Moving to remote learning – March 16

President Iuliano notified the community that Gettysburg College will be moving to remote learning on March 23.

Dear Members of the Gettysburg Community,

This is a letter I never thought I would need to write—and one I very much regret needing to write.

After careful reflection, and based on our informed assessment of the situation involving COVID-19, the College has decided that the health and safety of our community requires that we suspend our residential program and resume classes on an exclusively remote basis as of March 23 (the end of our students’ extended spring break).

Last week, I wrote to the community about the College’s decision to continue our students’ spring break for an additional week. The pause was intended to provide all of us—the College, students, families, and others—a fuller opportunity to understand the evolution of COVID-19. It also afforded the faculty time to prepare should the possibility of a return to campus prove infeasible and a move to teaching students through alternative means become necessary.

Since then, the global health situation has continued to deteriorate. The World Health Organization has declared a global pandemic, and the United States government a national emergency. The number of confirmed cases in the United States is now more than 3,000 and, if the trajectory in the United States follows that in China and Italy, those numbers risk growing substantially in the coming weeks. Events requiring large gatherings are being canceled throughout the country. And—while there are no known or suspected cases in Gettysburg—the number of cases in Pennsylvania continues to rise, the governor last week signed a disaster declaration, and public elementary and secondary schools are now closed for at least two weeks across the state.

In this context, the question before the College is how we should proceed when the extended spring break concludes on March 22—specifically, how best to advance our educational mission while meeting our paramount responsibilities to the health, safety, and well-being of our students, the entire College, and the greater Gettysburg community. Following a conversation with the Board of Trustees, the College has determined that the only responsible step for our students and the entire community is to move to a remote learning environment for the remainder of the semester. We considered, as some have urged, making a series of interim decisions. Given the view of public health experts that the virus will continue to expand domestically for the foreseeable future, and the need for families, students, faculty, and the College itself to make plans, we decided it was not constructive or appropriate to create such uncertainty. That said, we are fully committed to a residential educational environment. We will continue to monitor the situation carefully and, in the unlikely event that circumstances change such that we are able responsibly to resume normal operations before the semester ends, we will, of course, be prepared to change course.

In suspending our residential program, we do so reluctantly and with awareness of the implications for our students in particular. But this is a situation where the very strength of our College—the intimacy of our community—works against us. At a time when public health officials are urging that individuals engage in social distancing, we have students living in close proximity to one another, eating in common spaces, and learning together in shared classrooms. Should a case of COVID-19 arise on our campus, our structure could well facilitate the transmission of the virus throughout our community—and, perhaps, into the Borough of Gettysburg.

We have also reached this decision mindful of the well-being of the entire campus. Like any academic community, what we do requires essential support from so many people—faculty, dining service workers, staff in health services, the information technology team, and many others. We also have students and other members of the College community with a range of health conditions. COVID-19 can present particular risks to individuals in these groups. Ensuring that the campus is a place where every member of the College community can live and work safely is not only ethically necessary, but it is also foundational to an effective educational environment for our students.

In addition, it is not clear that we could properly respond to an outbreak. Public health officials recommend the isolation of people who are symptomatic and the quarantine of those with whom the person has come into close contact. In a residential environment such as ours, where each of us interacts with hundreds of people daily, we could not be confident in our ability to identify those with whom an infected person has come into close contact and, even if we could, we would not likely have the physical space to quarantine them. We cannot expect to rely on local health facilities to respond, which would likely be handling a spike in demand from the surrounding communities. As a responsible partner to our local and regional neighbors, we must be cognizant about the burdens we impose on their health and safety infrastructures.

Since my letter from last week, I have received heartfelt and moving messages from students, and especially from seniors, wanting to ensure that we are considering just how much they cherish being on campus with friends and faculty, just how much they gain from their co-curricular and extracurricular activities, and just how much they would regret losing those experiences. I have also received powerful letters from students for whom this decision will impose hardships given their personal or financial situations. These communications reflect the very best of the College: thoughtful, passionate, and sensitive to the challenges this situation is presenting to society and places like Gettysburg.

For those students facing personal or financial hardships, we will continue to work with you to help as we can. For those students who are concerned about losing invaluable time with friends and faculty, we will do all we can to create other opportunities for connections to occur. It remains early in our discussions about this new way to come together as a community, but we are very much focused on how to foster virtual curricular and co-curricular events that will amplify our students’ academic experience and reflect the dynamic community that defines this College. In the coming days, students and their families can expect to hear more from our co-curricular programs, such as the Center for Career Engagement and the Garthwait Leadership Center, and we welcome ideas from the community.

I should note that we have been using the time since my March 10 letter productively. We have been working with the faculty to be as prepared as possible to teach through alternative means beginning on Monday, March 23. The faculty has responded in true Gettysburg spirit: with an unwavering commitment to our students and a sense of anticipation of the opportunities this period of change may offer, including by creating new insights about our classroom experience. The speed and circumstances of the temporary transition to these alternative means is not ideal, and not everything will be flawless. But I am confident that, working together in the ways that our community does, our students will continue to receive the high-quality education for which the College is so widely known and respected.

I recognize that students, parents, and other members of the College community will have a number of practical and logistical questions as result of this decision. Students should expect to hear from the Provost tomorrow with details about how the revised teaching program will operate. The College has issued an FAQ document, posted on the following website, designed to begin addressing other logistical questions. I have no doubt that there are important questions we will have missed, and we promise to update the FAQs regularly. We are also establishing a phone bank, reachable at 717-337-8800, as a further means of helping get information to parents, students, and friends of the College. The phone bank will be staffed today, March 16, from 11am-8pm and from 8am-8pm the following days. Later this week, I will be hosting online town halls to speak more personally to our community and to hear your concerns directly. We will, of course, also continue with our commitment to regular communications to the community.

These are truly extraordinary times, but this is also a truly extraordinary community, defined and strengthened by our unique history. Since our founding in 1832, we have repeatedly demonstrated the power and resiliency of our community, and proved time and again all that we can accomplish together. External events may require a change in the means of our interactions for the remainder of this semester, but the essence of what defines this community will shine through: a belief in each other and in the personal and intellectual transformation made possible by a Gettysburg education. I cannot imagine wanting to be anywhere else, or with any other group of people, as we navigate these uncharted waters with the optimism, determination, and forward-focus that is the hallmark of this campus.

Thank you for your continuing support of the College.

With warm regards,

Bob