Oberlin College announced a plan for the 2020–2021 school year that, in my view, has some major problems. This post contains the email response I sent to President Carmen Twillie Ambar.

Dear President Ambar,

Oberlin College’s plan for the 2020–2021 academic school year is flawed. I urge you to reconsider and choose an alternative that will not adversely impact students in the way that the school’s plan as proposed will. My primary concerns with the plan are:

While I recognize that the college wants to provide an in-person experience to its students — and most students would agree that remote learning is a worse experience — this plan plays fast and loose with students’ health and academic success. I will explain my concerns and then describe my suggested alternative.

First, the plan as proposed will not do enough to prevent the spread of COVID–19. The College intends to take meaningful steps to reduce harm (such as giving students singles, requiring masks and social distancing, and implementing tests and contact tracing) but this is not enough. The pandemic is a worldwide reality that cannot be fixed at Oberlin College. I think the base truth is that bringing 2100 students onto campus (to say nothing of the professors and other employees) is a recipe for disease spread.

I implore you to consider the health of at-risk Obies, such as those who are immunocompromised, and older faculty. It is not fair or safe to require these valuable community members to report in-person and risk their lives. As it stands, the plan states that “there may be ways for [immunocompromised community members] to continue [their] academic experience remotely.” This doesn’t inspire confidence in the strength of this part of the plan. If immunocompromised individuals will stay off campus (as seems likely), this would put them on uneven footing with the rest of the campus community, who would all be showing up in person.

Next, the plan has an outsized impact on sophomores and juniors (which is admittedly part of why I’m writing this, as a rising junior) because of how it will affect our summers. Many Obies have internships and REUs during the summer. By holding class during the summer, we juniors and sophomores would be prevented from taking part in any of these programs.

Several of my friends had internships cancelled this summer due to COVID–19 or were unable to find internships due to the pandemic. Others had their REUs postponed to next summer. The academic schedule you have proposed robs these students of the chance to take part in these valuable educational opportunities.

And of course, for rising juniors like me, this plan sets us up for four consecutive semesters with only a few weeks of break. The schedule looks like this, assuming the 2021–2022 school year operates on a normal schedule:

  1. Spring 2021 semester
  2. ~2 week break
  3. Summer 2021 semester
  4. ~2 week break
  5. Fall 2021 semester
  6. ~2 week break + Winter Term
  7. Spring 2022 semester

This schedule is intense.

Finally, this plan has the potential to weaken Oberlin’s academic experience. When “the faculty is literally building the course offerings for each semester essentially student by student,” they will probably have to make sacrifices by not offering courses that would normally be available. Spreading the normal course catalog across three semesters could reduce choices available to students and greatly increase faculty workload, due to a nearly year-round teaching schedule.

Personally, if this plan is not changed, I will plan to take leave during the summer semester rather than attend classes. Having the opportunity to do a summer internship is important to me, and I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I can feasibly graduate in seven semesters. However, not all students are in my situation, so for them this could be a much more difficult choice.

To address my three main concerns (inadequate safety, lack of summer opportunities, and poor education quality), I encourage Oberlin to re-think this plan by offering the traditional two semesters, with all classes taught remotely and some taught additionally, optionally, in person. Students should be allowed to self-select whether or not they wish to return to campus for one or both semesters. I think that we the students are capable of choosing whichever option is best for each of us individually.

This plan would allow labs and other in-person experiences to continue, while also ensuring the safety of at-risk students and faculty, who would not be left as a remote minority but would be accompanied by a sizable segment of the student body. It would continue to allow all of Oberlin’s talented students to explore summer programs such as internships and REUs, and it would offer an improved academic experience by expanding the list of available classes and allowing some students to take class in person.

Of course, given the ongoing personal difficulties associated with a pandemic, it would make sense for Oberlin to implement a compassionate grading policy. If Oberlin will not grant Student Senate’s bid for a Universal Pass scheme, perhaps it would consider Universal Pass/No-Pass. Other schools, such as Columbia University, found success with this plan.

There is obviously no good solution that will make everyone happy. I appreciate the deliberation that I’m sure went into making this difficult choice. I know that everyone who has a stake in this (students, faculty, administrators, employees) just wants the best for Oberlin. But I sincerely believe the current plan is flawed, and an alternative plan that fixes those flaws is well within reach.

I know that Oberlin, like many colleges, gets a lot of revenue from student housing costs, which probably factored into this choice. I don’t have the same understanding of this component that the administration does, but I still encourage you to look beyond this.

Ultimately, I believe that this plan has many good parts, such as single rooms only and increased testing. These measures are good to have and I support them. We can keep all of these changes and incorporate them into a safer and more educationally appropriate plan.

Please, improve this plan to better support Oberlin’s students, faculty, and employees.

Joey Rees-Hill, Oberlin ‘22