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Update: On Monday, March 16, Macalester President Brian Rosenberg announced classes would go entirely remote and students would need to leave campus by March 30. Those who have extenuating circumstances and cannot leave will be allowed to petition to stay.

Colleges and universities across the country are closing their classrooms in response to the coronavirus. Last Monday, students at Amherst College, a private liberal arts school in Massachusetts, were told not to return to campus after spring break. For the students there, who total about 1,800, classes would be going online for the remainder of the semester.

“It’s extremely difficult to give up the close colloquy, and the intense intellectual exchange of an in-person environment, even temporarily,” Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, the college president, said in a video message. She noted that students who had no other place to go could petition to stay on campus through the semester while taking their online classes. “I do think that our faculty will come up with alternative ways of delivering the remainder of your courses that will have their own rewards,” she said.

But some students are calling on their schools to stay open for all, saying it will cause them less hardship than if their campuses close. Amherst sophomores Cole Graber-Mitchell and Ronin Rodkey wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post last week criticizing the school for what they see as a “mass eviction” of students.

“Historically, what they’ve said is: this is a home for students, we have all of these resources to make people feel welcome to sort of allow this to be a sanctuary, in particular for first generation, low-income students,” Rodkey said in an interview. “And now, they’re just evicting all of us.”

At Macalester College, a private liberal arts college of roughly 2,200 students in St. Paul, Minnesota, President Brian Rosenberg has chosen to keep campus open for the time being, and let students decide if they want to attend classes or go online.

“There are unintended consequences of sending students away,” Rosenberg said. “That could in some cases be worse than keeping them here.”

About 15 percent of students at Macalester are international. “The majority of those students either won’t be able to go home, or if they go home, they won’t be able to come back,” Rosenberg said.

Roughly 18 percent of students at the college are Pell Grant recipients.

“A lot of those students will go to homes where there might not be Wi Fi to learn remotely, or again, where they might not have access to the kind of health care they have here,” Rosenberg said. “For many of our students, we are their primary health care and mental health provider.”

“You have to weigh the risk of the virus itself, which in this particular age group is not a high risk in terms of serious illness or mortality, against the consequences of sending them off campus,” he added.

In this episode, we hear from presidents and students at two colleges — one that closed and one that’s still open. And we talk about how colleges and universities might be changed — permanently — by their responses to the pandemic.

This story on schools closing campuses was produced by APM Reports in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter. 

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