CMC Returns offers a strong blueprint for fall restoration of campus life

It has taken three months of planning, but Sharon Basso can picture an on-campus fall semester at CMC in the era of COVID-19.

She sees students happy to be back and greeting each other warmly from a respectful distance. She sees a continued embrace of life in the sunny California outdoors, including the usual flurry of skateboards zipping by. But in what may be the reality at colleges for the foreseeable future, Basso also sees masks and other face coverings for everyone on campus; physical distancing aided by CMC-branded beach towels that remind students to stay six feet apart; and instead of bumping elbows inside Collins Dining Hall or The Hub, students grabbing a bite at designated food trucks and spreading out in reconstructed outdoor eating areas.

“I still hope to see enthusiasm for starting a new semester. But it’s going to be different,” said Basso, vice president for student affairs. “There are going to be a lot of, ‘Oh, I can’t do that the same way’ moments, a lot that is new for upperclassmen who already have their campus routines. We’re all going to have to figure out together how the CMC experience can work in this way for everyone.”

The seeds for what CMC could hopefully look like come fall semester were planted July 1 when the College announced its conditional plan, CMC Returns.

In his message to the community, President Hiram E. Chodosh cited the detailed plan as a “strong blueprint for an adaptable restoration of on-campus residential and academic life in the fall.” He added that “effective implementation requires each of us to face the material health risks and make inventive, disciplined, and mutually supportive adjustments in how we teach, learn, live, socialize, work, and operate.”

Given recent, concerning trends in Southern California, Chodosh also stressed that “CMC Returns is fully conditional on both the announcement of L.A. County Public Health guidelines that allow an on-campus program and a favorable, independent assessment of our health and safety capabilities.” If these necessary conditions are not satisfied, Chodosh said CMC will be “fully prepared to offer a strong virtual program in the fall.”

The College will communicate the final determination of those necessary conditions no later than July 24.

CMC Returns emerged from the engaged contributions of hundreds of students, faculty, staff, and parents, in collaboration with College leadership and the Board of Trustees. Basso and the Dean of Students office, in particular, have been holding weekly virtual gatherings with a group of roughly 70 CMC students, along with regular check-ins for each specific class, including incoming first-years.

“In order for this to work to any degree that a student would want to be back on campus, there had to be a mutual development of a new CMC environment rather than a prescribed one,” Basso said. “There have certainly been moments where we’ve all struggled to wrap our heads around the reality of what this is going to be like. But thanks to having a feedback loop with students, they continue to be incredibly thoughtful about what their individual choices could look like to help build a collective community amid these difficult circumstances.”

Key areas of emphasis for CMC Returns include:

Health and safety
  • Required face coverings, physical distancing, frequent hand washing, and enhanced cleanings of facilities.
  • On-campus medical staff and database technology for daily screenings, as well as testing and contact tracing. 
  • Defined quarantine and isolation protocols—developed with guidance from medical professionals—for students to follow in the event that they are symptomatic or test positive for COVID-19. Students may be required to change housing locations or quarantine for up to 14 days.
Social distancing promoted on campus
Facilities staff wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and physically distance during an outdoor meeting.

Before coming onto campus or leaving their residence, students will complete a daily, electronic health screening questionnaire. Based on the results of the screening, the student will either be cleared to come to campus, or they will be directed to stay in place as College personnel are contacted. CMC is also working to secure its own on-site clinic so “the capability to get checked regularly will be right here on campus,” said Coreen Rodgers, vice president of business and chief operating officer.

“There will be a lot of personalized attention on clinical care for students. The same will hold true for employees,” she said. “We are making a significant investment in systems, apps, database tracking, and case management tools. Throughout these months of planning, we have learned that you have to have both the technology and the people to make this all come together.”

The College is also committed to ongoing review and communications about emerging public health conditions with medical experts, community members, and peer institutions as part of a “full health and safety wrap around campus,” Rodgers said. CMC-branded face masks and beach towels that recommend staying six feet apart, along with increased signage on campus, will serve as visible reminders of the daily expectations.

“Whether it is enhanced signage, more outdoor furniture, or getting a meal from food trucks instead of at Collins, there are a lot of ideas that we are going to be thinking through and improving right up until the start of semester,” Rodgers said. “We’re consulting with experts all the time and making sure that we follow the best advice and science.”

Residential and student life
  • Reimagined campus living through increased dorm singles, moving some students to off-campus apartments, physical distancing in shared spaces, and reduced student-to-bathroom ratios.
  • Studying and socializing outdoors, most notably when students dine. Fresh food vending machines will be offered in some dorm areas for easy, convenient access.
  • Limited large group gatherings, events, and athletics to reduce campus density. High-risk sports like basketball, football, soccer, volleyball, and water polo have been ruled out for fall and winter.

Students will only be able to travel off campus for essential services (food, prescriptions, medical appointments, etc.) and must notify the Dean of Students office if they have to leave campus for an exceptional circumstance. Though the flexibility to move throughout the campuses and community will be diminished, Basso said connecting students to mental health and support resources is of utmost importance in any return plan.

Sign promoting social distancing on campus
Campus dining will shift to reflect physical distancing practices.

“In spring, we learned how to help guide students to the same touchpoints—faculty, staff, and coaches—that they were used to on campus. As we work to reconfigure our physical spaces, we want them to have strong access to resources like our academic success consultants and CARE Center,” Basso said. “Regardless of where students are located in the fall, getting them campus support remains an essential part of our mission.”

Students will also be asked to sign CMC Returns: The Agreement, which outlines various protocols and procedures to ensure a commitment of individual and social responsibility for community health. While situations may be fluid and challenging, Basso said The Agreement is a show of good faith that “everyone has the same shared goals and wants to be connected by them.”

“Our students care about each other. I think they want to make sure they rise to this moment and do right by the entire community,” she said. “I’m encouraged by what I’ve heard, especially from emerging leaders in the younger classes. I think they are going to feel comfortable checking their peers and saying, ‘you’re not following this scenario or doing what we agreed to.’ We’re going to need those powerful, ethical leaders to help us carry this through.”

Academic program
  • A virtual backbone and universal flexibility for both on- and off-campus learning.
  • In-person teaching elements incorporated for those on campus, including an increased reliance on larger classrooms and outdoor spaces like tents.
  • Revised schedules to accommodate between-class cleanings and expanded meal distribution.

CMC’s amended academic calendar will begin August 24 with no fall break and classes ending by Thanksgiving. Students who leave campus for the holiday cannot return to campus and must finish the final exam week remotely.

“From the start of creating a fall curriculum, universal design was really important to us,” said Peter Uvin, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. “We got more comfortable with the virtual teaching piece throughout spring. If you have that as the backbone and add in-person elements in when possible, it offers the most flexibility for individual students. Say you have a student on campus who has to isolate for two weeks, well, the online dimensions for the course are still the same—so they don’t miss a beat.”

Professor Daniel Michon on a Zoom call
Professor Daniel Michon greets students during a virtual religious studies class in the spring semester.

Designated outdoor spaces will be outfitted with the same Internet and AV capabilities as the average seminar classroom, Uvin said. The Dean of the Faculty is also partnering with Information Technology Services to establish so-called Zoom Rooms that provide an integrated experience for audio/video conferencing and wireless screen sharing. Remote students participating in these classes will be able to see whoever is speaking through cameras that track sound; in return, they will be visible to the instructor through large monitors, allowing for “a greater sense of facial awareness, body language, and room presence so the learning can feel much more interactive and discussion-based,” Uvin said.

The spring semester prepared the College for realities it is determined to find better solutions to, namely bridging technology gaps for students who are virtual-only. Similar to how the Dean of Students wants to emphasize familiar residential life touchpoints, Uvin said smaller classes, one-on-one appointments, and office hours also remain a high priority for faculty and support staff in the fall.

“The feedback we received from faculty was extremely encouraging—that, basically, literal face time with students increased in spring,” he said. “It may have been on a screen rather than in person, but we saw a real adaptation of student appointments and office hour meetings. Even the classes themselves—for example, cutting some down to feature smaller groups—created an intensity of interaction that allowed faculty members to know and engage students in the way CMC is known for.”

Final assessments

While the College will need an official green light from both L.A. County and its own independent assessment this month, the thorough planning puts CMC is a strong position to adapt to continued COVID-19 developments. “Even if we aren’t able to implement an on-campus return in the fall, much—if not all—of what we’ve established will be incredibly useful when we are cleared to come back,” Rodgers said.

Basso echoed her sentiments. A solid foundation for on-campus living and learning is in place. Though the grind to keep up with COVID-19 has been unrelenting, she’s grateful for how planning conversations have instilled a sense of pride, patience, and resolve that will be needed in the many months ahead. 

“Whatever we do moving forward will require grace from everyone. There are just some things we aren’t going to be able to write down in bullet points,” Basso said. “The world is still learning about this virus. But even with the shifting challenges and information overload, there are so many people at CMC who have said, ‘OK, let’s roll our sleeves up and find the best path forward.’”

The full plan, along with necessary updates, can be viewed at the CMC Returns website. Community members can also ask questions or share ideas at cmcreturns@cmc.edu.

—Thomas Rozwadowski