Pelton responds to “unprecedented” COVID-19 uncertainty


Photo: Beacon Staff

President M. Lee Pelton responds to community unrest following COVID-19 pandemic.

By Dana Gerber, News Editor

President M. Lee Pelton said many answers concerning long-term extracurricular continuation, housing feasibility, summer and fall classes, and room, board, and tuition refunds remain uncertain amid the transition to conduct remote classes due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

“We spent nearly three hours going over significant questions and resolving how those questions should be answered,” Pelton said in a phone interview with The Beacon. “Each day we’ve been faced with a new set of circumstances and we are managing a whole set of issues related to this global crisis.”

Pelton said upper college officials, including members of the IT, Campus Access and Security, Center for Health and Wellness, and Academic Affairs departments met for a meeting on Wednesday, and plan to meet again either Thursday or Friday to reassess the situation. Pelton said the college plans to update the college’s COVID-19 FAQ with more answers regarding campus and student life this week.  

In a college-wide email sent Tuesday, Pelton announced that the last day of in-person classes will be held on Friday, March 13, after which a week-long break in classes for professors to prepare their plans for a remote classroom will ensue. Beginning Monday, March 23, classes will proceed remotely, likely through the Zoom video-conferencing system.

Pelton said the decision to cease in-person classes was to ensure community safety, but he remains unsure about the specifics of the remote learning transition, especially in classes that include more hands-on and interactive elements. Pelton explained that Provost Michaele Whelan is working with teams, chairs, and faculty to adapt the experiential learning method to a remote environment. Pelton said he could not currently anticipate plans for summer or fall classes. 

“We took into account humane and human factors of the student experience,” he said. “The answer to how we will be able to replicate the experiential classroom or studio experience into a remote learning experience is evolving. And I don’t have an answer today.”

 The nuances of the remote learning environment, Pelton said, will be at the professors’ discretion. 

“I trust the faculty to develop creative, innovative, and meaningful instruction for all students under all circumstances,” he said. 

While Pelton acknowledged the potential of a remote learning experience, he also said he understood its limitations. 

“Online education in some instances, but not all, may be a poor substitute for the in-class experience,” he said. 

Pelton said the administration decided not to close residence halls, as other Boston-area colleges such as Harvard University and MIT, have done, because students had already arrived back from spring break when much of the COVID-19 issues arose. He also said Emerson’s relatively small 3600-person student body also played a factor in the decision to allow students to stay on campus. No Emerson students have been confirmed positive.

“Our students have already been on spring break and are back on campus, and we do not have any evidence to suggest that any of the students who are currently on campus have presumptive coronavirus,” he said. “The principal view was that because the risk in Massachusetts remains low and we don’t have any students who’s presenting [symptoms of] the coronavirus, and it’s not presumptive, that we would allow students and their parents to make a decision and the principal is to give students and their parents some agency in this rather than kick kids off campus.”

Pelton said the ability for residence halls to stay open will be reevaluated as the COVID-19 pandemic develops, and even if a majority of students decide to leave, that will not affect the college’s decision in regards to keeping residence halls open.

Pelton said the college is still attempting to bring students home who are currently studying at programs in European cities, such as Paris and Valencia. Though Trump instituted a 30-day ban beginning Friday on the travel from Europe to the U.S., this excludes U.S. citizens. 

As of March 11, there are 95 confirmed and presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts Tuesday afternoon. 

Pelton said information regarding the continuation of student organizations and extracurriculars, extended housing, large event gatherings such as the ERA awards and the EVVY awards, refunds for students who choose to leave campus, and student employment will be provided as soon as possible, and will be posted in the FAQ later this week.

Pelton said he has received over 400 emails from members of the Emerson community regarding the COVID-19 response, and said he understands community frustration and anxiety regarding the lack of quick answers regarding the college’s response to the pandemic. However, he emphasized the college wants to be confident in their responses before sharing them. 

“We want to make sure that our answers are complete,” he said. “We ask for patience while we develop answers to these questions.”

The Emerson potential merger with Vermont’s Marlboro College, Pelton said, will not be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to move forward. Though there are also no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Marlboro, Pelton said he is in continuing talks with President Kevin Quigley.  

Pelton said there are many ever-changing aspects of the college’s response, including what would happen if an Emerson student tested positive or if the pandemic worsens. 

“I don’t want to speculate on what-ifs,” he said. “Of course, we’re planning as best as we can for the future, but it’s clear that the evolution of COVID-19 is unpredictable.” 

Pelton added he did not find fault with the actions of any other college’s response, noting that each institution must react to their specific set of circumstances.

“I’m not second-guessing any institution,” Pelton said. “I think every institution has to make a decision based on this set of facts and circumstances that they have in front of them, and because, in some respects, there’s no right or wrong decision. It’s just the best decision that you can make in the moment.”

Pelton said while nothing like this health crisis has ever happened at the college in his lifetime, he is confident in the college’s continuing response. 

“It’s uncharted waters,” he said. “I think we made a principled decision in which students were the center. I think our plan is humane and student-focused. And I feel very good about that.”

Pelton also noted he has been working around-the-clock nights to navigate this health crisis because of his devotion to the college and its community. 

“I am deeply sympathetic to students and their families to have to endure the disruption, the disappointment, and the anxiety that inevitably comes with this unprecedented set of events,” he said. “I love this college. I love these students. And I feel profoundly the obligation and the responsibility to make sure that they are in a safe, caring environment that will permit the college to continue its core enterprise of teaching and learning.”