Student Frustration at College's Lack of Communication Regarding Fall Plans and Leaked Announcements

For many Amherst students scattered across the globe in their remote learning locales, Wednesday, July 1 was spent pacing their rooms and refreshing their emails on the hour, every hour. 

It was not until a few minutes past 5:30 p.m. that day that the college shared its official plans for some students’ return to campus in the fall. Before that, the college had shared with students that on July 1 it intended to make public a detailed outline of what the fall semester would look like, but offered no further information about when to expect an email.

The faculty met on Tuesday night, as did the board of trustees that afternoon, to learn of the college’s plans, which had been nearly solidified by then. Wednesday morning, as students awaited the scheduled email, they took to group chats and Twitter to share what information they had heard from deans and professors, specifically regarding the status of juniors and seniors not being able to return to campus. By the time the college’s official announcement arrived in inboxes, most had already heard the news through informal sources and were anxious to receive official confirmation.

“I found it unsurprising, though still disappointing, that [President] Biddy [Martin] waited until after five on the day of the announcement to send the email when the administration had clearly decided by that point. Why not just send it at nine?” said Abigail Davis ’21, who emailed the senior class dean, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Music David Schneider, earlier that day to learn more about what the school was planning. “The lack of communication from the school was frustrating. It was sporadic and uncertain. I was stressed about the lack of updates and wanted to have a clearer picture of what each scenario would look like so I reached out to the dean about the option to defer. [Schneider’s]  email made it seem like mainly senior science thesis writers would be allowed back on campus, which was quite different from [Martin’s] email later in the day stating that students who had studied abroad in the previous year would also be allowed back. Several friends were referencing conversations with their advisors for insight into the school’s decision, but it seems like no one really knew until the email came out. I just wish the school had been more straightforward.”

An excerpt from her email with Schneider had been posted in the erstwhile-inactive Class of 2021 GroupMe created over three years before for admitted students, which, like many other campus GroupMe chats that afternoon, buzzed with speculation as students pieced together what information had slipped out from professors, staff and other community members. Students grew frustrated, feeling like they knew some information but had no official confirmation of it. 

“I’m literally pacing around my house waiting for my bread to bake and for the email to be sent,” one student sent in the Class of 2021 GroupMe around 4:00 p.m. “Betting on the bread to be done first.” 

Even when the announcement’s delay wasn’t itself the disruption, it only further complicated students’ emotional reaction to the news.“There was a leak in the BSU chat so we heard about [the proposed changes] the morning of [July 1]. It actually softened the blow hearing only partial parts. I had heard that they were only sending freshmen and sophomores back,” said Bridget Carmichael ’21. “I was really angry but had a little hope that maybe they would change their minds last minute. But then when [Martin] announced freshmen, sophomores and essentially half the seniors [were allowed to return] …. I was livid. Like if all the seniors got screwed somehow, that would have been better for me to process and accept rather than having just some seniors. That was really anxiety-provoking for me.”

The Office of Communications explained the delay in fully sharing a plan with students after faculty: “Given the uncertainties and changing circumstances, we did not reach a final decision with sufficient detail until Tuesday evening. On Monday, at the weekly meeting of the Committee of Six, President Martin asked whether faculty might want a summary and an opportunity to ask questions before the official announcement went out to students. Though students and families had received notice that we were not likely to bring all students back to campus, the faculty, as a group, had not yet been apprised. The committee members thought the faculty would benefit from a pre-announcement presentation and discussion. The board of trustees approved the plan after hearing the administration’s recommendation on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the outline of the plan was completed, edited, and copy edited before it was sent out.”

“It’s just really hard to process,” she added. 

Now, as students have begun to process the new information, they still are feeling like there’s not enough available to know how to make the best choices for themselves as they prepare for the fall semester. 

On July 5, Dean of Students Liz Agosto sent an email outlining a daily communication schedule so that students could know what to expect from her and when; she launched a similar communication outline in the spring after student requests for more regularity in her updates. 

On Monday students received the fall intent form, which asked students to officially submit their plans for the fall —  stating whether they plan to study on campus, if invited; will learn remotely; or defer a semester. It was due Friday July 10, initially, but later that day Agosto informed students that the deadline had been moved to July 13, still leaving only a week after the form had been sent out for students to finalize plans.

“As a student with an underlying condition — asthma in my case — I really feel that speaking with my doctor to ensure how to manage my asthma in the event I test positive for COVID and establishing communication with the health center around ongoing medical care is critical to my decision to petition to be on campus for my thesis. Unfortunately, I’ve been asked to make a decision with minimal information about the health care landscape on campus on a timescale that does not allow me to see my physician before submitting the intent form,” Sam Grondin ’21 said. He emailed the Office of Student Affairs with further questions about health protocols on campus and was directed to the Health Center with little given information and the explanation that the college’s decisions on these matters were evolving and still to be determined. He asked for a potential extension on submitting the intent form, explaining he hoped to talk to his first doctor, but it was not granted. 

In her initial email about the fall intent form, Agosto noted that invited students that choose to return to campus will be able to change their minds after notifying the college, though those who opt to study remotely can not reverse their decision after filling out the intent form.

Students did not receive Agosto’s email on health and wellbeing until the afternoon of July 8, though it was scheduled for July 7, writing that “these messages were delayed due to key decisions that needed to be revisited considering changing information and guidance.” They still expect further details on community expectations and life, as Agosto initially outlined she would provide. 

“I am not frustrated that they don’t have the answers, because there are a lot of unknown things, but I am frustrated in the way that the decision was presented to us and that we had such a short amount of time. To me that was saying: ‘This is a simple decision to make. You have this many days to do it, and here’s all this general information that does not pertain to you as individuals but you should be able to make your decision off this general information,” said Lauren McNeil ’21.

She explained that as a science student, a lot of the information she needs to make decisions about whether she wants to be remote or on campus come fall are still not available. Details on how lab courses will operate over Zoom, for instance, are still up in the air. The course scheduler still has lots of gaps for which science courses will be available and which will be online. “It’s just kind of nerve wracking to not know that, considering I do have these requirements left and this is my last year. So, am I in a pickle? Or is everything going to be ok, and they’re just not making that clear?” she added.

“I do understand that this is a difficult time and there are a lot of unknown variables that people don’t necessarily have the answers to. This is such a stressful time where so much is bigger than Amherst and bigger than us, really. It’s something that is happening to our global community,” McNeil said. “I think that acknowledging that and explicitly saying ‘there are a lot of unknowns right now, there are a lot of questions we don’t have the answers to, but we’re really going to work with you to make sure you have a great academic experience,’ [is important]”. 

This article has been updated after its initial publication with insight from Lauren McNeil.