Transcript: Tufts administrators discuss university response to coronavirus pandemic

Tufts administrators participate in a remote conversation on March 23 to answer students' questions about the university's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Editor’s note: Tufts administrators participated in a remote discussion via Facebook Live on Monday to answer students’ questions about how the university will operate amid the coronavirus pandemic. On March 10, Tufts canceled in-person classes and instructed students to leave campus in an attempt to contain the outbreak of COVID-19. The remote discussion was moderated by junior Monique Dubois, an organizer for Tufts Mutual Aid. The following transcript has been lightly edited.

Anthony Monaco, University President (AM): Thank you for joining us for this Facebook Live event. It is important that I’m able to talk with you today. Before getting to your specific questions, I wanted to take a moment to share with you the principles behind our decision-making over the past few weeks.

Our first priority has been protecting the health and well-being of our students, faculty, staff and the larger community. Following the advice and guidance of the medical and public health community, we made the decision to move to distance learning and asked our faculty and staff to work from home, unless they are essential to the academic or operational continuity of the university. I know these decisions were disappointing — I’m disappointed — [and we understand] disappointment from members of our community. And for some, they have produced difficulties that we have worked hard to address, such as enabling some students to remain on campus, because there were travel restrictions or difficult personal circumstances, and helping some students, who didn’t have adequate resources, to pay for transportation home and equipping some with WiFi or computer equipment so they can learn remotely. While these changes have been without a doubt disruptive, they were necessary. In many ways a residential university is like a cruise ship on land, and we have all seen the dire circumstances in which passengers on many cruise ships have found themselves recently. It was essential that we de-densify our campus to prevent a large outbreak here in Medford and Somerville, which would have contributed to hospital surges before they were fully prepared.

Our second priority has been to continue to provide the best education possible, though now in a different format and context. I have been amazed at all the work of our faculty over the past week, with tremendous support from our technology services team, to get ready for distance learning. Although there will undoubtedly be a glitch here or there, I truly believe that our faculty is ready. I know that transitioning to distance learning will be a new experience for most of you, and I appreciate your willingness to work with us as we introduce this new format. I encourage you to keep an open mind and once again be patient — a recurring theme for all of us as we work through these difficult times.

Our third priority has been to use the resources of this university to help the community in any way possible. This has taken multiple forms. We have shifted personal protective equipment from research labs to Tufts Medical Center and have offered facilities for storage and certain services, such as laundry. We led an effort [with] our engineering students and their colleagues at Harvard and MIT to replace the elastics of thousands of donated, old N-95 masks so they could be used safely by hospital workers. And we have made it known to our local host communities that we will make our campus available for their needs, such as drive-through testing and various housing options, that the healthcare community may require. We will be directed in these efforts by the needs expressed by our local leaders and our health care system.

I am heartened that in recent days, a number of universities have followed our lead and indicated they will do all they can to help. I suspect more will follow because this is not only the right thing to do, but an absolute necessity if we are to save lives. We are confident we can do this without risking the health and well-being of our community, and moreover, we believe that these are necessary steps for protecting the health and well-being of our community and its most vulnerable members. We have opened the Hill for all who need our assistance. Ultimately, we’re trying to take actions that are guided by our values and principles as a university. But it is not always evident how these principles translate to your individual cases and school-specific decisions. I am grateful for the incredible team members working to turn these priorities into specific actions.

In response to the questions you provided, I asked several of them to join us on this call. As you can see, hopefully, we have the [School of] Arts and Sciences Dean Jim Glaser, [School of] Engineering Dean Jianmin Qu and Dean of [Student Affairs] Nancy Thompson. Monique Dubois, a junior in the School of Engineering, who has done tremendous work with her colleagues to set up Tufts Mutual Aid will be moderating the conversation and answering some of the questions. Thank you.

Monique Dubois, Tufts Mutual Aid organizer (MD): Hi, thank you to everyone who sent in questions — they really helped. [It is] clear that there were certain themes on the minds of many students, especially with the steps taken in the last two weeks to address the COVID-19 crisis and needs and concerns around finances, the implications of online courses and questions about the future. The first big question we’re going to talk about is housing.

So Dean Thompson, can you talk about the process and criteria your staff and [the Office of Residential Life and Learning (ORLL)] used to evaluate requests to remain in on-campus housing, especially with regard to students who live internationally or who are on financial aid?

Nancy Thompson, Dean of Student Affairs and Chief Student Affairs Officer ad interim (NT): Right, of course, and thank you to everyone for participating today and for sending in questions. So when it became clear that we needed to move to remote instruction and asked students to go home, we created a process where students could submit a request — a petition — if they had a circumstance that made going to where they would normally go impossible or difficult or untenable. And the things that we looked at were … students who were from Level 3 countries — that is, as designated by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] at the time — we paid particular attention to students who had difficult financial or other circumstances.

We had over 600 students petition to remain, and each petition was read carefully by a human being in the [ORLL], who worked hard to try to figure out: are these needs that could be met in other ways? And what do we need to do here to support this student? We ended up approving over 300 students to stay on campus and have been working with the individuals who we denied. We’ve ended up with a number of the students who have been approved [that] have since found other places to be, but the thing I want to emphasize about that process is that it was done carefully, personally and, as much as possible, taking into account specific circumstances of students.

Because it was done in a compressed time frame and through written word, it was difficult, and there were probably cases where we didn’t get the nuances. And that’s actually where [Tufts Mutual Aid] and you, Monique, were really helpful in bringing to our attention students who were finding themselves in truly untenable situations. And since we’ve partnered with [Tufts Mutual Aid] to get the message out that we wanted students to reach out to us, we have been able to help a number of people. But this has been an imperfect process. It’s a difficult and challenging situation, and we understand that especially for students who are from abroad. So we have worked as best we can and will continue to do that as students identify needs that they have to do their courses remotely and so forth. So I hope that as people’s issues arise, that they will reach out to us so that we can try to continue to help as best we can.

MD: A number of questions were also on financial concerns. So a question for Dean Glaser would be: if family circumstances changed as a result of COVID-19 and the stock market plunge, will financial aid be adjusted?

James Glaser, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences (JG): The answer to that is yes. Tufts is one of about 75 or 80 schools that are full-need institutions, which means that we make a commitment that, if a student and his or her family’s need changes, their aid will be adjusted accordingly. The last time this came up was in 2008/2009. It was a significant challenge for the university, but every student who approached the Financial Aid office and said, ‘Our family circumstances have changed, my parents have lost a job or some other unanticipated thing has happened’ had his or her need reassessed and their aid revised. You would do that through the financial aid office. Tufts is very proud that we have this policy. There’s always a lot of talk about why isn’t Tufts a need-blind institution and while that’s a very virtuous thing, in the hierarchy of virtue, being full-need is the highest of those virtues. And this is a moment where I think people can come to appreciate that.

MD: With regards to refunds, when students are waiting for housing and meal refunds, how long can they wait for that and what is being expected on that end?

JG: As I understand it, students will be reimbursed with a prorated room and board refund. So the room and board that they’ve already consumed, of course will not be reimbursed, but the room and board that they have not consumed will be reimbursed. That will be adjusted by what the family’s contribution is. So, if a student received financial aid for room and board, the financial aid that we were giving to students is not going to come back in a refund — only the portion that the student and the family were paying will come back in that prorated refund. There’s a lot of students that this affects [and] a lot of families that this affects, [and] our Bursar’s Office and our Student Services are in the process of taking care of all this. My understanding is that these will be processed very quickly and that students should be receiving those refunds in very short order.

NT: Just to add to that quickly, there should be more information coming out about that in the very near future. By tomorrow, I think we’ll know a lot more about how all of that will work.

JG: We certainly understand that people have needs for those dollars, and we’re doing the very best that we can to process these quickly.

MD: For students who were on financial aid that were paying for their room and board, what support can they expect to now pay for their own room and board?

JG: I’m sorry, could you repeat the question?

MD: For students who were on financial aid for room and board and are not getting a refund, what support can they expect for housing and food costs that they now have to pay for?

JG: Well, the university will not be providing them with room and board, and they will have to come up with family solutions. For students who are in very untenable situations, we would encourage them to contact the Dean of [Student Affairs] office and the FIRST Center. There are some modest resources that the university has been raising through philanthropy to help students in circumstances like this, and those resources are being managed through the [Office of] Student Affairs and the FIRST Center.

MD: Awesome. So students in that situation should reach out individually if they’re having trouble, correct?

JG: Yes, and that’s not to say that I can tell you exactly how that help will be delivered. Only that we’re doing our best to raise some dollars through our benefactors — people who care about the university — to be able to help individual students and their families.

MD: Awesome. The next set of questions [is] a lot about classes and the impact of online courses and challenging living situations on academic performance. Dean Qu, is the faculty taking steps to address these concerns, and is there a pass/fail option under consideration?

Jianmin Qu, Dean of the School of Engineering (JQ): Thank you, Monique. Let me start by saying that moving all in-person classes to online classes is a big challenge for all of us, and doing so in literally one-and-a-half weeks is almost impossible. Yet our faculty have demonstrated tremendous resilience and creativity. Over the past week, we have invested an extraordinary amount of time and effort to move their teaching online.

Here I must note that teaching online is also a great challenge to our faculty. Not only do we need to figure out the best pedagogies for online teaching, many faculty will need to deal with home difficulties as well, such as taking care of young children when child care is not available. In spite of these difficulties that our faculty is facing, I want to assure you that all of our faculty are fully committed to offer the high quality of learning experience that Tufts students deserve and expect. Of course, online learning is also a new experience for many of you. We understand and appreciate the challenges you’re facing. Although our faculty have come up with many creative approaches to fully engage their students through the online learning platform, we do recognize the situation’s unprecedented. We need to do everything we can to not let this crisis affect your grade. So this afternoon, our faculty will be discussing proposals for changing the grading system for this semester, including pass/fail options. An announcement will be made soon after.

MD: With regards to academic accommodations, how can students use academic accommodations who may not have needed them at school but may need them at home? Or if a student falls ill with CODID-19, how can they get in contact and receive academic accommodations?

JQ: Thank you, Monique. I think this is an issue [for which] we have been trying really hard to come up with the solutions. The places that the students should go to are the FIRST Resource Center, Student Accessibility Services, the Academic Resource Center, as well as the BLAST and BEST [programs]. We have been working with individual students to find out their needs, and then we work one-on-one with each student to make an arrangement so they can improve the environment they are using to learn and [take] their courses. For example, we have allowed students to take home laptops, to purchase WiFi hotspots and get headphones that are noise-canceling [and have] a microphone and other options so the student can actually have the environment to study.

My suggestion to students who are in need in any of these categories: please reach out to the FIRST Resource Center, to Student Accessibility Services, to the Academic Resource Center and the BLAST and BEST programs. All these places will remain open throughout the rest of the semester — of course, virtually.

MD: One last question is for students who are finding a professor fighting back on them or not giving them accommodations that they need or not helping them through this time, what would be the best course of action for them to take?

JQ: This is no different from any other regular semesters. If you do have issues with your particular professors in your class, please do reach out to the appropriate organizations. For example, you can reach out to the department chair of that class or reach out directly to the deans.

JG: Or to Student Accessibility Services, and they will reach out to us. Any of those ways would work.

MD: Thank you. The last big category was about what could happen in the future and what that looks like. So Dean Glaser and Dean Qu, has a decision been made about what will happen at graduation — how that will be handled?

JG: That decision, as I understand it, will be made very soon and communicated very soon. I would say to students that if you have ideas about things that we could do creatively, we would welcome them and please just contact us directly.

MD: In regards to summer, do you know if summer courses will be offered virtually or in-person, and if we have any idea about how the fall semester will continue?

JG: There will certainly be some summer courses offered. Whether they’ll be offered both summer sessions [is] not yet clear. About 10% of the Arts and Sciences and Engineering [summer] courses are already online, and there may be other courses that will be put online. I think the question is whether there will be in-person classes offered in the summer, and we’re not quite ready to make that call yet. I would suggest to students that they don’t count on that because I think that that’s not a terribly likely thing to happen.

With regard to the fall, I think we’re spending a lot of time talking about how the fall will go, but it’s still premature to know exactly how that’s going to happen. But I would say pay attention to the lines of communication that have been established, and we will certainly be letting the community know our plans for the fall. I very much hope that we’ll be at something close to normal by September, but I think it’s just not clear yet whether that will be the case.

JQ: Everything at this point, obviously depends on [whether] the situation will improve soon or not. So we are basically preparing both summer and the fall both ways. We expect that class will resume in a normal fashion [and] everybody [will] come back to campus, but we are also preparing for being [like] this in the long run and we’re going to deal with that.

MD: One last question is about students who were planning to study abroad in the fall and students who were studying abroad this spring and got sent home — what will their path look like from now on?

JG: For those who were studying abroad this semester, if they were studying abroad through Tufts, I believe that there are online solutions to finishing courses. I think that worked for almost all of the programs. There were one or two programs where they may not have gotten that final trimester underway, so students will want to use upcoming months to catch up and [complete] credits through summer session and online courses. We have a proposal that will be put before the two faculties — the Engineering faculty and the Arts and Sciences faculty this afternoon — which will basically lift the cap on the number of online courses that can be used toward graduation. I fully expect that to pass, and that’ll be part of the communication that goes out this evening.

With regard to the fall, I think the Tufts programs and the other study abroad providers are still going to be processing applications to those programs. And I would encourage students to put applications in for those programs with the understanding that they may not happen.

MD: Thank you. Dean Thompson, before we wrap up, who should students contact if they have questions or concerns in the coming days or weeks?

NT: To start with, I would keep an eye on the [coronavirus] FAQs because we’re going to keep those updated. We’ll be updating those with answers to some of the questions that were posed that we didn’t have a chance to get to today. So I would first say, keep an eye on the FAQs.

One of the questions that was asked was, ‘What should I do if I feel like I’m getting sick?’ For students who are on campus [or] in the area, [Health Service] is open. They’ve adjusted the way they meet with students and meet with patients, as all health care facilities have. But if you call there and have a question about your health, you will be able to talk to a nurse. They’re also using tele-health systems, and they hope to be doing testing as tests are available. So the [Health Service] is a resource for students to use.

In addition, as we’ve kind of all said here today, we’re navigating uncharted waters, we’re doing it together, and we understand that individuals have very specific needs. So a lot of this work to support our students and our community is going to be done on a person-by-person basis. So if people have questions that are directly COVID-related, we’re going to continue to use the [email protected] webpage. That’s monitored, and we are responding to questions and have been since that was set up over a week ago, or however long ago — it seems like maybe six years ago. But it’s up and running, and people are still monitoring it. For specific questions about ‘I’m worried about this, I need this, help me,’ the Dean of Student Affairs email address is a good way to get someone to respond to you directly and by phone quickly. So that is [email protected] So students should feel free to use that address, and we will respond and help them work through. We don’t have magic wands or miracles, but what we have is a deep concern and commitment and care for our students. And with that, I think we can go a long way together.

MD: Thank you so much to President Monaco and the panelists for clearing up some questions that the students had today. Overall, this community has been very wonderful and very giving, and I encourage anyone who needs help and is having trouble reaching out to the right person: Tufts Mutual Aid is run by fellow students, and we would be more than happy to help you reach out to people where you can get aid or to provide you with connections to housing or food or anything else you might need during this time. We have a Facebook page as well as a Gmail that you can reach out to. Everyone’s been really working hard at this time, and I know that seeing all the outpouring encouragement from even alumni, parents and Tufts’ community [that] we’ll be able to help each other and make it through.

NT: I want to say that I have been so moved by the care that so many people have provided and taken in this moment. But for me, Tufts Mutual Aid is just a really good example of how this community works. It’s students helping students and also helping us — we, in the administration — to understand what those needs are. I just value that partnership so much and appreciate the work that you’re doing. And again, we can do this. We can do this together. President Monaco, do you want to …

AM: Yes, I would like to say a few words at the end. Many of you have seen my op-ed in the Boston Globe, or I’ve made several appearances on local television. And you may ask yourself, ‘President Monaco looks fairly alarmed. Should I be alarmed?’

I think I want to tell you what this has been like from my perspective. As you were packing your bags to leave campus after we made the decision, on that Saturday, I got a call from Tufts Medical Center with the following situation. They had masks and supplies that could last two weeks if they had a surge. Their hospital was full. They couldn’t get their inpatients into rehabs because they were concerned about the impact of contamination. Everything that their epidemiologists had told us is [that] we were on target to look like Italy, and they asked us for our help in the most desperate way. You heard about the work we’ve done with masks, and we’ve handed over all of our lab supplies. That has bought them a couple weeks.

We are helping them place some of their inpatients and other local hospitals into our dorms under medical personnel, so we could ease the bottleneck of the outflow. We are also going to house medical personnel starting this week, including nurses, first responders as well as others that do not want to contaminate or put at risk their vulnerable family members. We are being considered for a drive-through test site.

In addition, we’re trying to think exponentially with Tufts Medical Center. We have tried to help them address their current needs, and I think we’ve bought them a couple weeks, together. But this is going to grow exponentially. We are waiting for the federal and state plans, and we hope to meet them somewhere — they know our capacities. But it is going to get to the stage that there will be an overrun in the hospitals, and you’re going to see scenes that you’ve probably never seen before. I’m concerned about your mental health. I want you to lean on us if this happens and use our call centers. You know the resources — we will be there for you.

You may see many scenes of things happening at Tufts if we open up this campus for patients. We were one of the first universities to do this, and so they’re going to be covering this in the media. How can you help? You’re going to see this, and you’re going to want to know what you can do. I know the Tufts students. You already saw how our students bought a couple weeks for Tufts Medical Center [by] repairing masks. There are going to be a need for huge volunteer efforts, wherever you are, to help your local hospital, whether that’s in call centers or other ways at a distance. We’re working with [the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life] to come up with a platform that will allow you to search and find out ways you can help at a distance, no matter where you are.

I said this on television, and I’ll say it to you: This is a Dunkirk moment for our country, and we need to get every boat out there to help our hospitals across the Channel. Tufts will be doing everything they can, and there will be a time [when] we’ll be calling on you to help. But right now, we need you to focus this week on getting the distance learning up and running, to help each other, to help those that are in isolation. They’re lonely — reach out to them. And you will see how things develop, and we will be in touch on how you might help us in these efforts. Yes, this is a difficult time, but I know the Tufts community. I know how we care about each other, and we will do everything we can to help our communities and the Greater Boston Area. Thank you.

NT: Thank you very much, everyone on the panel. Thank you, Monique. And thank you to everyone in the Tufts community for all you’ve done and will continue to do. And with that, we’re going to sign off. Be well, be safe.


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