-year theatre and performance major Alexa Polawsky said that having fully in-person classes was daunting, considering she has never known anything but the hybrid model.
“When I heard I got really nervous because this is all I’ve ever known for the whole year,” Polawsky said. “I’m so used to doing things over Zoom and staying inside and dealing with COVID. Now that it’s ending, I’m like, ‘Whoa, everything’s going back to normal. I don’t remember what it’s like to have things be normal. What if I don’t like college when it’s back to normal? What if I like it better when it’s flex learning?’”
Pelton’s announcement follows a steady decline in positive COVID-19 tests at Emerson in the past week. Since the college lifted the bevy of restrictions imposed on campus life after a spike left 81 people in isolation or quarantine on campus, just four positive test results have been recorded, including none so far this week.
In the prior two weeks, Emerson reported 57 positives.
First-year media arts production major Anthony Paladino said he saw the college’s email during class and proceeded to share the news with the rest of his classmates.
“Everyone started applauding, we were all really excited,” he said.
Pelton’s message represents a deviation from the conservative nature of prior plans to continue hybrid learning announced in February. Then, Pelton suggested the possibility of “herd immunity” if COVID-19 vaccines became widely distributed, but stopped short of promising in-person learning in the interest of avoiding “disappointment.”
Now, Pelton cites “the vaccine roll-out advances efficaciously in Massachusetts, California, across the nation, and around the world” as an encouraging sign that a planned fully in-person semester will remain feasible. Massachusetts’ Suffolk County, where Emerson is located, remains a “very high” risk for COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Beau Williams, a first-year visual and media arts major who lives in Massachusetts, said she will be fully vaccinated by the time she returns to Emerson to start the fall semester, but worries what that means for students elsewhere in the country who may have a harder time accessing it.
“We don’t really know all that is going to happen with all the vaccines so it does seem a little premature,” she said.
Muurisepp said the college hopes to offer a vaccination clinic through Tufts Medical Center prior to reopening in the fall for anybody who isn’t able to secure a shot, after the planned vaccine partnership in the spring fell through due to timing and supply chain issues.
As of April 20, about 30 percent of the state’s population is fully inoculated against COVID-19, a figure that ranks Massachusetts twelfth in the nation, according to The New York Times. Massachusetts—along with the rest of the country—just expanded vaccine eligibility to all residents over the age of 16.
Muurisepp added that the vaccine mandate allows the college to move forward in determining other policy decisions for the fall.
“With now requiring the vaccine, that will help us down that path for what does that mean for what the on-campus experience looks like,” he said. “Testing, quarantining, symptom checking, masking, and all of that stuff.”
Kaitlyn Shokes, a junior publishing major, said she thought Emerson’s decision was premature.
“We don’t have enough information,” Shokes said. “If they did it in July… I just feel like [Emerson] should wait.”
For students unable or unwilling to study in-person, online classes will continue to be offered, also an unprecedented move for the college that raises questions about whether a virtual modality will be offered in perpetuity.
Caden Rodems-Boyd, a first-year visual and media arts major, said modality for particular classes should be at the discretion of individual professors.
“Some classes could stay partially or even totally online,” said Rodems-Boyd. “Sometimes things are more suited for being online now that we’ve all gotten used to it.”
First-year theater design and technology major Susan Eyring said she felt concerned as an international student about being able to get the vaccine on time.
“I can’t get it in the U.S. and then get my second dose in Singapore,” she said. “I’m hoping Emerson College creates some way for international students to get their vaccine if they need it in time for school to start.”
Additional information on graduate and study abroad programs will be released in the coming weeks, Pelton added, as will information for international students who may still face travel or U.S. visa restrictions.
Pelton also said Emerson anticipates reopening all campuses this fall, including Emerson Los Angeles and Kasteel Well, both of which have been shuttered since last March due to local guidelines and travel restrictions.
“Throughout the pandemic, I have been inspired by the commitment of our community to care for each other, to adapt and persevere, to maintain our connections, and to ensure that our campus remains a safe and healthy place to teach, learn and live,” Pelton wrote. “All of this gives me hope for our 2021 Fall Term.”