Trinity President, Students, Faculty Consider COVID-19 and the Fall 2020 Semester in Advance of Likely June Decision

9 min read

Kat Namon ’22

Managing Editor

The fall 2020 semester at Trinity remains uncertain even as Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont (D) has stated that he has “told universities to expect opening up in September with residential housing,” according to the Hartford Courant, if they meet certain gating criteria earlier this month.

President of the College Joanne Berger-Sweeney sent an email to community members on May 13 indicating that while no determination has been made for what the fall semester will look like, Trinity is currently planning “to have students on campus in the fall.” However, Berger-Sweeney stressed that any plan would likely be “phased” and have “fewer students on campus in the fall.” 

Berger-Sweeney indicated that in making decisions concerning the upcoming semester, the College is guided by “attending to our educational mission while ensuring to the best of our ability the health and well-being of all members of our campus community.” In addition to planning for a partial community return to campus, she stated that planning for remote learning options are underway in case Lamont’s gating requirements are not satisfied. Berger-Sweeney included a rough timeline for when the community can expect further guidance on the possibility of reopening on Sept. 1, adding that “we will aim to recommend a plan for approval by the Board of Trustees to consider in June. We anticipate having more concrete plans for the fall to share with you in mid-to-late June.” 

The conditions that Berger-Sweeney referenced are detailed in a report released by the State of Connecticut on May 8. The report specifies criteria for reopening institutions of higher education and mandates reopening plans with four components: a plan for repopulation, for monitoring health conditions, for containment to prevent the spread of the disease, and for shutdown in the event it becomes necessary. The report details seven gating conditions, including that colleges and universities must “have adequate supplies of viral diagnostic tests and adequate financial support to obtain, administer, and process them.” 

Berger-Sweeney also suggested a possible change to the fall academic calendar, indicating that “assuming that all gating conditions are met, we will begin on-campus learning after Sept. 1 and end before Thanksgiving to limit the number of times students depart from and return to campus from travel or visits home.” The President’s email did not specify any changes to Trinity Days or how the College would implement a plan to limit students from departing from campus of their own accord. Amherst College, meanwhile, has indicated that the College “may need to require that you limit your movement to on-campus locations only” according to the Associated Press.

Some students are eager to return to campus no matter what that experience may look like with the addition of gating conditions. Dana Parker ’22 expressed her own personal concerns about the potential loss of her time spent at the college, “I can’t imagine missing another semester on Trinity’s campus.” Parker added that she would be willing to take measures to ensure a safer and healthier environment, “I would wear a mask and comply with any school or government rules around social distancing because I’d do anything to be back on campus.” She also noted how difficult it has been for students to adjust to “a way of living that is so outside of our normal.”

Faculty Secretary and Associate Professor of Economics Mark Stater, when asked about the problems posed by social distancing on campus because of a high number of students, agreed that “it could be difficult to have the full number of students living on campus in the fall.” Additionally, he commented on the possibility of continuing remote learning if gating conditions are not met. Stater noted that “the specifics have yet to be worked out, but if that were to happen, we would have more time to prepare. There would be a chance to connect faculty to additional training and pedagogical tools for remote instruction, should it be necessary.” 

The Tripod spoke with Chief of Staff Jason Rojas regarding the President’s email, who added that “at this time, we are planning for an in-person return to campus. The appropriate faculty governance committees are engaged in academic planning in partnership with other committees who are looking at all aspects of our academic plan. As noted above planning is in progress and the appropriate committees and college leaders will provide an update as soon as possible.” 

The Tripod also reached out to Acting Dean of Faculty Sonia Cardenas for a comment on the current academic planning situation, however, she did not respond to the request.

Berger-Sweeney, in her email, assured students and faculty that “Acting Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs Sonia Cardenas, working closely with the Curriculum Committee and the ad-hoc COVID-19 Academic Planning Committee, [are] guiding academic planning for the fall.” 

Berger-Sweeney has set a target date of mid-June for updates on the fall in her initial email and the faculty are set to debate a series of motions at a Faculty Meeting on June 3 which covers, among other matters, possibilities for a hybrid fall semester that includes in-person and online experiences and affixing the dates of the College’s academic calendar, which the Tripod will be seeking to cover.

Trinity’s Emergency Management Team is currently working on a plan that would ensure the College’s safest possible reopening under the guidance of Dean of Campus Life and Vice President for Student Affairs Joe DiChristina.

Director of Housing Operations Susan Salisbury warned students of possible changes that could be made to housing arrangements to allow for greater social distancing measures in an email she sent to the community on May 7. The email included details about potential ways in which alternate housing arrangements could be utilized to meet social distancing requirements, although these thoughts are subject to change. Salisbury specified that “it is possible that 8 person suites will be downsized to 6 person and 6 person to 4 person. Suites with four bedrooms such as High Rise, Hansen, Vernon, Funston, the Summits will remain the same. Until we know for sure what requirements will be placed on how we house our students, we will continue with the current occupancy model.” No information about communal restrooms, which exist in nearly every Trinity dormitory excepting a few handicap accessible single units, was included in the update.

Trinity generally enrolls as many as 400-500 students per semester in abroad programs and there is not enough physical dorm capacity on Trinity’s campus to house all students currently enrolled if everyone were to return to campus. While no guidance has yet been issued, the Tripod asked Rojas how the college would make-up the housing deficit if abroad programs were to be cancelled in the fall or for the duration of the next academic year.

Rojas indicated that “there are a number of other decisions that have to be made before we determine how many beds will be needed next year. This is one of a number of key decisions that are priorities for addressing and details at this time would be speculative.” 

Rojas and DiChristina agree that social distancing is feasible and possible. Conversely,  Lexi Porto ’22 disagrees and believes that it is ridiculous to bring students back if learning will be remote. “I could not fathom why the college would want the student body to return to campus with remote learning unless they simply are trying to avoid losing funding,” she added.

Porto was confused by the reasoning involved in having students partake in remote learning while on campus while suggesting that faculty remain remote, arguing that this “is the most absurd course of action I have ever heard a college consider.” Her reasoning involved considering why students would return to campus if they cannot even attend classes, arguing that “if remote learning is the alternative to COVID Trinity chooses to pursue, it should be remote learning from the safety of students homes.”

Naomi Dressler ’22 was also skeptical of the College’s ability to maintain social distancing for a prolonged period of time and the effect these measures might have on her college experience. She argued that a key aspect of the College includes “being able to relax and study with friends and other students and without that closeness a lot of what being a trinity student is taken away.” Due to these reasons, Dressler and other students have considered taking a gap year or semester to prevent this loss of experience.

Dressler argued that she would prefer to return to campus when learning is conducted in “a relatively normal way rather than doing remote learning. I think the value of the Trinity experience comes from being on campus with in-person classes and the ability to meet and socialize freely with students and professors.”

However, socialization in violation of the original order not to return to Trinity from Dean of Students Joe DiChristina was apparent during what would have been the College’s Commencement Weekend in late May, as evidenced by a separate Tripod feature on some impromptu festivities.

Berger-Sweeney’s recent update clarifies that the College’s revenue sources are strained, and that more needs to be discovered about the fall semester in order to create a “realistic” annual budget. Berger-Sweeney stressed in her Apr. 15 email that “all of our traditional revenue sources are likely to be significantly and negatively impacted by this pandemic—net tuition revenues (fewer students who will need more financial aid), endowment income, and gifts to the college. The impact of these combined factors is real and serious, and it will last long after the pandemic abates.”

The Tripod previously reported a deficit of as much as $120 million in the Endowment at the start of April, together with a deficit of as much as $7 million for the current fiscal year. Berger-Sweeney added in her most recent update that Vice President of Finance and Chief Financial Officer Dan Hitchell is working with his team and key governance groups, such as the President’s Planning and Budget Council, to develop a realistic budget for the coming year and that the college expects to present a proposed FY21 budget to the trustees in June.

Berger-Sweeney called for community input in her message, welcoming suggestions for reopening plans. Rojas added that, as part of the administration’s efforts toward stakeholder involvement, “the Student Government Association has been asked to help us consider the question of social distancing and how we can work with students to provide the safest and healthiest living environment possible.”


Brendan W. Clark '21 is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Trinity Tripod, Trinity College's student newspaper.

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