Administrators discuss plans for fall semester, systemic racism during virtual town hall

By Ideal Dowling

Administrators shared information related to the fall semester and responded to the widely circulated email from departed professor Marissel Hernández-Romero. (Middlebury Media Services)
  • President Patton acknowledged departed professor Marissel Hernández-Romero’s email and echoed the statement sent by Chief Diversity Officer Miguel Fernández
  • Face masks will be mandated, and the college will install Plexiglass barriers, visual reminders, hand sanitizer stations and other measures to minimize risk
  • The July 6 deadline is non-binding, and students who withdraw before the start of the semester will be able to receive a full refund and preserve their financial aid eligibility
  • Spaces will be reconfigured to adhere to “physical distancing” guidelines
  • Administrators redoubled their commitment to racial equity after SGA Vice President Roni Lezama drew their attention to a question from Joel Machado ’22

Panelists from the Student Leadership Group (SLG) and other administrative offices shared an overview of the school’s plans for fall semester during a June 29 student Town Hall hosted by the Student Government Association (SGA). Afterward, panelists answered students’ specific questions, some pre-submitted and others asked live via chat. SGA President John Schurer ’21, SGA Co-Vice President Sophia Lundberg ’21.5 and SGA Co-Vice President Roni Lezama ’21 moderated the Town Hall.

The letter

Before the presentations began, President Laurie Patton addressed the June 28 email from departed professor Marissel Hernández-Romero and its larger import as a representation of the pervasive presence of racism on campus. President Patton reaffirmed the statement emailed to the student body earlier in the day by Chief Diversity Officer Miguel Fernández, acknowledging Middlebury’s entrenched, underlying culture of racism, the harm caused to Hernández-Romero, as well as all community members of color, and the urgent need to adequately address these issues with anti-racist initiatives. 

“Because we must be focused on action, we are working now on a strategic plan… for diversity, equity and inclusion that is focused on a number of different issues, [including], particularly in this moment, anti-black racism,” Patton said.

Though unable to comment on the specifics of individual incidents mentioned in Hernández-Romero’s email because of due process and confidentiality requirements, Patton stated that each case will be investigated. 

She also reiterated that the email was removed from servers in order to prevent any additional harm caused by potential misuse of the “reply all” function, such as responses insulting Hernández-Romero or making light of her experiences. However, Patton recognized that the decision to remove the email prevented Hernández-Romero from being heard and had its own negative impact.

Following President Patton’s introductory remarks, panelists shared plans for campus life during the pandemic. 

Health and Safety

To ensure the health and safety of the community, ResLife staff, Public Safety, faculty and staff are being trained to handle the new challenges posed by Covid-19 on campus and to support health protocols.

Middlebury has also signed a contract with the Broad Institute in Cambridge, a testing company that uses a less-invasive anterior nares swab (not a nasopharyngeal swab, which goes deep into the back of the nose). In addition, a contact-tracing app is currently being tested for use in the fall.

Face coverings will “absolutely” be required, so Environmental Health and Safety Coordinator Jen Kazmierczak recommends finding a fit most comfortable before returning to campus. “Cloth face coverings should not be considered PPE (personal protective equipment),” added Kazmierczak, who clarified that face masks are a public health measure necessary to protect others, not just an optional protection for oneself. 

The college plans to provide two cloth face masks to each student. In addition, administrators are also looking into the possibility of providing clear face coverings for professors to accommodate hearing-impaired students.

The college is preparing to bolster safety in a number of ways, including the installation of directional arrows and other visual reminders to maintain distancing. The college will also install Plexiglas barriers and hand sanitizer stations, as well as providing materials for cleaning and disinfecting.

Once on campus, there will be daily health checks, and students will be required to stay in their rooms if sick. The administration did not elaborate on how health checks will be performed.

A finalized health pledge will be sent to all students and their families. “We are looking at both the internal work that a student needs to do to keep themselves healthy, as well as the ways in which, in our environment, we can be accountable for keeping each other healthy,” Patton said.

Clear expectations of adherence to health protocols will be communicated pre-arrival, along with a rubric outlining what consequences will be administered for specific violations of the protocol. Depending on the seriousness of and level of risk created by the violation, consequences may range from educational sanctions to dismissal from campus housing.

Dr. Mark Peluso, medical director of Parton Health Services, noted that there is no specific threshold of cases that will trigger an evacuation mid-semester. Additionally, because such a measure will be dependent upon local and national data, an evacuation would not be sudden but instead would follow a rolling-back of phases. While the college will aim to send as many students home as possible, requests for exceptions will be possible. “We understand it will not be realistic for everyone to evacuate campus,” said Peluso.

Academic Affairs

The college plans to use the data from July 6 — the deadline for students to request a leave of absence for the fall semester — to create the final course schedule, which they intend to release by the third week of July. All class descriptions will include their modality.

Students who choose to withdraw after the July 6 deadline but before the beginning of the semester will be entitled to a refund and will preserve their financial aid eligibility.

Provost Jeff Cason warned students to prepare for the possibility of all courses returning to the online format as needed with the progression of the semester, but he emphasized that professors are working extensively with DLINQ to address the challenges students faced during the spring semester as a result of the emergency transition to virtual learning. 

“Online learning is not inferior to in-person learning,” said Cason, assuring webinar attendees that the college is working diligently to create support systems and other mechanisms to provide the resources and maintain the opportunity for close faculty-student relationships. These initiatives aim to nullify the inequities exacerbated by online learning.  

Considering the financial strain caused by the pandemic, many students are wondering if Student Financial Services (SFS) plans on adjusting packages accordingly. Kim Downs-Burns, associate vice president of SFS, noted that the office has begun awarding packages via BannerWeb and will continue to do so. She encouraged students to call SFS with any questions. Additionally, there will be student employment opportunities throughout the semester.

Student Life

Kazmierczak noted that the college is emphasizing the term “physical distancing” in the place of “social distancing” as a representation of their commitment to still provide opportunities for meaningful social interaction this semester.  

Common spaces will be open in residential and other areas but at dramatically reduced capacity. Furniture in most spaces will be reorganized to ensure physical distancing. “We recognize that students need to get out of their rooms,” said Dean of Students Derek Doucet.

When asked about the reality of traditional student social life existing this semester, Doucet responded that all gatherings will need to adhere to physical distancing guidelines, capacity limits and face-covering requirements. In other words, sweaty Atwater parties cannot happen. Doucet suggested MCAB and SGA work to “think outside the box” to reimagine social life, as parties are going to look “pretty darn different.”

The Dining Services team will communicate a phased dining plan to students later this summer and “are considering Grille takeout even in phase one.”

The Athletic Center will also follow a phased approach in regards to increasing capacity limits in facilities, according to Director of Athletics Erin Quinn.

In response to a question about Middlebury’s plan to improve its lack of sufficient counseling services, a problem that predated the Covid-19 pandemic, Executive Director of Parton Health Services Gus Jordan said that the college is working to supplement the existing staff with a telehealth company that will provide free access to psychologists online for up to 12 sessions. The service will be accessible whether students choose to return to campus or not, and Jordan is “confident it will meet demand.”

There will be another opportunity this summer to retrieve any belongings left behind for students who choose not to return in the fall. For those unable to travel to campus, the school has storage space available.

Kathy Foley, associate dean and director of the International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) office, stated that an email with drop-in hours this week and FAQs answers will be sent shortly. Though there is little information available from the U.S. government about travel restrictions, international students should respond to the July 6 form to let the college know of their intentions should entry into the country be possible by the fall.

Commitment to racial justice

Toward the end of the Town Hall, Co-Vice President Roni Lezama brought the administration’s focus to a question from Joel Machado ’22. Machado had entered his submission immediately after the chat function was enabled.

“…Since President Patton at the beginning of this Town Hall identified Covid-19 and racism as two of the biggest crises of our time, we should all be on the same page in the understanding that Middlebury MUST commit the same energy toward tackling both problems,” the question read. “Will the Senior Leadership Group commit to holding a Town Hall meeting like this one to address the specific campus policy adaptations and long term actions the college will be taking to address systemic racism?”  

President Patton thanked Machado for his question and said she is “eager to share thoughts and plans.” She noted that the administration is working on a strategic antiracist plan in contingency with the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, the SGA, campus cultural organizations and faculty. The five-year plan will draw on feedback from last year’s campus climate external review to bolster diversity, equity and inclusion. Patton thanked students for the many good ideas they have already shared.

Some of the college’s priorities include providing support for Black Studies and Black professors, facilitating better interactions between students of color (particularly Black students) and the administration, as well as decolonizing the curriculum department by department. 

Additionally, Patton noted a continued commitment to “intensive fundraising in this area.” She also reaffirmed the college’s focus on the Twilight Project, which will “commission artistic performances and support academic research that confronts Middlebury’s historic treatment of underrepresented and excluded groups.”

 Fernández agreed that a separate Town Hall will be necessary to adequately address the topic of racism at Middlebury and that hearing students’ perspectives is important. The college will hold a forum with further information on their plans in late August, at which point students will have the opportunity to give more constructive feedback.

Looking ahead

Although administrators offered initial estimations of how the fall semester will unfold, Doucet noted that these plans are highly flexible and dependent upon both the internal success of keeping campus free from infections and outside conditions locally and statewide. Middlebury will continue its close collaboration with Vermont health officials, and the ability to move into more open phases will be heavily dependent upon state guidelines. 

As of now, Vermont is far below the national average of daily rates of new infections, and, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the state is on track to have fewer than 10 new cases per day in September and October. 

“We are optimistic,” said Doucet about the possibility of lifting restrictions to permit travel into downtown Middlebury and possibly throughout the state as well. However, this progress is contingent upon having confidence in community members to hold one another accountable and take personal responsibility for the benefit of everyone, according to Doucet.

The college will continue to update the FAQ page, and a mutual information database created by students is also available.