St. Olaf College | News

An update from President Anderson on fall planning

Greetings Oles, 

Your responses to the survey we sent you recently — and, by the way, thanks for the responses — tell me that many of you are anxious about the fall, and especially about whether the college will reopen in person or online, so I made this short video to update you on where we stand in figuring this out.

The Minnesota Department of Health, the Office of Higher Education, and the Minnesota private colleges are all working together to determine how an on-campus opening this fall could work. Teams from those three groups are working on how to manage the various elements of an opening — everything from testing students, faculty, and staff to determine their health status, to managing residence halls, to managing social distancing, and much more. St. Olaf staff are serving on some of those teams so we have a voice at the table. The goal is to have a coordinated plan for a fall opening among the higher education institutions in Minnesota that operates with the agreement and support of the Health Department and the Office of Higher Education. I am cautiously optimistic that we will be able to devise and then execute such a plan.

On campus we are busy doing scenario planning. We don’t know what the world is going to look like in September, and we need to be prepared to react to any number of possible environments come fall.

At one extreme, one scenario has us opening in the normal fashion over Labor Day weekend. At the other extreme — and this is the one we’d like to avoid — is a scenario that has us opening completely online because we’re forced to.  A third scenario has us opening on campus but then being forced to close the campus and go online, as we did this spring, because of a second fall wave of the pandemic.

We are focusing our attention on the scenarios between those extremes, which include opening in the usual fashion in the fall but delaying opening until October or even possibly November; opening in the usual fashion in the fall but opening early and ending the first semester early to avoid a fall wave of the pandemic; and opening in the fall with a mixed delivery of in-class and some online learning. For this last possible scenario, everyone might be on campus but some students are in the classroom and some are online to observe social distancing; or everyone is on campus but the larger classes where we can’t do social distancing are online and smaller classes are in person in the classroom; or, everyone is on campus but all classes are partially in person and partially online; or, everyone is on campus but there are rolling student returns, with first-years starting early and then other class years added sequentially.

I can’t tell you which of these scenarios we’re going to land on, or whether indeed we won’t hear about or conceive of other ones as time goes on. We’re simply trying to imagine every kind of possible situation and trying to figure out how to make it work so that we can all be together on campus, learning the way we want to do it.

All of these scenarios include the likelihood that we’re going to need to have robust testing capacity as well as the ability to do contact tracing and to isolate students who may contract the virus, and so we’re working on getting that capacity as well.

As we start to think about these scenarios, immediately a hundred questions come to mind. For example, will we be allowed to and able to have varsity athletics? Will music ensembles be able to gather to perform and rehearse, or will social distancing requirements make that impossible? Will we have Christmas Fest this coming year?

September is still four months away, and I don’t know which, if any of these, scenarios will be the one we are living with then. I’m not going to lie to you, one of the most frustrating aspects of the COVID era is that you are frequently being called upon to make decisions before you have the information you need to make the right one. I don’t know what the virus is going to do. Nor do I know what will come of the conversation between the Health Department, the Office of Higher Education, and the colleges. What I can tell you is that we will do everything in our power, calling upon all the resources of the College, to open at the right time, in the right way, and safely, this fall. I look forward to seeing you then.

Best of luck as you prepare for finals.

President David R. Anderson ’74