by Zach Neville ’23

“The fall semester will begin an academic year like none before at Davidson,” began an email from President Carol Quillen. Addressing members of the Davidson community, President Quillen announced on June 18th that the college would commence its fall semester as a primarily residential campus with classes beginning August 20th. This decision follows an email sent three weeks prior informing students that any in-person instruction would end before Thanksgiving, and that professors would administer final exams online after the holiday.

Harry Wang ’23 was “quite supportive to the idea of reopening offline” when he received the email, echoing the sentiments of many students who wish to return to campus. However, opinions vary significantly on the wisdom of the college’s decision.

The Spring 2020 semester’s abrupt transition to virtual instruction due to COVID-19 threw Davidson students, faculty, and staff into largely unfamiliar territory. Professors revised syllabi and teaching methods, students adopted new routines and responsibilities, and staff balanced the needs of those learning remotely with those of students who remained on campus.

“When we left in the spring, we needed to get everybody home fast,” said President Quillen. “Partly to get people where they need to be long-term quickly and partly to just get the density of people on campus down.” Once the semester ended, however, administrators were uncertain about plans for Fall 2020.

As it currently stands, Davidson’s plan for the fall resembles those of other institutions in the area; University of North Carolina and Elon students are scheduled to leave before Thanksgiving as well. Other colleges have opted for a primarily remote semester plan. Bowdoin, for example, will reconvene with only incoming first year students, transfer students, and students whose research or home conditions necessitate coming to campus.

While President Quillen’s email provided more details about the upcoming semester than previously available, it also acknowledged that the list of decisions is “not exhaustive” and noted that “these plans may change as the circumstances around us shift.” Other college offices stressed the unknown factor in planning for the return. The Office for Student Health and Wellbeing communicated over email that Davidson’s testing capacity was “still a work in process.”

Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life Walter Snipes sent his own email on June 19th to students registered for on-campus housing that outlined the office’s planning progress. He added in a separate email that, “[A]s we get closer to the fall, [the college] will provide students with information regarding expectations to remain residential.”

President Quillen sent another email on June 30th to clarify some of the college’s decisions about the fall. This more recent communication answered questions about class structures, housing options, travel, and privacy concerns.

“The most important thing for the college to do going forward is to develop more nuance in its plans. There is no one-size-fits-all solution,” commented Chair of Digital Studies Dr. Mark Sample in an email. Matthew Skolar ’24 expressed his hope that “the professors and the administration are all working together to come up with a plan that suits the needs of as many students as possible.”

Some additional details about course structure are beginning to solidify. Professors will choose from three “modes of teaching” depending on their class size and personal situation. Fully online courses are recommended for larger classes with the potential for smaller “active learning portions.” This first mode does not designate any in-person class time.

A second hybrid model combines in-person and virtual instruction and is recommended for classes of any size. One suggested scenario includes meeting in-person for one weekly class period and online for another.  In order to reduce class density, another scenario suggests dividing larger classes into “cohorts” and meeting with each once a week in person in addition to online sessions.

Classes following the “flex” model will have no specified hours for online learning. Suggested only for classes of 15 or fewer students, recordings and course materials must be available online to ensure that “remote students can meaningfully interact with the material.” In all three cases, any in-person or synchronous components must be made available virtually.

“The faculty are designing courses with the principles of universal design, so that their courses will be available pretty much no matter where students are,” said President Quillen.

Class structures are not the only aspect of courses to undergo change. Registrar and Director of Advising Angie Dewberry informed students over email on July 1st of changes to the fall schedule and newly-added class time slots. Students can access a reopened WebTree from July 27th to August 3rd in order to adapt to the new schedule and course modes.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Dr. Anika Bratt stressed the difficulty of designing in-person lab science courses safely. “The lab spaces are not huge at Davidson,” she pointed out. “The equipment is shared, the chemicals are shared. […] It’s such a challenge to figure out a way to do that safely.”

When she first learned of the decision to return, Dr. Bratt worried that the call might have been made too early to take North Carolina’s rising case numbers fully into account. Dr. Sample and Isabel Padalecki ’22, among others, shared this concern.

Padalecki worked as a member of the Digital Learning Advisory team to “consider and propose solutions to challenges of constituency and equitability of student online learning experiences” and to “identify the infrastructure and resources needed to support design recommendations.”

“I felt kind of strange having worked for so many weeks on building out [the college’s] remote capacities and that Davidson still seemed so reticent to entertain the idea of a fully remote semester,” she said. 

Along with Ashley Ip ’22 and Adelle Patten ’21, Padalecki co-authored a Perspectives article in The Davidsonian calling attention to the inequitable and potentially dangerous ramifications of the college’s decision. The authors highlighted the risk that immunocompromised students and faculty face, but Padalecki emphasized that “people advocating to close are advocating for everyone.” Two other Perspectives articles published recently explored the risks and barriers faced by Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and international students, respectively.

Educational and health equity concerns are hotly contested aspects of returning to campus. Padalecki thought that “the college needs to seek out and actively listen to the voices of the most vulnerable […]. They need to push the opinion of immunocompromised students, because they’re the ones that have the most risk.”

“The question of equity is complex,” admitted President Quillen. “What we’re trying to do is give as many options as possible. The options are not perfect. This is not a perfect solution.”

Dr. Robert Lutz ’87 will lead Davidson’s health and safety response to COVID-19 for the fall semester. Dr. Lutz has worked with Davidson as a sports medicine practitioner in the past and is affiliated with the Charlotte-headquartered Atrium Health. Over email, he noted that the infectious diseases he dealt with during his career in the army have similar core treatment principles to COVID-19.

“Masks, social distancing, hand hygiene, surface hygiene, and limited class size, along with early identification, testing, and isolation of symptomatic infections, are all things we need to do, and none of them are effective without the others,” said Dr. Lutz. “Our central goals at this time include development of plans that are feasible, sustainable, and effective and ensuring we have the appropriate supplies available to execute them.”

The Davidson community has expressed a wide range of opinions on the decision to reconvene as a residential campus. Wren Healy ’23, a member of the Building Student Community design team, said over email that he believed Davidson is in an “adequate position to resume in-person classes.”

As an incoming first year student, Skolar had mixed feelings. “As someone who missed out on the end of high school, I was looking forward to being on campus in the fall. […] At the same time though, I am worried that some will just choose not to listen to [safety guidelines].”

Dr. Sample emphasized that “developing disciplined minds cannot happen without ensuring the physical and mental wellbeing of our students.” In terms of remaining on campus, he had “doubts about our collective ability to maintain a sense of urgency and vigilance about masks and social distancing.”

Though some of the specific expectations and changes to on-campus life remain uncertain, President Quillen made clear that individual and community safety precautions like masks, social distancing, vigilant hygiene and sanitation were not suggestions. 

“I would ask every student to think through those standards for behavior and make sure that you are going to make a commitment to abide by them,” said President Quillen. “If you can’t or don’t want to do so, it really isn’t a good idea for you to come back to campus.”