President Elam updates the Oxy community on the College’s revised plans for the Fall 2020 semester and a shift to remote instruction. Leer en español
Dear Oxy Community,
I write to update you on the College’s revised plans for the Fall 2020 semester. One month ago, we announced our intent to reopen campus with reduced density in our residence halls and offer multiple modes of instruction to accommodate students whether they were on or off campus. At the same time, we noted that the health and safety of students, staff and faculty are paramount, and our plans would be subject to change should the pandemic worsen.
Regrettably, the pandemic has taken a turn for the worse in Los Angeles County, as it has across California and dozens of other states. Instead of flattening, the curve is now rising. A review of the latest data and consultation with our infectious disease experts, as well as faculty, staff, and student leaders, have led us to conclude that we must shift our earlier plans for this fall. Today we are announcing that for the Fall 2020 semester all instruction will be remote and that, with limited exceptions for international students and others facing significant housing hardships, we will not bring students back to campus. While no decisions have been made about spring semester, our current intent is to offer in-person instruction and, as conditions allow, to return more students to campus. Our ability to do so will benefit significantly from the work and planning that has been underway over the past several months and which will continue into the fall.
WHY THIS DECISION
The latest data show that the pandemic is surging nationally. In Los Angeles County the number of positive cases is steadily rising, with half of new cases now being among people aged 18-40. Hospitalizations have reached record rates. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has intervened to temporarily halt, and in some cases reverse, reopening measures for businesses and other indoor activities. As a result of the volatility and spread of the virus, L.A. Unified School District announced Monday they will be fully remote in the fall, and Mayor Eric Garcetti has warned it may be necessary to reimpose a stay-at-home order. The recent increased demand for testing has put a strain on the Los Angeles County public health system, and raises concerns about our ability to mount a robust testing and tracing system on campus for large student populations as well as staff and faculty. Another factor we considered is the potential impact on the health and safety of our community partners, many of whom serve populations at higher risk for the virus. All this vividly demonstrates the dangers of reopening too soon.
This decision to go remote is one we hoped we would not have to make, and we take little solace in the fact that we are among a growing number of colleges to reach the same conclusion. Still, we are confident that this approach appropriately balances the need to safeguard the collective health and safety of the Occidental community, while enabling our students to continue their education. The well-being of our community is not only a College priority and in line with our core values; health and safety are a necessity if we are to offer the enriching education students want and deserve.
THE ACADEMIC EXPERIENCE
In these challenging times, we have been guided by Occidental’s mission to provide our students with a total educational experience of the highest quality, anchored in the cornerstones of excellence, equity, community and service. At the core of the academic program is the deep and meaningful relationship that develops among faculty and students both inside and outside the classroom. While our instruction for the fall will be exclusively remote, we are wholly committed to continuing and, wherever we can, even enhancing, the deeply personal academic experience that is the signature of an Occidental liberal arts education.
We have taken several steps to ensure that we can deliver on this promise. All classes this fall will feature instruction or interaction that happens synchronously (in real time) with professors, and will include small-group and/or one-on-one meetings. We are reducing our already small class sizes by lowering enrollment caps on most courses to create conditions that will favor the development of truly meaningful interpersonal connections among faculty and students.
Our faculty are hard at work this summer preparing for a “Remote from Day 1” experience that meets the standards of the Occidental academic program. Learning from the challenges that both students and faculty faced in the rapid shift to remote instruction in Spring 2020, faculty are redesigning their courses and will be employing approaches that are tailored for high-quality remote instruction. Supported by specialists in the Library/Center for Digital Liberal Arts, the Center for Teaching Excellence, Information Technology Services (ITS) staff, as well as the newly formed Summer Pedagogy Group, faculty are receiving extensive training, not only in tools and technologies, but in new ways to structure courses and assignments, and new methods of assessing student work.
At the curricular level, departments have adjusted their offerings by moving some courses originally planned for the fall to a later semester, to ensure that each class we offer this fall will have learning goals that can be achieved effectively, without physical proximity. In some areas of the curriculum, you will notice a shift in some courses to emphasize the building of skills that can be developed remotely. For example, our chemistry faculty have long planned to incorporate more analytical, computational and data interpretation exercises into general chemistry labs (skills that are considered “essential” by the education committee of the American Chemical Society). This semester, they are focusing laboratory instruction on developing these skills in lieu of other activities that cannot be done remotely (and which will be resumed in a later semester). Likewise, while the Theater Department is not offering their usual live mainstage productions this fall, they will be offering performance-based and production courses and have plans for virtually rehearsed and produced live-streamed plays. These are just two examples of curricular adaptations to the remote environment, but in all cases, academic programs will maintain their high quality and integrity.
In addition, faculty have seized this opportunity to innovate and create a set of exciting immersive interdisciplinary, experiential remote programs that will serve to connect students to Oxy and to each other through sets of course clusters that explore particular topics in depth, from wherever they happen to be studying.
ADDITIONAL SUPPORT FOR STUDENTS
Building on our experiences from spring, Oxy ITS is expanding our capability to address the technical needs for students' remote learning by providing a range of support services for anyone who has internet connectivity or hardware issues. Outside the classroom, the staffs of the Dean of Students office, the Intercultural Community Center, the Hameetman Career Center, the Emmons Wellness Center, Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, and the Student Leadership, Involvement and Community Engagement (SLICE) office are all dedicated to continuing to foster Oxy's culture of care and supporting our students.
WORKING TOGETHER AS A COMMUNITY
This fall will be different—for all of us. Still, we have been inspired by the resourcefulness, creativity and care for each other that the Oxy community has demonstrated in meeting the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic. Faculty who reinvented classes and teaching styles with short notice last spring have continued to work through the summer—usually a time for reflection, recharging and research—to ensure a high-quality classroom experience. Staff have continued to keep the College running, both in person and remotely; more than 70 volunteered to serve as Wayfinders to provide additional support and individual attention for incoming first-years this summer. Alumni and other members of the community rallied to very generously support the College during the first-ever online Day For Oxy this spring.
This commitment to the College and its mission, this strength of community and generosity of spirit, and the creativity and resilient adaptability of our community in supporting each other are just some of the reasons we face this coming year with optimism.
WORKING THROUGH THE NEXT PHASE
I have full confidence that our community will deliver a compelling academic experience for our students. We will continue to monitor health and safety considerations as we look ahead to spring. At the same time, we will need to collectively address the incremental financial challenges that come with the shift to a remote semester. This will require some hard decisions and a series of conversations amongst leadership, trustees and key stakeholders across the community to help guide those decisions.
HEALTH & SAFETY ON CAMPUS
In order to minimize the spread of the virus and protect our campus community, we must implement health and safety requirements for those who will be living or working on campus. This includes wearing facemasks in public at all times, practicing physical distancing, and using a College-sponsored monitoring app for daily temperature and symptom checks. Students, faculty and staff on campus will be regularly tested for the virus (the College is partnering with a private lab to ensure access to sufficient tests and timely results). We will continue the current practice of cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces. Food service will be take-out only, in line with Los Angeles County regulations. Students, faculty and staff will be required to participate in a contact-tracing program and to observe Occidental's isolation and quarantine protocols, as necessary.
MORE INFORMATION FOR FALL
In addition to announcing our decision to go remote for the fall, there are a number of other related decisions and updates we are sharing today:
- As we announced on June 15, classes will begin on August 24 and will end before Thanksgiving as part of the revised fall academic calendar.
- As communicated on June 22, Occidental is not increasing tuition this year, keeping it frozen at the 2019-20 level. No matter the format, Oxy will offer students rigorous and engaging educational experiences this semester through exciting programs that take advantage of remote technologies and provide personal attention and meaningful connections to faculty. As such, tuition will be the same regardless of the format of instruction.
- Oxy remains committed to meeting the full demonstrated need of all students. The decision to go to remote instruction requires all financial aid packages to be revised to reflect a new cost of attendance. Students will receive their financial aid packages on or before July 29.
- There is a new housing petition form for returning students. The deadline to submit the form is July 19, and students will be notified of decisions by July 24. We will be limiting the number of students allowed in residence halls to about 200, prioritizing international students and those with significant housing hardship. Regrettably, we will not be housing first-year students, and all prior housing assignments from spring, including themed living communities and disability accommodations, are no longer possible.
- Intercollegiate athletics is an important part of the Occidental experience for many on our campus. Unfortunately, due to the continuing health and safety concerns, we will not be participating in intercollegiate athletics in Fall 2020. Oxy Athletics will continue to work with the SCIAC to evaluate opportunities for our student-athletes in the winter and the spring.
We are keenly aware that you have questions about the upcoming year. Much information can be found on our COVID-19 website, where you’ll find more detailed webpages For Students, For Faculty, For Staff. Students will be able to find information about registration, Orientation and the many support services available. If you have questions or need additional information, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or submit comments and questions through this online form. We’ll be updating FAQs and other content on the site regularly between now and the beginning of the semester.
In February, when I enthusiastically accepted the offer to become Occidental College’s 16th president, never could I have imagined the challenging circumstances we would face. However, my enthusiasm and excitement about joining the College and guiding it forward has only increased as I have had the chance to interact with students, staff, faculty and alumni since I started in the position two weeks ago. Truly, I have been inspired and galvanized by these exchanges about teaching and learning that always seek to put the student first. I will do all I can to ensure everyone, especially those particularly vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic, feels supported and empowered, and that we emerge strengthened and revitalized as a community.
Harry J. Elam Jr.