Jewell creates COVID-19 task force as colleges respond to pandemic

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At the beginning of March the coronavirus pandemic began its rapid spread throughout the United States, and the first colleges and universities initiated their response. Among the first universities to enact changes due to coronavirus, Stanford University canceled all in-person classes after March 6 for the remainder of their winter quarter. After the announcement of a Stanford undergraduate testing positive for COVID-19 one week later, the university gave the majority of students five days – until Wednesday, March 18 – to leave the campus.

Other colleges and universities to announce early reaction to the pandemic include the University of Washington, Princeton University, New York state universities, Ohio state universities and Harvard University. 

On Tuesday, March 10, Harvard University announced it would be going online until further notice after their spring break and gave students until March 15 to vacate the campus. Due to the rapid response and alleged vague communication, students were left scrambling to return home. Students claim the university did not clarify the financial support that would be available to them. Several set up crowdfunding campaigns in order to fund their return home and cover other sudden costs required by the quick departure.

The richest college in the world, Harvard was criticized for leaving low income students without support in a time of crisis. The university is not providing support for students with poor internet access or other connectivity access – which will directly impact underprivileged and low-income students and their potential academic success. Many colleges’ responses are highlighting the impact of the virus on low-income students specifically.

Other early actors, like Duke University, announced online courses and the closure of campus during their spring break – not allowing students to return to campus to retrieve their belongings before requiring them to return home. On March 10, Duke announced classes after spring break would go online and that their spring break would be extended through March 23 in order to prepare for the change. 

Some of these initial decisions were severely criticized for their impact on students – which likely informed the way other schools reacted. 

On March 11, William Jewell College first announced its decision to form a task force to address the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, president of the college, described the formation of the task-force and its purpose.

“The College maintains an Emergency Response Team that is led by Landon Jones, our Director of Campus Safety,” MacLeod Walls said. “The COVID-19 Task Force is an outgrowth of our Emergency Response Team and is responsible for facilitating dialogue and information-sharing as well as providing me with recommendations on how best to act in response to what we know… My role is to take recommendations and act in the best interests of our community.” 

On February 5, Jones began briefing Jewell’s cabinet on possible responses to COVID-19, and he formed the task force shortly thereafter.  

“Subsequent to those briefings, [Jones] convened the Task Force to give specific focus to our work and to provide recommendations to the Cabinet and me on which to take action,” MacLeod Walls said.

The task force makes recommendations to MacLeod Walls to inform Jewell’s decisions.

“The Task Force has recommended, among other things, moving to online education following spring break; closing the residence halls to all but those who must remain on campus; facilitating a process for students to move out of their rooms; ensuring continuity of health care and counseling during this time; ensuring the safety of our employees through working remotely (where possible); ensuring the cleanliness, safety, and security of our buildings during this time; and monitoring communication between and among different groups,” said MacLeod Walls. 

MacLeod Walls explained that Jewell’s decisions were largely not impacted by those of other colleges and universities – focusing instead on making the best possible decisions with the information available.

“We were early in our response, but not the first – largely given our location in the country and in the metro,” said MacLeod Walls. “Other schools are just now closing residence halls. We have stayed focused on what is best for our students, faculty, and staff and have acted accordingly.”

The college announced its suspension of in-person classes March 12, for implementation beginning March 23, after spring break. On March 15, courses were confirmed to be online for the remainder of the semester. 

After the initial announcements students were told they could go through a screening process to remain on campus, and students with poor home internet connection could apply for hotspots to be provided by the college. On March 18, residence halls were closed and students requested to leave as soon as possible. Those with acute need to stay on campus could appeal their case for case-by-case review. Students have been advised about how to retrieve their belongings from campus over a three-week period.

Since campus closure, Clay County has been put under a shelter-in-place order. Because the College is considered an essential business, some of its operations remain in place.

Students have been sent information on academic resources, counseling services and student life. Many student support services have gone online and students are encouraged to check their emails and take advantage of these services. 

On March 25, students were emailed to notify them that Student Health Center services were going online. Students can contact Jewell’s health center nurse practitioner Paula Brown to schedule telehealth appointments via phone, computer or tablet with camera capabilities. 

On March 25, the financial aid department notified students that students with work-study positions would continue to receive payments while the campus is closed. Students will be paid according to how much they work in a typical week. Work-study students were advised to get in contact with the business office to avoid any disruption in payment. Students with workship positions are not eligible for continued payment but can continue working remotely if possible. Clarifications about this financial aid were sent March 27.

On March 2, an email from MacLeod Walls announced that commencement and baccalaureate ceremonies would not be held May 16, 2020. She assured students that some formal graduation for the class of 2020 will be held in person once the situation is safe enough to allow it. The ceremonies will be taped and available for distribution.

This decision differs with that of many other colleges and universities. According to Inside Higher Ed, 47 percent of colleges and universities have canceled their graduation with no alternative. 14 percent have rescheduled for another date, and 12 percent of colleges and universities have moved to a virtual graduation format. 

On March 31 students were notified that the College significantly increased the price threshold for registration. Now, students with an account balance up to $2,500 can register for courses in the fall. Students with an account balance greater than $2,500 were encouraged to contact the financial aid department for assistance with registration.

On April 3 students were notified by Joe Garcia, vice president for finance and operations, that Jewell was suspending its normal refund policy. Students will be refunded approximately $2,400 for eight weeks worth of room and board fees. Graduating seniors will be refunded via check, and continuing students will have the refunded money credited to their fall semester 2020 tuition and fees. Continuing students may request the refund in the form of a check. For students with an outstanding balance, the refund will go toward that balance, with the remainder being credited to fall semester tuition – or in the form of a refund check. Jewell aims to distribute checks by April 17.

MacLeod Walls explained that there is no clear plan for the future due to the volatility of the pandemic. 

“COVID-19 is preventing us from having a firm plan for the future, but we do know three things:  1) We will continue to meet our Mission, 2) We will continue to recruit new students and support current students, and 3) We will enact key strategies, approved by the Board, to ensure the long-term viability of William Jewell,” MacLeod Walls said.

MacLeod Walls encouraged students to reach out for help during this time and for the Jewell community to come together to support one another. 

“I want to encourage students to reach out with ideas and questions – and we especially want to hear if family circumstances have changed so that we can be a partner in bridging students to the fall,” said MacLeod Walls. “We don’t want changes in jobs or income due to this crisis to be a barrier for students to continue their education at Jewell. We are here to help – and, together, we are one Jewell family.”

In addition to the decisions to cancel in-person classes, go online and close campuses – among other responses, several colleges and universities have expanded their policies regarding pass-fail or other institutional equivalents. 

“We expect that this strategy will ease the necessary transitions into remote course delivery and promote strong engagement,” Duke University said in an email announcing that all spring courses at the university will default to a satisfactory/unsatisfactory grade scheme, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Some colleges, like MIT and Smith College, have made pass-fail mandatory, while others, like Harvard and Middlebury, have extended the deadline for students to declare a pass-fail course. Several colleges expanding their pass-fail policies, like Duke, are now allowing pass-fail courses, or institutional equivalent, to count toward a major or minor.  

The drawbacks to expanding pass-fail policies involve the impact on student GPAs. Pass-fail courses, and institutional equivalents, do not count toward a GPA – and thus can be detrimental to future student endeavors. MIT’s mandatory pass-fail policy is criticized for failing to give students the option to receive letter grades. 

As of this writing, William Jewell College has not yet announced a policy regarding pass-fail courses.

Catherine Dema

Catherine Dema is the page editor for Features & Investigations on The Hilltop Monitor. She is a senior majoring in Oxbridge: History of Ideas and physics.

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