University announces plans to open campus for spring semester

By Amelia Leaphart
Executive Staff

On October 7, students received an email with an update for Spring semester plans. The semester will begin after an extended winter break on February 1, and the final day of classes will be May 12. Three rest days have been worked into the semester, differing from fall semester, when no classes will be held for the day to give students a break. Spring break has also been taken off the calendar.

Terry Papillon, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the college, said that plans were finalized the day before they sent the email out. 

“We’ve started this conversation in August, but we wanted to use this fall to learn about how to think about the term. It was probably a month of intense conversation before making the decision,” Papillon said. 

Papillon worked with faculty leadership, student leadership, and the registrar to help understand the community’s concern.

Ivana Porashka (C’21), President of the Student Government Association, said that student concerns mainly surround mental health.

“This protection we have is a privilege with the bubble,” Porashka said, “but it also comes at a cost of not going off-campus or having visitors, which includes our family. I think that’s just a difficulty in the protective infrastructure we’ve created.”

In regard to factors that went into the decision, Papillon said, “First and foremost, setting a schedule we could get through safely. It seems to be going well this fall, we’re finishing up a ninth week now and doing well. We wanted to use the model of this fall as a way to do the spring.”

Knowing that this model had been successful up to this point, as Sewanee has had a low rate of positive cases, there was no reason to drastically change the model for next semester. 

 “We know that we’re in a period where people are hitting a wall. The stress on the students is strong, the stress on the faculty is strong, we wanted to be aware of that as well,” Papillon said.

Papillon notes that Sewanee needs to meet a certain number of hours of class-time to remain an accredited university.

In order to further protect the bubble, there will be no spring break this year as, according to Papillon, it does not make sense to have people leave for 10 days and return to campus.

Porashka said, “I think most people are on board with that, it’s part of protecting the bubble.”

Last summer when thinking about how to orchestrate the fall semester, planning focused more on observing and communicating with other universities. This dialogue with other schools was less important when considering the spring semester.

“However I am always monitoring what’s happening at small, liberal arts colleges. I meet once a week with the deans and provosts of the Associated Colleges of the South. I also follow what’s happening at other schools as well, at big state schools. Frankly, it feels good. We’re doing pretty well,” Papillon said. 

With the exception of three rest days added and no spring break, students can expect a similar semester to this fall.

“I see nothing happening in the national health world that would change before May, so I anticipate almost everything would be the same,” Papillon said.

Porashka said, “I think that it’s a functional plan. I think with what we’ve seen this semester we know it can be done safely. I have hopes that the spring semester will be more successful with mental health, because now we know what it’s going to look like. The transition won’t be as stark as this semester.”

The faculty is currently working on creating the academic schedule for the spring knowing that students still have the option to be remote. 

One benefit for students is that they now know the plan for the semester and see the schedule before registering for classes, which was not the case last semester. 

Current conversations about change after this semester regard behavioral policies, perhaps to “be less onerous for the students,” Papillon said. 

However, Papillon emphasizes that the main priority is to stay on campus. Students “don’t want to go back to their parents’ basement,” Papillon said. 

“I was not at all confident that we would be able to be successful back in the fall, I will admit that,” Papillon said, “I was concerned about student behaviour, but I was also concerned about the number of other ways the virus could come to campus, because we haven’t completely shut down the bubble. We have people come and go, faculty and staff that live off the domain. We have business deliveries, we have workmen, so it’s not a completely closed bubble. But boy, we’ve done a really good job.”

Porashka said that she’s been studying resilience recently, and that “undergoing hardship strengthens individuals, and I think that’s what we’re doing as a community. I feel like the spring will be even stronger as a community.”