Spring 2021 Semester Decision: Perspective from a First-Year Student

Lauren David '24, Guest Writer

The decision: bring back half of the campus at a time, switching halfway through the semester

Two class years are invited back for the half of the semester, while the other two remain remote. The two groups will then switch halfway through the semester.

When Dickinson College first announced its decision for a remote fall semester earlier this year, I, like many Dickinson students, was incredibly disappointed. For weeks, I was anticipating the announcement from Dickinson College declaring the return of all students to campus (with various health precautions and regulations in place, of course), providing some sense of normalcy amid the chaos of the pandemic. I assumed that since Dickinson is a smaller school with under 3,000 students, the college would follow in the footsteps of many small schools across the country and decide to bring all students back to campus. 

Instead, the college announced its plan for a remote semester – a decision that was incredibly devastating, but understandable given the escalating circumstances and rising COVID-19 case numbers at the time.

I am also a first-year student at Dickinson College. Having endured my last semester of high school remotely, I was looking forward to the opportunity to at least have a (somewhat) normal, in-person experience for my first semester of college. Instead, I remain stuck within the walls of my home in Centennial, Colorado for the semester, confined to taking all of my courses from a desk in my family’s basement or from our kitchen table. Given that so many colleges and universities successfully reopened this semester with little to no cases occurring (as outlined by a recent report from the New York Times), I was very optimistic that the college would allow all students to return to campus next semester.

However, earlier this afternoon President Margee Ensign announced Dickinson College’s official decision for the staggered return of students during the spring 2021 semester. The college plans to invite all first year and sophomore students to return to campus on January 25th, while all juniors and seniors begin the semester learning remotely. As the semester progresses into March, the two class years will switch; juniors and seniors will return to campus while first year and sophomore students will return home and continue learning remotely. This decision was one of six primary scenarios being considered by President Ensign and the college for the spring 2021 semester.

And I am incredibly frustrated by the college’s chosen course of action.

This situation, in my opinion, will result in a frustrating and chaotic semester. In a recent poll done by the Dickinsonian regarding the spring 2021 semester, only 3% of 317 students believed that this option was the best choice for the semester. There appears to be little consideration (that is outlined to the Dickinson community, at least) for several factors required to effectively initiate this decision, like the probable necessity for incoming students to quarantine before the semester begins. How long will students need to quarantine before starting the semester? How will the quarantine period work for incoming students when the classes need to switch in March? How will testing work during these times? Courses? Dining?

Which leads me to likely my most important question – what costs will be involved?

Seniors and juniors will only be on campus for eight weeks. First-year and sophomore students will also be on campus for eight weeks. If the room and board costs remain full priced, what is the point in even returning to campus? Being a student from out of state, I see no value in spending over $3,500 on housing alone (in correspondence with Dickinson’s Annual Fees) just to move across the country and be on campus for only half of the semester. There is also the question of the overall cost of tuition. Will Dickinson reduce this amount in any way next semester?

In my opinion, the college experience offered this semester was not worth the full cost of tuition. The education provided in a remote environment was not equal in value to the experience of in-person classes, and I am sure many students would agree. It is incredibly difficult, in regards to mental health, to have an education occur solely through a computer screen – limited on in-person interaction with professors, other students, and isolated within your home almost every day – added on to the high cost of attendance families needed to pay. There needs to be some review by the college over the significantly high costs involved for the price of significantly less valuable online education.

Despite these questions and frustrations, it is important to remember that Dickinson College’s main priority – through all of this – is to protect the health of every student and faculty member, whether we are on or off campus. It is the primary reason for learning remotely this semester, and it is essential that we as a community continue to acknowledge the fact that we are still in an ongoing pandemic. We need to take the necessary precautions in order to protect the health of everyone at Dickinson College, and right now these restrictive measures are still necessary. 

And yet, I am still frustrated by this decision. I believe there still needs to be further evaluation of this plan, and that more information needs to be disclosed to the Dickinson community. But while I want nothing more than to return to a sense of normalcy and security, to return to this decision for next semester will likely help limit the spread COVID-19 on campus. And while I am left with more questions than answers about the spring 2021 semester, I am hopeful that the college will reveal more information in the coming weeks and make the necessary changes to ensure a beneficial and effective semester for all students.