Emerson Polling survey on COVID-19 to help decide fate of fall semester


The Berkeley Beacon Archives

Emerson College Polling Director Spencer Kimball.

By Dana Gerber, News Editor

Emerson Polling plans to launch a survey on Monday to gather data on community concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, which will help guide decisions for the fate of the fall semester, Emerson Polling Director Spencer Kimball said.

With everything going on, we want to make sure that we know how our community is feeling,” Kimball said in a phone interview.

The survey, which will be emailed to students, staff, and faculty, will evaluate people’s  perception of risk in regards to COVID-19, such as concerns of contracting the disease. It will also ask about expectations and preferences for the format of the fall semester, including whether the college should hold classes in-person or online and if the Boston, L.A., and Kasteel Well campuses should open. The survey will also address how community members are navigating their mental health through the pandemic, which Kimball said will help guide the college’s decisions on how to best assist them. 

“If additional resources are needed in areas, we’ll be able to give that information to the committee to be able to make those recommendations,” Kimball said. 

Emerson Polling, a nonprofit organization Kimball founded in 2017, generally conducts state and national political opinion polls, often dealing with issues of policy and candidate preference. They rarely poll about Emerson issues. 

The questionnaire will be a tracking survey, meaning it will ask the same questions periodically over the course of the summer to get a sense for how thoughts and perceptions are changing as the pandemic evolves. Emerson Polling will post the results to their website every two weeks. 

Kimball said the survey is being developed by a subcommittee of the COVID-19 response and recovery working group, along with a number of other faculty. These faculty also worked with students from the Emerson College Polling Society, a Student Government Association-recognized organization, to pilot test questions last week. Kimball and his team then sent the survey to the working group at large to review a few days after.

In addition to the online questionnaire, Kimball is also spearheading focus groups of community members to discuss their concerns, experiences, and thoughts in-depth about the ongoing public health crisis. Anyone can opt-in to participate in a focus group in conjunction with the survey.   

“It’s essentially a listening session for us,” he said. “We get a better sense of what’s happening on the ground with our students and our faculty and our staff, to really be able to give the information to the committee to make decisions about how best to move forward.”

In recent months, Emerson Polling has partnered with other institutions to develop and conduct polls related to the COVID-19 pandemic, including a weekly tracking survey with The City University of New York. 

“We’ll be able to compare and contrast how our community is doing in relation to some of these other communities around the country,” he said. “We’re hoping to use all of this data to better understand where we are at and better prepare us for those future decisions.”

President M. Lee Pelton said the survey, which will first be sent to students followed by a modified version sent to faculty and staff, will influence the structure of the upcoming fall semester.

“We care deeply about the people who teach, study and work at Emerson,” Pelton said in an emailed statement to The Beacon. “We want to make sure that their voices are heard and that they have an opportunity to shape and inform the structure of the fall term.” 

Pelton added that although the college will take community perspective and wishes into consideration, whether or not the campus opens in the fall is mostly out of their hands. 

“Every member of our community is hoping that when we reopen in the fall, classes will be in person,” Pelton stated. “We all also understand that the trajectory of the virus, local and state government guidelines and restrictions as well as our ability to eliminate or reduce risks when we reopen will influence our decision making. As one of my presidential colleagues recently remarked, it’s like driving in the fog. We are moving forward, but it’s really difficult to see what’s up ahead.”

Kimball said one of the main purposes of the survey, as Pelton voiced, is trying to determine the safest path forward given the community members’ states of mind. 

“I think it’s very important that we’re comfortable with whatever decision gets made regarding the fall semester—we don’t want to put somebody in a physical or emotional place that would make them uncomfortable if we can avoid that,” he said. “We’re hoping that this data will better help us navigate, essentially, these uncharted waters.”