A Semester Unlike Any Other: The 2020–21 School Year Meets the Pandemic

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Merilee McCormick

At this point, it’s old hat to describe anything that’s happened in 2020 as “unprecedented.” And yet, the semester that kicked off at Mills College on August 26 is one that has no precedent in our 168 years, even through two
World Wars and another pandemic: classes conducted with very few students physically present on campus.

After a summer of investigating ways to hold socially distanced classes on campus, President Elizabeth L. Hillman made the announcement on July 27 that Mills would stick to a mostly virtual schedule due to a surge in COVID-19 cases in the region. Only about 15 courses—in lab science, studio art, and dance—are meeting in person this fall, all with appropriate social distancing, disinfection practices, and face masks per coronavirus guidelines issued by the State of California mid-August. (The dance classes will take place on the tennis courts!)

With most courses online and residence halls reopening with predetermined lower capacities to assure social distancing, a handful of new and returning students began to arrive on campus August 22. After President Hillman’s email, the number of housing contracts dropped as more residents opted to conduct their studies remotely; about 200 opted for on-campus housing versus the usual 500. “For some students, this is the only home they have,” said Dean of Student Life Chicora Martin in an August 20 virtual town hall for faculty and staff. As a result, five residence spaces—White, Ross, Larsen, Ege, and Mary Morse—have been shuttered for the time being.

Bon Appetit, which provides meal service at Mills, is similarly scaling
back, with food available only at the Tea Shop and Suzie’s Cafe this semester, complete with markers on the floor and touchless card readers. Vera Whole Health, the College’s student health service, will provide health services for students on campus and can still offer remote healthcare to those in Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco Counties, while another medical group will virtually serve students out of the area. The Division of Student Life is still planning a broad selection of activities, albeit over Zoom.

National news stories over the summer questioned whether many college students, especially first-years, would opt to take a year off rather than
learn online or return to campuses with imposed restrictions and limited activities. Even with scaled-down expectations at Mills, the numbers look promising—especially for the pre-existing online MA program, with 126% higher enrollment than last year. In June, the Board of Trustees approved a move to keep tuition and fees at the same level they were in 2019-2020, and the College is also making iPads available for distance learning at a 50% discount, which has proven quite popular.

In the meantime, most faculty and staff members continue to work remotely to limit the number of people on campus. Those who do come to Mills must fill out a health check on the MillsGo mobile app and show their results to personnel at the front gate. While the campus did not have any incidents of COVID-19 for the first several months of sheltering in place, over the summer, two employees received positive diagnoses. Both situations were handled with the proper isolation and contact-tracing protocols, and no further cases have been reported.

Visit mills.edu/covid-19 for updates throughout the semester.