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Announcing a Change to Our Fall 2020 Plan, August 5, 2020

Dear members of the Smith College community:

In my communications to you about the COVID-19 pandemic, I shared that if public health circumstances changed, Smith’s plans could change as well. In the past several weeks, we have learned significantly more about this pernicious virus from biomedical researchers and have followed with interest the experience of schools where students have returned.

Given new scientific evidence, as well as recent and troubling trends nationally and in Massachusetts, I have come to the difficult conclusion that we should not bring students back to campus for the fall semester. Instead, to keep our campus and local community as safe as possible during this period of high risk, we will offer all courses in the fall semester, including those for graduate and post-bacc students, remotely. 

I know this decision is profoundly disappointing to many of you, especially our second-semester seniors set to graduate in January, as well as our international students. I want to share the factors that led my leadership team and me to this decision, which is based on considerations for our community’s health and safety. In early July, we announced our Culture of Care plan for on-campus instruction in 2020–21, informed by the best public health information and guidance available at the time. So what has changed in just a few short weeks?

  • “Troubling new phase”: Last weekend, our nation’s leading infectious disease specialists warned that the COVID-19 pandemic has entered a “troubling new phase” in which the virus is “extraordinarily widespread.”
  • Increased transmission rates: As I write this, the United States has reached nearly 5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, and just last week 18 states set new  daily case records. Massachusetts, which had successfully reduced coronavirus transmission to one of the lowest rates in the country, now is seeing an increase in community spread.
  • Potential for rapid asymptomatic transmission: Studies have shown that 40 percent of infected individuals never manifest symptoms but can still spread the virus. Even in the context of rigorous, frequent COVID-19 screening, such as we were prepared to administer, the potential for asymptomatic spread on an open residential campus like ours is high.
  • Failed school reopenings: Just yesterday, The New York Times reported on a secondary school in Israel that, within days of reopening, experienced a series of COVID-19 infections that “quickly mushroomed into the largest outbreak in a single school in Israel, possibly the world.” Through community transmission, the cases in the school were ultimately responsible for infecting “hundreds of students, teachers and relatives.” We have seen similar incidents at schools and camps in the U.S. as well, demonstrating how hard it is to create the conditions necessary to protect schools from an outbreak of the virus.

We have a civic duty to the communities in which we live and work. By limiting the number of students and employees on campus, we will mitigate the potential exposure of many people to the virus—not only those connected to Smith but also those living in the greater Northampton area. By asking students to study at home this fall, we will reduce travel in and out of Massachusetts and surrounding states, thereby supporting essential public health efforts to reduce transmission of the virus. As critical as higher education may be, none of us wants it to be the driver of a second wave of virus transmission in our host communities.

I assure you that our faculty and staff remain deeply committed to supporting the education of our students. We have been hard at work all summer on plans for a remote learning contingency. While the mode of instruction is changing temporarily, students will still receive the high-quality academic experience they have come to expect from Smith College.

  • Smith faculty members have invested time and resources in redesigning their courses to deliver an outstanding remote academic experience.
  • Faculty advisers will be in frequent contact with advisees, ready to provide guidance not only in the selection of courses but also about the wide range of support services the college has in place for all students.
  • We are committed to providing broad technology support, with a particular emphasis on students whose access to technology and connectivity is limited by their financial or residential circumstances.
  • We will be moving forward on the actions outlined in Toward Racial Justice at Smith, and we look forward to hosting numerous virtual events, such as Cromwell Day.
  • We are preparing to provide engaging co-curricular offerings for students. For example, this Friday the Draper Competition for Collegiate Women Entrepreneurs finals will be held via Zoom. This fall, students can expect virtual recreational opportunities, health and wellness programs, leadership workshops and more.
  • And I look forward to hosting traditional college events like Convocation, presidential colloquia and Mountain Day.

My team and I will answer all of your questions, and we will be in touch with more information soon. We are updating our COVID-19 website and FAQ and will be announcing a series of webinars for students as well as staff and faculty. As before, I invite you to send your questions to

I am grateful to everyone in the Smith College community for your understanding and patience as we learn together through this global pandemic. To the students who were invited to return to campus this fall, I can only imagine how disruptive this decision is for you; to all students, I want you to know how empty the campus feels without you. I remain optimistic that, with improved treatment and prevention protocols, we will be able to return to life together, in person, in this remarkable community. In the meantime, we will focus on what Smith does best―teaching and learning, supporting and caring for one another, and continuing to do good work in and for the world.

Take care and be well.


Kathleen McCartney