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Colleges go digital, campuses get quiet

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PUTNEY — Colleges are making the move to digital spaces in an effort to cut down on the risk of infection and spread of the new coronavirus. And local institutions like Landmark College, Marlboro College and SIT Graduate Institute are no exception.

"We're so personalized and one on one, it's harder for Landmark to go online than some other colleges," said Mark DiPietro, director of marketing and communications at Landmark College in Putney. "But it's obviously a call we have to make because of the current situation."

DiPietro said things are changing so quickly that decisions are being revisited multiple times a day. The hope is to allow all students to come back on campus starting in the summer sessions but that might not be possible as social interactions are being restricted more each day.

Altogether, Landmark anticipates having 33 students on campus this semester. The college tends to have about 400 students living on campus.

Landmark had 28 students who remained on campus for spring break. That one-week break was extended by another week, until March 29, to give faculty time to develop online courses in anticipation of needing to do so for the remainder of the semester given the coronavirus outbreak.

The earliest date students would be allowed to return to campus was then moved to April 18. DiPietro said students could apply to return sooner via a hardship exception, which recognized that financial or housing situations could make the later return "unduly difficult."

Five out of 35 applicants were accepted. DiPietro said the college imposed a mandatory 14-day isolation period for them, even though none of them came from high-risk regions, out of an abundance of caution. They also need to be screened for any signs they might be sick.

Most staff and faculty are expected to be working remotely.

"We obviously have dining services, health services, and some residential staff and administrators remaining on campus," DiPietro said. "But we certainly are distancing and isolating."

Staff and students are being asked to keep away from "non-essential spaces" on campus, he said, adding that surfaces and doorknobs are being cleaned "aggressively." Precautions are being taken in line with guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On Wednesday, Landmark College announced it would move to online instruction beginning March 30. The school bills itself as "one of the only accredited colleges in the United States designed exclusively for students who learn differently" including those with dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder and other neurodivergent issues.

"I want to reassure you all that while we pride ourselves on our high contact, face-to-face instruction, we have been delivering effective online instruction to neurodivergent learners for over six years, through our dual enrollment program," Gail Gibson Sheffield, vice president of academic affairs at the college, wrote in an email to students Friday. "We have used many of our lessons learned from those experiences to guide us in developing the academic plan for this semester. We will begin the transition to online learning with a lot of scaffolding to ensure that students are supported to successfully complete this semester."

Each student is going to have an online advisor who will check in with them on a daily basis, provide help with creating a plan to stay on track and point them to resources. Faculty members are being asked to hold daily office hours and to be available during the time the class normally meets face to face.

The school will delay course registration for summer sessions and the fall semester to assess the impact of the next few weeks. More information is expected later next month.

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MARLBORO

Marlboro College President Kevin Quigley said normally, his school has spring break for two weeks but students working on "senior plans" can stay on campus to finish up their projects. In the past, about 12 to 15 students would remain.

"This year, because we're merging with Emerson [College] at the end of the semester, there were more students who asked for permission to stay on campus," Quigley said, referring to a previous decision that will close the Marlboro campus and bring its academic programs to Boston.

The college had 28 students who initially applied to live on campus through spring break. Quigley said most of them needed access to college spaces such as studios and shops.

On March 11, the college announced it would be moving to remote learning modalities at the end of spring break on March 30 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Currently, 146 students are enrolled.

Later, the time students could remain on campus during spring break was shortened to one week. They needed to leave campus by Sunday.

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Precautions were taken along the way. Quigley said while living on campus, the 28 students were relocated to dormitories with kitchens and transported to Hannaford in Brattleboro to get food they needed.

"For those who didn't have the funds," he said, "we provided funds to buy food."

Additionally, the school offered refunds for housing if students wanted to leave the campus. As of Thursday, five of the 28 students decided to go home.

Quigley said it is unlikely students will return before the end of the semester so arrangements are being made to refund housing charges. The school is "moving aggressively to get students online" and most staff members are working remotely, he added.

With public gatherings restricted now by a governor's order, Quigley is unsure if the May 17 graduation will be postponed. All college-sponsored travel was cancelled as of March 11.

The pandemic is having no effect on the merger except for distracting the two parties involved as they respond, Quigley said.

SIT

SIT Graduate Institute closed its Brattleboro campus about a week ago out of concern about the coronavirus and staff are working remotely. As a study abroad provider, the school had 920 undergraduates in 56 programs around the world and six students in master's degree programs in Africa this semester.

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Teams in Vermont, Washington, D.C. and on the ground in the countries have been "working around the clock to get those students home," said Kate Casa, director of communications for SIT. As of about 11 a.m. Monday, "92 percent are back home. The rest are either in transit or in country but booked to leave."

On March 15, SIT decided to close all of its global locations. Casa said the school has programs on all seven continents.

"There were a lot of challenges," she said. "Some of our students were out in the field. Some of them were on excursions."

Students were brought back to "program centers" in the different countries, where repatriation plans were made. Casa said some students refused to leave and signed waivers as they planned to stay.

Due to travel restrictions, bringing students home from Samoa and Peru was described by Casa as "very difficult."

"So they're still sheltering in place," she said.

Casa said SIT has a risk assessment team and a COVID-19 task force working with Congress. She called the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt, "incredibly supportive."

Leahy's office helped get students on a United States government flight out of Morocco and continues to assist in efforts to get students from Peru and Samoa, Casa said, adding that SIT is "profoundly grateful."

Academic deans and staff in each region have helped make sure students get what they need. And SIT has a team helping students book flights.

"I think everyone was caught off guard by this," Casa said. "Everyone has really stepped up. It's been a pretty amazing experience to work with so many committed people."

Coursework moved to online platforms so students can get the credits they need.

"It's just obviously not the same as study abroad out in the world," Casa said, "but I guess it's a whole new world right now."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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