Virtual Town Meeting Transcript on Response to COVID-19

Virtual Town Meeting Transcript on Response to COVID-19, March 18, 2020

President Philip J. Hanlon '77

Good afternoon. Thanks for joining us for the first of what I expect will be several virtual town halls in the coming weeks and months. I am Phil Hanlon, Dartmouth president, and I'm joined today by Provost Joe Helble.

To say that we find ourselves in uncharted territory doesn't begin to do justice to the turmoil that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing in our lives, for our global community, our nation, and our campus, including all of you. I feel for all of you. This is really, really hard. In virtually every way, our lives have been disrupted almost overnight. Some of your families have lost jobs and income. Some of you are separated from friends and family. Some of you are unable to return home. And all of us must be taking the steps recommended by public health officials to slow the spread of the virus and protect our health, and the health of our loved ones.

At the College, we are doing our best to adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances. As we tackle the challenges before us, maintaining health and safety always comes first, with special concern for the most vulnerable members of our community. We're trying to communicate decisions as openly, transparently, and quickly as possible, and we're looking for new ways to operate, seeking to maintain as much continuity as possible in our lives and work, including the quality of the education we'll provide our students during the spring term.

I'm proud of the way that our faculty have jumped in to mount online courses. Our faculty are gifted teachers, profoundly dedicated to the education of our students. For many of them, this is a new way to deliver courses, and they are embracing the challenges and opportunities with goodwill and energy. I'm grateful for the patience and flexibility being shown by our students. I feel for many of you who are facing financial hardships. The Office of Financial Aid stands ready to work with you if your family's financial circumstances have changed. And I appreciate and I share the deep disappointment many of you feel over the loss of activities that have always been so much a part of the Dartmouth experience, from artistic performances to athletics, to outdoor and off-campus programs. And finally, I am thankful for the incredible commitment being shown by our entire staff, who are going to extraordinary lengths to help meet the needs of our community.

As trying as these times may be, we should not forget that we are in this together. Like all of you, we are trying to figure this out. We are taking the most prudent actions we can, weighing the most expert advice possible, and always putting the best interests of the community first. I deeply appreciate having heard from so many of you in person or by email. The Student Assembly has been helpful in communicating student concerns. I know that many of you have questions related to the decisions we've made to date, as well as about individual circumstances you face. Joe will walk you through some of the latest decisions now, and then we will come to your questions. We may not have all the answers at this moment, but please know that we will do our best to address all of your concerns, if not now, then as quickly as we possibly can hereafter.

For now, I simply want to issue a call for unity and compassion. Let's stand together and help those amongst us who are most in need. Let's recognize how difficult this is, and lift up those amongst us who are struggling. The Dartmouth family has always been creative, resilient and determined, and has always found ways to come together in the face of shared challenges, and I know we'll do that again this time. Thank you, and I'll turn it now over to Joe.

Provost Joseph Helble

Thank you Phil, and thank you everyone for joining us this afternoon. So I'd like to take a few moments to speak about the process that we put in place several months ago to help us navigate and manage the emerging coronavirus COVID-19 threat to our community, speak briefly about some of the decisions we've made, including the decisions we've made most recently, and then as President Hanlon said, we'll begin to take some of the questions that you've been submitting over the past day and a half.

In late January, in the face alarming increases in infection rates associated with the coronavirus in a few nations around the world, a task force consisting of divisional leaders began meeting on campus regularly to monitor the situation and consider operational decisions that would need to be made. On March 1, the task force was expanded and charged with formally reporting to me as the provost, meeting daily, and briefing me and the senior leadership frequently on the evolving threat and the steps that the campus would need to consider to protect the health of the community.

The task force has been co-chaired by Dr. Lisa Adams of the Geisel School of Medicine, an infectious disease and international health expert, and the director for global initiatives in the Provost's Office, and also the associate dean of global health at the Geisel School of Medicine. She's joined by Josh Keniston, who manages and oversees our facilities and campus construction projects, and is currently our interim vice president for campus services.

I'd like to stress at the outset, as the president has said, that we have had our decisions informed by two overriding principles, two overriding principles that have guided all of the recommendations that the task force has made to me throughout this process. First and foremost is to focus on the health and safety of the community, and by that I mean the full community, students, faculty, staff, and our local neighbors and members of the Upper Valley community. And second, to focus on the continuity of our students' education, of the teaching, learning, and scholarship that constitute our core mission.

I've also asked the task force to be deliberate and deliberative in their thinking, to be calm, measured, and thoughtful in evaluating the situation and in providing me with options to consider, and to be informed by the decisions of other institutions, but not bound by them. They have been truly extraordinary in their work. They and we have remained in regular communication with the town of Hanover, the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, and the New Hampshire legislative delegation. They and we have remained in regular contact with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, as we think about the importance of coordinating as a community in our response.

Dartmouth and DHMC, as many of you may know, are the two largest employers in the area. DHMC is our largest provider of care in the region, with nearly 400 beds and a facility that cares for many of the sickest and most complex patients in the region. DHMC is also the primary hospital for the Upper Valley, southern Maine, and central and southern Vermont, and I say this to emphasize the importance of our collaborating with our colleagues at DHMC to mount an effective and coordinated community response.

I'd like to take a few moments to comment on the scope of the challenge that we're facing, and then as I said, summarize the decisions we've made and announced before the president and I turn to answer your questions. So why are we here, and why are we in this place as a community today? When the task force began to meet daily on Monday, March 2nd, there were somewhere between 65 and 85 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States. By the end of the following weekend, just 10 days ago, there were over 600. Today, as of 12 noon, over 7,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

The increase in number of confirmed cases in the United States has been growing conservatively at about 30% per day since early March, which means nationally we'll be well over 12,000 confirmed cases by the end of the day Friday, over 25,000 when we all start work, remotely or otherwise, on Monday, and if there is no abatement, over 100,000 by the following weekend by the end of March in the United States alone. And I have to emphasize that that's likely an underestimate because of limited testing, particularly of people with mild symptoms, and limitations in the availability of test kits thus far.

The disease is contagious. It spreads pre-symptomatically, and while for most the symptoms are mild, particularly for healthy individuals of college-student age, it has devastating and even fatal consequences for older members of our community or those, as the president said, who are facing underlying health challenges, particularly those who are immunocompromised. So I want to stress that this is not about containment, this is about collaborating with the local community about management and protecting our community, campus and local, students, faculty and staff alike, neighbors, everyone, and giving our local and national health system the ability to respond and to treat those who are most in need.

I say this because I know, as the president said, that for so many in our community, the decisions have seemed to have come at a rapid rate, particularly over the past two weeks. I know that we all wish we had more time to process the changes, and I wish we had more operational flexibility to offer to students, to offer to faculty, and to offer to staff, in terms of how they study, where they live on campus, and how they go about their work, but the reality is we do not.

Over the past 10 days, we've had to make many difficult decisions that affect our operations and our community. I'm going to summarize those briefly, and then as promised we'll turn to your questions. So first, as many of you are no doubt aware at this point in time, we canceled our international off-campus programs, and subsequently our domestic off-campus programs for the spring term, affecting over 110 students. We required that all students living in campus residence halls leave campus by March 16, with only limited exceptions granted, and we are now asking all undergraduate students, including those who live in off-campus housing, to travel home if and as they can. Witnessing what's happening in the Bay Area of this country right now, we can only anticipate that more travel restrictions may be in place and in store that will make it more difficult for those to travel home.

We first restricted and then placed a ban on Dartmouth-supported travel, international and domestic. The Ivy presidents collectively convened and made the recommendation to cancel the Ivy basketball tournament, and subsequently all spring competitions. Remote learning was instituted for the spring term, first announced through May 1, and now as of yesterday for the full term, and I want to pause and stress here what an extraordinarily difficult decision this was to make.

We initially set the date of May 1 for remote learning to leave open, however remote, the possibility that we would be able to bring some students back to campus to participate in a residential educational experience for at least half of the spring term, but as the disease has further propagated through this country and more restrictive measures have been put in place at a national level, it became clear that this was no longer an opportunity or an option for us, hence yesterday's announcement that the full spring term would be remote learning only for the entire campus. This applies not just to undergraduate classes in the College of Arts and Sciences, but all graduate and professional classes as well, including Tuck, Thayer, Geisel, and the Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies.

Public events have been canceled. The Hood Library, sorry, the Hood Museum, Zimmerman recreational facilities and associated locker rooms and athletic facilities, and the libraries have also announced closure to the public, and we have directed our staff and our faculty to move to work from home operations for most times, except when materials are needed or there are special facilities that need to be accessed. We further announced yesterday the ramp down of laboratory research, with exceptions to be granted only for those who would lose irreplaceable samples or materials, or years of work. The deans of the different schools have the process in place and the authority to grant the exceptions, since they know the work of their communities best, with the vice-provost for research available for consultation and advice.

Social distancing rules that are now familiar to all of us are in place on campus, and there are frequent reminders of the importance of hand washing, not to be minimized for all members of our community, and constant reminders of strictly following the directive to self-quarantine. It's only through this social distancing that we'll be able to slow the spread and reduce the number of people who are infected, sometimes with severe consequences.

Let me end on a final note by saying emphatically that despite all of these challenges, Dartmouth remains open. People are doing their work. We are transitioning to remote learning for all of our classes. Research is continuing. Those who need to be on campus because of their work, as defined in consultation with their supervisor, including those granted research exceptions, will continue to be on campus. People are getting paid. What we are doing is substantially reducing the number of people on campus and the extent of face-to-face interactions to help support the health of our community. So thank you for giving us a few moments to make these opening remarks and give you a sense of the magnitude of the challenge that everyone in the Dartmouth community has been facing.

What we'll do now, President Hanlon and I, is turn to your questions. Those that we've selected are specific, and we will read the specific question, but we've chosen those that are representative of the questions that we heard most frequently. So let me start with a question that's come to us in many different forms, related to safeguarding the staff and others who remain on campus. A question submitted by a staff member, "How will we manage the work for Dartmouth Dining employees? It's an unbelievable risk for us to come back to work. We're working with a lot of staff, faculty and students, it's not only risk for the students, it's even more of a risk for employees that work the whole day inside of the building."

A related question submitted by a graduate student, "For students who have permission to stay in on-campus housing, and for current graduate students who are encouraged to continue to pursue lab work, what are the preventive measures Dartmouth is undertaking to make sure all of those students are safe, and are practicing social distancing?" Let me say that first and foremost, our policy decisions to have students take courses remotely, and have those who can work from home work from home, helps everyone by de-densifying the campus, by making it easier to practice social distancing, and reducing the demand for essential services. This latest set of decisions which we announced yesterday, including the ramp down of on-campus laboratory research, is specifically designed to address this concern.

Over the coming days, we'll also be modifying work schedules that will require fewer individuals performing essential services to be on campus at any one time. Our environmental health and safety team is providing guidance for those who do need to be on campus about best practices to protect themselves, and recommending appropriate protective equipment. And I cannot emphasize enough that the College will continue to pay all regular non-temporary staff, this means exempt staff, non-exempt staff, and union staff, at the regularly scheduled hourly and base rate of pay, through the end of spring term. We are taking these steps very specifically to help support and protect the health of the community, to ensure continuity of operations, and to allow flexibility in coordination with supervisors so that fewer numbers of people are on campus at any given time.

The next question I'd like to address is one that's come up frequently with our staff in Student Affairs who are working diligently to answer individual student questions. This question is about belongings left on campus, and it's from an undergraduate. "What is the plan for students to retrieve their belongings before summer term?" For those of you who have belongings remaining on campus in on-campus housing, you'll receive a notice directly from residential operations if your assigned room is being impacted by operational changes on campus, but at this time, it is a relatively small number of buildings that are being identified as potentially needed for other purposes.

For all other students with belongings left on campus, the residence halls have been locked and your belongings are being left in place in the room at this time. In accordance with federal and state guidance concerning travel, and our own policies around remote work and learning, we are not allowing students to travel back to campus to collect belongings. Unfortunately, this is essential. We cannot increase the risk of transmission for any member of the campus, or of the Upper Valley community. With a number of local cases in the news of a positive test on, positive case on campus earlier this week, we simply cannot have more people congregating here to collect belongings, and I acknowledge and we know that this is extraordinarily challenging for many, but I ask that you bear with us and be patient. You will be contacted in the coming weeks about how to retrieve your belongings, and for anyone who has essential or emergency items like medication that need to be retrieved that are presently on campus, please immediately email dean of the College, that's, we are prioritizing these requests to get these medications back to you.


Great. Thank you, Joe. Here's a question submitted by a Dartmouth undergraduate. "Why are you keeping tuition prices the same when students, for the spring term, when students won't be receiving many of the out of class learning experiences that go with a residential education?" And we've been hearing similar questions from many members of the community, including parents and the Student Assembly.

So, first let me say that at Dartmouth, we take pride in the excellence of our dual missions of teaching and research, and in particular our teaching is every bit as important to our faculty as their scholarship, so Dartmouth faculty do an amazing job putting together the content and delivering their courses. It is a point of pride and differentiation for this institution. For spring term, our commitment to excellent instruction will be no different, even if the mode of delivery will be.

As I mentioned earlier, I am pleased and I'm proud by how quickly and enthusiastically our faculty have embraced the challenge and opportunity of planning for virtual instruction in the spring term. There will be office hours for every class arranged by the faculty, as with any class. Courses will have group projects as appropriate, as they would in any class, it's just that the mode of office hours and group projects will be online or virtual. This may not be perfect, but it will be the differentiated Dartmouth experience.

So as you probably know, tuition has never covered the full cost of the student learning experience, in fact it just basically covers the cost of paying faculty and the staff who directly support them, and that will again be the case this spring. So while we will charge the regular tuition for spring term, which is consistent with what our peers are doing, we will strengthen financial aid to meet the increased need that we know many students and their families are feeling as a result of this disruption from the pandemic. And obviously, we will not charge room and board for those who are not in residence this spring term.


Thank you, Phil. Next question we received from several students particularly, was on repurposing empty residence halls. The specific question from a graduate student, "It seems that as colleges and universities have closed and emptied the dorms, that would be a great source for emergency treatment centers and recovery rooms. Are there any plans to temporarily convert Dartmouth dorms into treatment centers if the hospital runs out of beds?"

We're making adjustments to our residence hall operations in response to COVID-19, but at this time we do not anticipate that they will be converted to treatment centers. As I said earlier, we're working with Dartmouth-Hitchcock to monitor the situation, work collaboratively with them, and ensure that our broader community has the needed resources to respond to this incident, and at this point in time, as I say, we do not anticipate their conversion to treatment centers. Our immediate focus is on providing adequate space for the small number of students who have received approval to remain on campus, both to permit them to practice social distancing themselves, and also to create space in the event that self-quarantining or self-isolation is needed for students on the campus.


Great, thanks Joe. Here's a question, it was submitted by an alum and a parent, although we've heard it from many, many students, parents, from the Student Assembly questions as well. "When will a decision be made about commencement and reunions? What alternate plans are being explored should traditional graduation not be possible?" So first let me say that commencement and reunions are sacred events for our community, the most important convening of the Dartmouth fellowship, including parents and families and alums, each year.

As such, we will do everything we can to recognize these gatherings and all that they mean if we were unable to go forward with a traditional commencement and reunion. So we have a dedicated group looking at the feasibility of going forward, and at alternatives should we not be able to go forward with both commencement and reunion activities. We have not made a decision yet about commencement or about reunions, but we have committed that we will decide by April 10 about both commencement and reunions.


Thank you, Phil. We now have a series of questions that focus on the operation of the campus and the academic calendar itself, and so I will take these in turn, and the first one is about sophomore summer, and the specific question was submitted by a Dartmouth undergraduate. "Will freshmen be given the opportunity to take classes on-campus during the summer term, assuming the term takes place on-campus?" The primary focus of our planning at this time is on the immediate, on spring term, and so we do not have, and I do not have, any decisions to announce at this point regarding summer term.

But over the course of the past week, President Hanlon, myself, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Elizabeth Smith have been meeting with faculty, and very specifically we had a meeting with the chairs of all of the undergraduate curriculum-providing departments on campus, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the chairs from the Thayer School of Engineering, to speak both about the conversion to remote learning for spring term, and to speak about possibilities during summer term, and we asked them very directly and explicitly to begin thinking creatively about ways in which we might consider expansion of the summer term to enable first year students and juniors to return to campus this summer for a residential educational experience.

That's not a promise that we will be able to go down that path, but it is a promise to look at the question and explore it over the course of spring term. We are looking for every way we can to ensure continuity of the Dartmouth student educational experience. And as a side note to that, let me say that Dean Smith and I have had several meetings initially as we started to make operational decisions, with the faculty who were scheduled to lead foreign study programs, FSPs, for undergraduate students in the spring term, and I have been inspired by the creativity they have shown and the flexibility they have shown in thinking about curricular offerings for students, both potentially for spring term for some of them, and over the course of the summer, so here I will simply say stay tuned. Both the administration and the faculty are thinking seriously about how we might utilize sophomore summer in a more expansive way this year.

The next questions we received are in the area of work-study. From an undergraduate, "Because I normally depend upon work-study income to help defray the cost of an academic term, I'm wondering if students on work-study will still be allowed to receive their work-study benefits, or be given remote work at partner institutions?" Another undergraduate writes with a similar question, "Does the school have any policy to help students who have financial difficulty because of the current situation? For me, I normally work at FoCo to sustain my living, but since I can't work at FoCo right now, what would be your suggestion for me and students like me?"

Here I have to say as well, please stay tuned and stay in touch. We have a team exploring options for students who do work-study to see what possibilities there will be for students like you to do work-study remotely. We'll have more information on that within the next week. We also have in place a care team which is reviewing requests from students that have health or financial hardships, and providing support to those who need it. As President Hanlon said at the outset in responding to the question about tuition, we are committed to making financial aid available and to meeting students' financial need.

The next question is around online course selection. This one comes from the list of questions submitted by the Student Assembly earlier this week. "Will courses fulfilling all distributive requirements be offered this spring? For example, were seniors enrolled in a lab or other on-campus resource-based course needed to fulfill a distrib major or minor requirement be able to complete such courses?" Course offerings will be finalized by the end of next week, by March 26. We are working to do that sooner if we possibly can, but given the step we've taken to make the entire curriculum, to the extent possible, available through remote learning, the number of faculty engaged in this enterprise is significant. So our promise is to have the list of course offerings finalized by March 26, and earlier if we can, but very specifically we are committing to working with all seniors to ensure that you who are seniors will have access to the courses or reasonable alternatives that you need to graduate on time.

The next set of questions is on accessibility, both have come from the Student Assembly. First, "How will the College accommodate students who find themselves unable to complete coursework due to complications arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the illness of a family member or themselves?" Given the gravity of the situation that we're in, not just on this campus, but on every campus across the country, we are trying, all of us, to provide as much flexibility as possible to our students.

Here specifically, we're looking at the design of remote courses to help students maintain academic progress, and we're committed to using our medical and other leave policies, should that need arise, as guides to help us help students navigate what may be short-term interruptions to their ability to study and work, and so that's a commitment to work with students individually as a situation arises, recognizing that if the pandemic continues to spread, as the numbers I mentioned earlier suggest it may, we will need to be flexible and collaborative in working with our students to ensure continuity of their education.

Second and related question is, "How will student accommodations offered through Student Accessibility Services be ensured and respected in an online setting?" Our director of Student Accessibility Services is in fact part of the academic community planning team that's working with the task force to transition courses to a remote format. A budget's been set aside for services like adding closed captioning to videos, and the team's actively working on a set of solutions to accommodate as many students as possible.

Finally, let me raise a question or read a question that surfaced from many of you across the campus, and has been an active part of discussion within the faculty and amongst the deans, and that's the question of grading or pass-fail for the spring term. The question from a parent, "Given the uncharted waters of remote learning at Dartmouth, are you considering any amendments to the traditional grading system for spring? For example, perhaps opening up the NRO option to more, if not all classes." And from an undergraduate, "For our mental and physical health, please consider making all classes pass-fail next term."

The faculty oversee decisions regarding grading policy, but as I said a moment ago, this is an active subject of conversation. The deans of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Thayer School of Engineering, and the Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies had a conversation on this just this morning. They are specifically considering options for expanded pass-fail, or high-pass, pass, low-pass, and fail, similar to what some of our graduate programs utilize. A decision on this is promised by the deans by this Friday, and that will be announced from the task force or from me as one of our campus updates, and so there I say please be patient, we will have an answer to you within a few days. At Tuck and at the Geisel School of Medicine, classes are largely graded through either a high pass, pass, low pass, or pass-fail mechanism in the areas of the curriculum where courses are in fact graded, and that is anticipated to continue.

We have two other questions that have come in over the course of the past few hours that I'd like to address, and then I'll turn it back to President Hanlon. So the first question is, "Can students who planned to study abroad during spring term enroll in virtual classes now?" The direct answer is yes. When the spring term foreign study programs were canceled, we made a commitment to those students to give you the option of enrolling in a virtual spring term.

Even though our work in this area has expanded dramatically with the entire term now being online and remote learning for all students, we will continue to honor that commitment that was made to the students whose foreign study programs were canceled, so if you wish to enroll in virtual classes during spring term, you will be given the opportunity to do so, the same as if you were resident on-campus. We are working through some of the details of how that will take place, and here again I ask for your patience given the enormity of the enterprise to set these systems up and get them up and running by the start of spring term, but you will have that opportunity.


The second question that came in today is, "Are positions such as postdoctoral fellows and research associates who are paid via federal funds considered staff, and therefore going to receive full compensation?" Postdocs and graduate students who are paid by grants will continue to be paid throughout the course of spring term. It is our hope and expectation that research activity will continue at some level. We encourage you to be creative, and to do the work off-campus that you can as you can, whether that means writing grant proposals with your faculty advisor, working on papers or data analysis, or planning for experiments when the return to campus will be possible. The federal agencies thus far have been fully supportive of this, and we are supportive of it as an institution, so yes, you will continue to receive your stipends. So thank you for all the questions, that's the end of the stack that I have.


So, let me sort of draw this to a close by first of all saying I hope this was helpful, I hope that it helped answer some of your questions. We do want to hear from you, keep the questions coming, this will not be the last of these virtual town halls. Let me return to some of the things I started with, and first of all just say once again how difficult this is for all of us, this situation, the COVID-19 pandemic, and how important it is that we look after the most vulnerable within our community. We are indeed in uncharted waters, but we are in these waters together. I'm extremely proud of the way that our community has already come together to try to chart a way forward, and I know that we will continue to do so, and we will do the best we possibly can as a Dartmouth family under these uncertain circumstances, so thank you all, thanks for joining us.


Thank you.