Shift to Online Classes and COVID-19 Updates

Spring semester to be completed online with credit/no credit

While Swarthmore classes had previously been scheduled to move online until April 3, President Valerie Smith sent out an email on March 17 sharing the administration’s decision that all classes will remain online until the end of the 2020 spring semester.

The administration had initially hoped that the interim measures would allow students to eventually return to campus to complete the academic year. Given the recent developments, however, surrounding COVID-19 on both a local and global scale, the administration no longer considers this possible. 

“COVID-19 has evolved into a global health crisis unlike anything in recent memory. In light of that reality, and given government and health professional recommendations about the best ways to mitigate the spread of the virus, we have concluded that this decision is now necessary. Though we know this is the right thing to do for the health and safety of our community, and society more broadly, it is no less heartbreaking,” wrote President Smith.

Three days later Sarah Willie-LeBreton, Provost and Dean of Faculty, and Jim Terhune, Vice President and Dean of Students, notified students that all spring semester classes will be graded on a credit/no credit basis with a note on all transcripts explaining the change to the grading policy. 

“President Smith has accepted the recommendation of both the Curriculum Committee and the Council on Educational Policy to amend our grading procedures this semester. We will move to a Credit/No Credit grading policy for everyone, with the ability of students to uncover their grades should they wish to do so at the end of the semester,” wrote Willie-LeBreton and Terhune. 

This is a modified version of Swarthmore’s policy as CR/NC classes for the Spring 2020 semester will not be deducted from the four CR/NC passes otherwise available to students, cover all D grades, and apply to all courses completed at other approved institutions and programs. 

“The handling of D grades and NC grades: After the first semester of the first year, a student who chooses to take a course CR/NC yet earns any version of a grade of D (D+, D, or D-) will earn degree credit but forfeit the ability to have the grade covered. For this Spring 2020 semester, however, all grades of D- and above will remain covered unless a student chooses to uncover them. A course earning NC (No Credit) will receive NC on the transcript and not receive degree credit,” as stated on the Swarthmore website. 

While this is Swarthmore’s official position, there is also a movement within the students body advocating for an alternative Universal Pass grading policy, in which no students may fail an online class. A recent poll of the students body (run by Senior Class Officials) received 1,125 reponses with 60% supporting Universal Pass, 30% supporting CR/NC with ability to uncover grades and 10% giving other responses. The push to adopt policies similar to Universal Pass like this is currently taking place at numerous colleges in the United States, such as Yale University, Harvard University, The College of William and Mary, and Vassar College. 

At this time, no changes have been made to the academic calendar — except for the one-week extension to spring break — and the final day of classes is still projected to be May 1. All course material is expected to be compressed into the remaining weeks of the semester, and while the format of final exams will certainly be changing, the dates will not be.

“Our creative and dedicated community will do all that it can through remote learning to nurture the extraordinary dimensions of a Swarthmore education … We will support members of our community and mitigate the financial and other burdens on students and their families who are now facing fresh challenges with remote learning environments … We will ensure that all students have the ability to meet their academic requirements and encourage flexibility around certain policies, practices, and requirements given the circumstances,” President Smith wrote. 

Class of 2020 graduation developments

In the March 17 update President Smith originally announced the Commencement for the Class of 2020 would be moved online.

“In light of the continued uncertainty of this still-expanding pandemic, we have also come to the especially difficult realization that Commencement cannot proceed as usual. I appreciate how upsetting this decision is for many of you, and in particular for our seniors and their families. All of us were looking forward to gathering together under the canopy of tulip and white oak trees in the Scott Amphitheater to celebrate your many achievements. Please know that we are committed to developing a creative virtual alternative to this year’s ceremony,” wrote President Smith. 

In a same day response, an online petition was initiated by Alliyah Lusuegro ’20 aiming to receive written confirmation from the administration that an in-person Commencement ceremony would be held at a later date. 

“For almost four years of hard work, we have collectively learned, grown, and made incredible memories at this institution. For many students, the symbolic meaning of commencement spans the four-year mark — it is a lifetime’s worth of commitment to education, alongside the sacrifice of families. We are asking for a written confirmation from Swarthmore College administration to reschedule an in-person Commencement ceremony to a later date. We envision an in-person ceremony that rightfully celebrates all 400+ of us and our achievements,” wrote Lusegro. 

On March 18, Lusegro announced the success of the petition. 

“Two sources, Senior Class Officer President and Student Government Organization President, have confirmed that Swarthmore College WILL be having an in-person Commencement ceremony at a later date TBD. We are still waiting on an official written confirmation from administration to address this confirmation to the Class of 2020 and the rest of the Swarthmore community,” Lusegro wrote.    

This was further confirmed by a Facebook post by Student Government Organization President Kat Capossela ’21.

“GRADUATION UPDATE: The Class of 2020 will have an in-person graduation, as confirmed by an email from Ed Rowe: ‘While we can’t plan for an in-person ceremony in May, we want to do a virtual ceremony then (for conferral of degrees) and something later, on campus and in person, for the Class of 2020.’ He’s heard suggestions for postponed times such as August 2020, Fall 2020, and May 2021. SGO, senior class officers, among others, will be working to figure this out over the next few weeks,” wrote Capossela. 

COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania and Swarthmore

The number of cases in the U.S. and Pennsylvania are growing rapidly, especially as testing becomes more readily available. 

On March 13, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced a two week closure of all schools beginning March 16, and strongly advised residents to refrain from all non-essential travel. On March 16, Governor Wolf further announced that all restaurants and bars were to close their dine in facilities for two weeks and non-essential businesses were strongly advised to close or adopt certain mitigation efforts.

President Smith notified the Swarthmore community on March 13 that the Swarthmore Friends Nursery School located on campus would be closing after the parent of a child was tested for COVID-19 after displaying flu-like symptoms. She also communicated that a family member of a College employee was assumed to have the virus and both individuals were self-quarantining.

Given the continually changing circumstances surrounding the increasing number of cases, President Smith stated moving forward a communication may not be sent out with every newly suspected case. 

“We share this information with you in the interest of transparency and providing the campus community with as much information on this ongoing situation as possible, and we will continue to provide you with regular updates. We also want to be mindful of how rapidly this situation continues to develop. Given that we anticipate the number of suspected cases of COVID-19 to increase on campus, moving forward, we may not communicate each time a suspected case is identified,” President Smith wrote. 

Financial support 

The college encouraged students to leave campus as soon as possible, providing housing and dining to some on a temporary basis. For students forced to change travel plans resulting in additional fees, or for those who returned to campus and require help traveling home, financial assistance from the college may be provided on a case by case basis.

Students not remaining on campus will receive a refund for room and board fees to their students account by March 30. For graduating seniors and students on certain scholarships this refund will be deposited to their bank account on file with Swarthmore. The college is also working to provide the required assistance to students who may not have the needed resources to work remotely from home. 

In regards to employment, students are not permitted to work on campus at this time. In some cases students may contact their staff supervisors to discuss the possibility of continuing their campus/work-study jobs remotely. All work-aided students will continue to receive pay irrespective of their ability to continue working remotely, with wages based on the median hours the student had worked so far during the 2019-20 academic year. 

The college has also announced that all employees (benefit and non-benefit) will continue to receive their full pay for this semester. Moving forward, the designation of “essential” and “nonessential” employees will be assessed as Swarthmore moves to reduce operations in the foreseeable future —  to limit the number of people traveling to and from campus without compromising core college operations. 

The situation continues to rapidly evolve, with students receiving regular updates from President Smith, Dean Terhune, and the COVID-19 Planning Group. 

In announcing the closure of on-campus classes for the remainder of the semester, President Smith expressed her sadness coupled with her belief in the Swarthmore community and noted the contents of a photo an alumni had recently shared with her.

“It shows a stone located at the base of Parrish Hall with an inscription of the Class of 1918’s motto, ‘Non nobis sed omnibus,’” President Smith wrote.” The rough translation to English is ‘Not for ourselves only, but for all.’ These words bring me comfort during this difficult and uncertain time. I hope they do the same for you.”

This story is developing and The Phoenix plans on further covering topics related to the effect COVID-19 on the Swarthmore community. For more of The Phoenix’s coverage on the COVID-19 outbreak, click here.

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