University President Ronald J. Daniels announced in an email to the student body on Wednesday, March 18 that in-person classes and University events are suspended through the rest of the spring semester due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. This year’s commencement, he added, will be held virtually.
On Tuesday, March 10, Daniels had announced that Hopkins would be canceling in-person classes and transitioning all undergraduate courses to remote instruction through at least April 12. His March 18 email extends this transition through the end of the spring semester. Students will be credited, he wrote, for the balance of their housing and dining contracts.
“Community transmission of the virus is accelerating nationally and within our region, and we continue to be guided by public health authorities and infectious disease and epidemiological experts at Johns Hopkins who are now urging all of us to observe stricter social distancing protocols for a longer period of time,” Daniels wrote. “We make this decision mindful of the toll caused by the uncertainty around this pandemic, including the uncertainty that comes with not knowing whether or when we might reconvene in person as a university community this semester.”
Sophomore Alanna Margulies responded to this update in an interview with The News-Letter.
“On one hand, I think it’s important that Hopkins is talking to experts and taking into account what other schools are doing and what is best for students. On the other hand, I can’t help but think that this seems premature,” she said. “There’s another two-and-a-half months of school that we’re automatically forfeiting... I’m losing a lot of my academic experience, my social experience and my experience of being at Hopkins in general by not being there.”
Senior Madelynn Wellons, who has been self-isolating due to her heart condition, stated that she understood the reasoning behind this decision. However, she also expressed her disappointment in how this information was delivered, as well as the consequences of the decision.
“It needed to happen and was a good decision health-wise; it just really sucks,” she said. “It’s upsetting and shocking because the entirety of my senior spring just got ripped away... The University’s doing as best as it can, but I wish things had been communicated better.”
Although he said that he was not surprised by the announcement, sophomore Marcus Breed wished that administrators had better prepared students for the possibility that remote instruction would continue through the end of the semester.
“I can’t go home, and I don’t seem to be getting any resources to figure out a place where I can live from the school,” he said. “I’ll be having to do that on my own.”
In addition, he is unsure about when he will be able to move out his belongings. Breed is temporarily staying in a friend’s apartment to avoid spreading COVID-19 to his mother, a survivor of cancer whose immune system is compromised because she suffers from the autoimmune disease lupus and is currently undergoing chemotherapy.
Vice Provost for Student Affairs Alanna Shanahan, by Friday, had emailed residential students instructing them to vacate residential buildings by Sunday at 5 p.m. Afterward, Breed filed for an exception. Shanahan’s email had stated that exceptions could be granted for those “who cannot return home due to international travel restrictions, financial hardship or other extraordinary circumstances.”
However, a case manager in the Office of Student Outreach and Support (SOS) denied his request.
“I was advised by the school to practice social distancing in my apartment, but I don’t think they realize how small my apartment is. I don’t really even have a bedroom at home,” Breed said. “The idea of me being able to maintain a six-foot distance from my mom at all times is not really feasible.”
At the beginning of this week, the same case manager, as well as the director of SOS, emailed him, inquiring about his plans and noting that the Counseling Center began offering online counseling on Tuesday, March 17.
“I responded to one of them and she never responded back. I haven’t responded to the second person yet because I don’t really know how much I trust it as being an actual reach-out or if it’s a performative thing,” he said. “I was offered help with arranging transportation to go back home, but I still feel like I’m not really being listened to.”
Senior Hannah Fajer argued that Hopkins is lagging behind peer institutions when it comes to updating students about developments related to COVID-19.
“The University has cared more about broadcasting the public image that they’re on the front lines fighting coronavirus than about the students who are being affected,” she said. “I’ve seen what people at other schools are receiving: emails from deans and professors... stuff going specifically to the class of 2020 saying, ‘We’re sorry, and here’s how we’re going to figure this out together,’ people getting video messages apologizing for cancelling Commencement. We got a broadcast to the entire University with a bullet point.”
In his email, Daniels noted that more information regarding virtual graduation activities will be made available later this week.
“We know that the decision to end in-person activities for the full semester comes as a great disappointment to many, as it does to us,” he wrote. “Gathering as a community to honor our graduates is a cherished tradition, but in true Hopkins fashion, we will summon our optimism and creativity to mark that important milestone in a way that expresses the great joy and pride we take in the accomplishments of our extraordinary students.”
Fajer expressed her frustration with the loss of an in-person commencement ceremony.
“We’re not going to get to walk as expected. We’re not going to really get to say goodbye the way we wanted,” she said. “And that’s pretty heartbreaking.”
Wellons questioned the logistics of a virtual graduation. Additionally, she is unsure about when she will be able to receive her diploma, which may affect her job opportunities, she said.
In an email to The News-Letter, senior Nick Maritato explained why he created a petition calling for the University to postpone commencement activities to later in the summer or this fall.
“When I saw the email... I was instantly saddened,” he wrote. “That being said, I understand that this is a very unprecedented and difficult situation, and I respect the measures the University has taken to ensure the safety of the Hopkins community. I simply made the petition to make it heard that the seniors truly value the importance of an in-person ceremony, and if possible we would like that to still occur, just at a later date when it is safe to do so.”
Senior Ellie Damstra voiced a similar opinion in an email to The News-Letter.
“Of course I’m sad about graduation, but at this point, I just want my family, my friends and everyone in the community to be safe,” she wrote. “I want this to be over, that’s what will make me the happiest.”
There is also a petition launched by sophomore Nora Khalil seeking a partial refund for spring 2020 tuition. Another petition, which has collected over 1100 signatures so far, is calling on the University to make this semester pass/fail.
Junior Christina Boatwright conveyed her hope for the latter petition’s success in an email to The News-Letter. She worries that graded online learning may compound students’ stress and anxiety, as certain students may lack an environment that is conducive to studying.
“It’s overall just a super tough time and it’s especially hard because none of us know when this will end, or even if things will be normal by summer time or the fall semester,” she wrote. “We’re all just trying to figure out what the next steps are.”
Fajer agreed with Boatwright.
“I’m not an international student. I’m not homeless. I’m not someone who’s dealing with not having WiFi,” Fajer said. “I’m just not sure how the University is going to continue to create an equitable environment for students when campus is the thing that levels the playing field for people. It’s unfair to be expecting people to be producing the same quality of work when their lives are just totally in flux right now.”
Similarly, Wellons would like students to have the option to make their classes pass/fail or to cover certain grades after receiving them.
“A lot of seniors want to bring up their grades before graduation,” she said. “But for a lot of people, it has been a really difficult time and they won’t be able to do nearly as well as they would have given the situation.”
In his email, Daniels mentioned that the Provost’s Offices and deans will consider and implement changes to course credit, degree requirements, grading and exams.
Wellons argued that students will now receive a lesser quality of education. She noted that many of her professors plan to use pre-recorded lessons in anticipation of connectivity issues.
In addition, Wellons, who is president of the student organization Advocates for Disability Awareness, remarked that online courses could be particularly difficult for students who are hard of hearing. She is hopeful that Student Disability Services (SDS) will make online courses inclusive and accessible for all students. Before Daniels’ email, SDS notified students registered for accommodations about progress made with resources such as captioning, exam accommodations and accessible documents.
In a follow-up email, Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences Beverly Wendland expressed a similar optimism, reacting to Daniels’ announcement.
“While this is very disappointing news for everyone, I believe it is the right thing to do. The health and welfare of our Johns Hopkins family must come before all else. I appreciate the cooperation of all of you as we strive to adapt to new ways of doing things. From its very inception, Johns Hopkins University has attracted scholars and scientists who have a ‘can-do’ attitude. We don’t run from problems; we roll up our sleeves to figure out solutions,” she wrote. “This latest challenge is no different.”
Jake Lefkovitz contributing reporting to this article.