Spring campus reopening—but juniors and seniors must wait

One Pennsylvania college invites all students back for the spring semester through a staggered schedule, with first-year and sophomore students asked to arrive in January and juniors and seniors returning in March after spring break.
By: | November 13, 2020
A signpost on Dickinson’s academic quad lists the distance between the Carlisle, Pa. campus and various points around the world. It serves as a symbol of how global study and engagement is a cornerstone of the Dickinson experience.A signpost on Dickinson’s academic quad lists the distance between the Carlisle, Pa. campus and various points around the world. It serves as a symbol of how global study and engagement is a cornerstone of the Dickinson experience.

Dickinson College in central Pennsylvania has announced a plan for spring that President Margee Ensign believes other higher ed institutions will soon be embracing. While all students are being invited back to campus—which has been closed to all but about 175 students with various needs this fall—the return will be staggered by class.

When academics begin on January 25, just first-year and sophomore students will be living and learning on Carlisle campus. They will go back home for spring break and remain there for the rest of the semester, at which time juniors and seniors will have their chance to return to campus.

The fall semester fell into place as a remote semester because reliable testing with quick results was scarce at the time, says Ensign, who is no stranger to infectious disease outbreaks, having been in West Africa for ebola.

In making the decision for spring, logistics became big factors. Ensign and her team knew it wasn’t just about residence hall rooms for all, but also additional rooms set aside for those in quarantine. Dining and classroom spaces posed problems as well. “We realized the only way we could bring everybody back was to do half at a time,” she says.

They decided freshmen and sophomores should be first—they had either had no time at all on campus yet or the aborted spring 2020 semester. Having seniors be back for the end of the semester, approaching commencement, also seemed logical.

About two-thirds of juniors at Dickinson spend time overseas and travel there is unlikely to be considered safe for at least several months, so officials had to get creative about programming. They came up with the Globally Integrated Semester. Juniors will begin with a course connected to a Dickinson study abroad program and participate in globally themed workshops. “At the end of the semester, they would spend three or four weeks at our program site [abroad], assuming things have improved,” says Ensign. “We’re coming up with new ways to do study abroad.”

Based on regular conversations with other college presidents, Ensign knows of other institutions looking at the split semester approach for spring. “We are entering the most dangerous period of this pandemic,” she says. “Wishful thinking doesn’t give you the right answers.” She suspects that some presidents are already reworking plans that have been announced.

As for Dickinson’s plan being definite, she believes it’s highly likely. “My decisions are based on data,” she says. “Now maybe we’ll be able to change it for good news. But a vaccine has to be approved first. And you have to make sure different age groups can handle it. Looking at the Biden administration distribution plans, young healthy people are not at the top of the list. It will be late spring to summer before our age groups have access to this.”

Spring life on campus and beyond

The success of Dickinson’s in-person plans will depend, of course, on buy-in from the community. Many classes will still be remote, masks will be required and large gatherings won’t be permitted. Residence life has already matched up roommates and has innovative programming planned for residence halls. And students have already been working with and helping the community together. Business students, for example, helped local businesses write CARE Act proposals, Ensign says.

Dickinson College President Margee Ensign’s advice to other presidents about planning for spring

• Never take anything personally.

• Communicate constantly, calmly explaining plans.

• Get some rest and exercise. “I know our cohort has not stopped since March, but you have to be at your best,” she says.

That kind of partnership is not surprising, given that Dickinson is an open campus and the institution has a tradition of being deeply involved in Carlisle as a whole.

When Ensign became president in 2017, she founded the Carlisle Community Action Network (CAN), by having a few community members over for breakfast at her home. Now the CAN is composed of more than 90 people representing the education, business and faith communities, as well as health care, law enforcement, government, military and various nonprofits. Throughout the pandemic its members have met weekly via Zoom, and the group has created a website for all resources available to those in need. Now CAN is launching a public health initiative that encourages Carlisle visitors, business owners, patrons and students to wear masks while in public spaces. The network will distribute more than 2,000 masks and posters to 120 businesses that have pledged to combat the spread of COVID-19.

The commitment will help the community, including Dickinson students looking to finish the semester as planned, to stay healthy.

“I’m super proud of what our community has done,” says Ensign. “I think it’s an example for the U.S. in how communities can deal with this pandemic. There’s no political divide, or business versus education. We’re all in this together.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.