St. Olaf College | COVID-19

July 3, 2020 at 2:18 p.m.

To St. Olaf College faculty and staffFrom Marci Sortor, Provost and Dean of the College

Dear Faculty and Staff Colleagues,

Looking over my communications with you since the end of the spring semester, I am struck with the speed with which we have been responding to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. In just a matter of weeks, departments have grappled with how they will offer courses. Offices have developed detailed plans for how they will function as safely as possible in the fall. We’ve learned about masks and physical distancing in a variety of teaching settings, about testing and contact tracing and setting new community standards. I want to give a special shout-out to the Departments of Music, Theater and Dance, which have thought through a myriad of issues linked to safe practices, and SSS Trio and its faculty and student partners as it prepares to launch Summer Bridge. I also want to acknowledge the work that is being done by Enoch Blazis on developing a path for reopening in the fall. St. Olaf has been moving with remarkable speed. Thank you for your part in making that happen.

We are, of course, in an extraordinarily dynamic situation in regard to the pandemic, both in terms of its spread and our understanding of COVID. With that caveat, here is an update on progress in the Academic Division.

Course Delivery

This past week there has been increasing discussion about the mode of delivery of courses. I expect that this discussion will continue as we explore the right balance between in-person and online teaching and how these support student learning and ensure a safe environment for faculty and students.

The Emergency Academic Committee (EAC) called for hybrid courses to allow for physical distancing in classrooms and to enhance the ability to respond to changing circumstances (such as health-related absences). Dan Dressen expects to share in the next few days the new classroom assignments based on Minnesota Department of Health guidelines. We have also worked closely with Fine Arts departments to determine room capacities based on guidance from their professional organizations. Exactly what hybrid teaching means for course design is for the professor to determine. In most cases, it will be necessary to divide up classes so as to meet the lowered classroom capacity. Mary Titus, director of CILA, and Ben Gottfried, Assistant Director of Instructional Technologies, worked with the Fram Fram group[1] to develop a helpful idea tool kit for designing hybrid courses in light of the fall’s space constraints.

As I wrote in my June 5 letter, we expect to offer a number of online courses. In addition to the courses that will be taught online to accommodate a faculty member’s health circumstances or those of a family member, the Deans Council and I recognize the need to identify courses that might be better offered online given the need for physical distancing and mask wearing. Associate Deans issued a call for requests to offer online courses for non-health related reasons and began reviewing them today. The Associate Deans recommended that we extend the deadline to July 8. The Deans Council will complete its decisions in time for the reissuing of the Class and Lab on July 10. The Deans Council will be considering issues such as pedagogical reasons for a particular delivery mode, whether online offerings are too heavily concentrated at a certain level of the curriculum or at key points in the major or GE, and the first-year student experience. I will send a separate notice about the extended deadline shortly.

Additionally, the Associate Deans and I have been discussing the particular challenges that those with school-aged children could face should the public schools remain closed. We will work with you to find a good way to address this situation—whether that is through remote teaching or changing your schedule—should it arise. Just let us know.

St. Olaf is a residential liberal arts college. Students come here to live and study in community and engage with you, their professors. We know the difficulties students experienced when they transitioned to online learning this past spring. Trouble maintaining focus, the loss of connection with fellow students and their professors, and emotional struggles ensuing from the loss of their learning community were common. Many of you spent hours tracking down students who simply stopped attending your online courses. One of the consequences of the shift to 100% online instruction this spring was a significant jump in incompletes. As much as we safely can, we should be striving for hybrid courses in which professors are meeting in class with students in a regular fashion.

I and the Associate Deans will continue to work with you and your departments to find the right balance of modes of delivery to keep people safe, address their particular concerns, and also respond to the reasons why our students—and therefore why we—are here.

Updating the Class and Lab, Online Registration and New Student Advising

Students should know whether they are enrolled in a hybrid or a fully-remote online course so that they can make good choices for themselves. When the Registrar’s Office updates the Class & Lab with the changed classroom locations, it will also indicate which courses will be online. The new online registration system will be ready in late July for incoming students. The Center for Advising and Academic Support and the Registrar has been working with students over the summer. Since we will not have an in-person Welcome Ceremony, there is increased flexibility for advising meetings during New Student Orientation. CAAS will send information about fall advising meetings in about a week.

Opening up the campus

Staff members should already know when they will be returning to campus (for many, this will be around August 3). We are working on a timeline for the return of faculty to campus and how this will be linked to the safety training, daily health questionnaire and pledge to observe community standards.

EAC: interim and spring calendar and passing times, and a bit more on mid-term grades

The EAC has determined that we should lengthen the passing time between classes to 15 minutes in order to lessen congestion in hallways and in the movement in and out of classrooms. The EAC advises that we leave the calendar for interim and spring terms “as is” for now and revisit the calendar in October. Ericka Peterson will issue a report on these decisions.

The EAC determined that, for this fall, midterm grades will be submitted. Doing so helps us be ready for the worst, should it happen, by providing information about progress to date in a course. Last spring, faculty members reported difficulty assigning grades after the disruption of transitioning to remote teaching. I heard from some students that they were at a loss as to where they stood and whether they should change to the S/U grading option or drop a course. Fram Fram advises that the grade be based on roughly half of the coursework for the course. Naturally, not all courses and related graded work can be neatly divided 50-50. You will need to exercise your judgement as to how you will assign the mid-semester grade. Instructions for filing mid-semester grades will come early in the fall.

Identifying Students Who May Have Difficulty Returning to Campus

We expect students to study on campus and be in residence this fall. Exceptions to that rule will be determined by the Dean of Students. Please refer to the class deans any student who reaches out to you regarding their difficulty getting to campus this fall for any reason. Some students are independently reaching out to faculty members with requests to take St. Olaf courses remotely. Making separate arrangements can present any number of issues for the college and for professors. Once the Dean of Students or (in the case of an accommodation) CAAS clarifies the student’s situation, they will contact the professor to discuss possible options.

Meetings of all sorts

Meetings and office hours should in most cases be virtual. Virtual meetings will certainly be my default, though I will work to accommodate those who need an in-person meeting.


  • The Community Pledge (more on that soon)
  • Advice regarding field trips and events
  • Clarification about travel in the fall
  • Continued work on technology set-ups in classrooms
  • Identification of department/program needs for student after-hours access to class, studio and practice spaces
  • Notification of students of changes to the Class and Lab and online courses
  • Guidance on the return to campus.

Circumstances here and nationally most certainly will continue to change. We will need to be ready to adjust our responses. I’ll keep in touch with you about our next steps, but also about how thinking about the college’s response may change. As always, I welcome your ideas and questions about these and other matters. I look forward to seeing you back on The Hill at the end of the summer.

Please accept my best wishes to you for the fourth of July holiday.


[1] A reminder: Fram Fram is an informal group formed to advise me on issues linked to delivering our academic curriculum in the fall and implementation of the EAC and PLT’s decisions. Along with the chairs of the Faculty Governance and Curriculum committees, its members include three Associate Deans, the Registrar, and the Assistant Director of Instructional Technology.