Dean’s Forum Provides Updates to Life in a Remote Learning Environment

Hui Li ’21
Co-Chief Photographer

On Thursday, March 12, Michele Murray, Ph.D., Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, held her last on-campus Dean’s Forum of the semester in Hogan 4, Suite A. 

The Dean’s Forum is an open meeting hosted by the Dean of Students on the last Thursday of each month. Dean Murray, along with representatives from administrative offices around campus, addresses relevant subjects and issues facing the Holy Cross community.

Students are welcomed to ask questions about any subject or concern at the forum. Some subjects cannot be addressed due to confidentiality concerns, but Dean Murray aims to provide as many answers as she can to students’ concerns. Depending on the pressing issues of the month, relevant parties will be invited to answer questions at this event. 

The current case regarding COVID-19 is unlike anything the College has faced before, and administrators from different offices on campus, ranging from Residence Life, the Counseling Center, the Office of Multicultural Education, Office of Student Integrity and Community Standards, and several more, were present at this forum, which addressed several concerns regarding the developing situation.

Photo by Hui Li ’21

Graduation and Commencement for the Class of 2020

The question of graduation and commencement was on several peoples’ minds during the session and in the days following the decision to transition to remote learning for the rest of the semester. The College is adamantly working toward making sure that commencement will take place for the Class of 2020.

The College’s primary concern is the community’s health and safety. The exact date for the event is still being determined and will depend on the status of the COVID-19 outbreak, so commencement might be delayed.

“The faculty want commencement like you do,” said Dean Murray. “We want to celebrate the Class of 2020 for sure.”

[Update: On Wednesday, March 18, Rev. Philip L. Boroughs, S.J., President of the College, assured that the Class of 2020 will have an in-person commencement ceremony, with the date to be determined as the public health crisis unfolds in the coming weeks.]

Housing Extensions

Dean Murray shared that over 400 students have asked for a housing extension. “We know that some students can’t go home,” she stated. However, it is very important to know that “extended housing is a privilege” and criteria used to evaluate the late-stay requests will be stringent.

Conduct Violations

Kevin O’Connell, M.Ed., the college’s Director of Student Integrity and Community Standards, was present at the forum. He said that “the College’s primary task right now is the preservation of community members’ health and safety and facilitating the orderly departure of its students. Any student behaviors that obstruct or otherwise complicate this task will be addressed immediately.” 

Dean Murray’s message that “you need to leave” because of the risks posed by COVID-19 should be taken seriously. “We will not hesitate to contact a parent and remove a student from campus property as soon as an incident occurs with the plan being to more formally resolve the matter next week or the week after. The threshold for this type of administrative action will be very low, considering the exigent circumstance the institution is managing,” said O’Connell.

He stated that the “expectation that students will exemplify the very characteristics that make Holy Cross such a special place” remains unchanged and that “the prevailing perspective is that we trust our students to make decisions that are in their own best interest and that of their peers.” 

Dean Murray stated that the College’s trust, faith, and confidence in the student population in conducting themselves is inherent. O’Connell added that this trust is there “unless there is a reason to think that it is lost or damaged when working with any given student matter.” 

The discussion on conduct with Dean Murray’s reminder that “commencement is still a thing” and that violations would negatively affect the privilege to attend.

Transition to Remote Learning

Margaret Freije, Ph.D., Provost and Dean of the College, answered a question about the College’s transition to an online format. “You and the faculty are going to be transitioning together,” she said as she addressed students.

Provost Freije stated that it is important for students to continue their connections with others at Holy Cross, and in the current situation, that has to be done virtually. While courses will be moved online, the experience is “not going to be completely different” from that of in-person classes at Holy Cross. An online seminar will still be a seminar with the same important student interactions and class participation on discussion boards. 

Provost Freije stated that the faculty have committed to holding their office hours online. It is important to reach out and communicate with them if there are any questions about the course or its content. Professors will also be responsive to student feedback regarding which strategies may or may not be working in this new format. The rest of the semester is “definitely going to be different,” she said, but students will still be able to “maintain these connections and relationships.” 

The College acknowledges that students who will be going to areas away from the East Coast might be concerned about accessing courses that meet in the mornings in Eastern Standard Time. Faculty are working on ways to make sure all students have access to online lessons regardless of their time zones. The school is considering adding each student’s home state to the class roster so professors know who might be attending class online from a different time zone.

Adjusting to an Off-Campus Study Environment

“It might take a few days to get into rhythm,” Dean Murray said about the transition to remote learning. It is important for students to figure out their “new rhythms” off-campus and create approximate schedules back home. “You are used to walking from building to building,” she said. “If you are used to getting exercise, get exercise.”

She also suggested to students, “set your space – your work space.” This place, wherever it might be, should be “just as if you were at Holy Cross – it is your zone.”

Adriana DiPasquale, PsyD., of the Counseling Center responded to a student who shared concerns about what to do in a busy household environment. It is important to communicate with family members that college “isn’t high school” and that quiet spaces are crucial. 

She suggested looking for a “place in the [local] community,” such as a coffee shop, library, or community center to find a quiet space to study, if possible. In addition to finding a space in the local area, Dr. DiPasquale also recommended creating a schedule for studying and doing homework. She also suggested that if there are other college students in the area, regardless if they are from Holy Cross or not, they can form a “community of learners” away from Mt. St. James.

Students could also reach out to their high-school mentors in their hometowns for advice on local places to study, if necessary. To this point, Provost Freije added that she can work with the Office of Admissions at Holy Cross, which communicates with high schools across the country, contact schools to find quiet study spaces for students. 

Resources on Campus

Chris Campbell, Assistant Director of the Office of Multicultural Education, told everyone at the Dean’s Forum, “You are not alone when you go home.” He added that if a student wants to talk to someone at the school or needs support during this time, they can “reach out to someone here. Holy Cross is always there for you.”

Starting next week, representatives from the Office of Student Involvement (OSI) and the Registered Student Organizations (RSOs) will be working on conducting virtual seminars to maintain student organization activities at Holy Cross. It should be stated, however, the primary focus for this half of the semester is on academics.

The question of access to certain technologies also came up during the forum: how will students be able to use course-specific software at home? Provost Freije replied that the College can work with the Information Technology Services (ITS) department to obtain licensing for specific computer programs so students can continue their software-reliant coursework off-campus. 

Academic Adjustments

When asked about typical spring processes such as advising, declaring majors, taking placement tests, enrolling in classes, and selecting housing for the 2020-2021 year, the College will be using its existing online systems to take care of these tasks.  

Provost Freije said that advising will be done through either phone calls or virtual meetings and should be coordinated between the student and academic advisor(s). The process of declaring majors and managing academic plans has been moved online in recent years, and will stay online through this semester and beyond. Placement tests for language courses will also be accessible online, and enrollment will still be happening through STAR. Enrollment dates have not been officially changed, but like many issues that are being discussed by the administration right now, there may be updates in the future. 

Edwin Coolbaugh, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life and Housing, stated that the college housing selection process has been moved online and will be accessible off-campus. 

One student asked about the Academic Conference, which was scheduled for Wednesday, April 22. Provost Freije said that the College is thinking about the Academic Conference and has been in touch with the school’s honors programs and other scheduled presenters regarding plans for the semester.  

Any adjustments to the grading system (e.g., letter grades and GPAs, Pass/No Pass) will be communicated. At the end of this semester, all seniors who have cleared their academic requirements will get official certification that they have fulfilled all degree requirements on their transcripts.

Closing Remarks and Additional Information

Near the end of the discussion, a student asked why Holy Cross has decided to send its students home earlier than some other academic institutions, which are waiting until April before making official decisions for the rest of the semester. Dean Murray said that Holy Cross had an early spring break this year, from late February to the first week of March, while other colleges are on break either this week or next. Other colleges and universities can use their upcoming spring breaks to deliberate and come to final decisions.

The College has been working closely with public health officials in monitoring the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. From observations of outbreaks that occurred in other countries earlier this year, the officials had determined that there was a three-month window to decide what to do about the situation. Dr. Anthony Fauci, member of the Class of 1962 and Head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said that the outbreak will “get worse before it gets better.” 

In evaluating the level of risk that COVID-19 poses to the community, the College had asked people to register their spring break travels. Approximately 350 members of the community notified the school of the places they had traveled, and the college administration estimates that there are many more who have taken trips without telling the school. A fairly significant number of community members traveled to places where COVID-19 was prevalent at the time, and although there are currently no known cases of anyone in the Holy Cross community confirmed to have the virus, this was a cause for concern. 

Dean Murray shared that earlier this week, she had received several emails from students who were concerned about COVID-19 in just half an hour. There were passionate pleas from both students who wanted Holy Cross to stay open and students who considered the virus too large of a risk for them to stay on campus. 

The decision to move classes to a distance learning format was a very difficult one. “The faculty and staff are disappointed, too,” Dean Murray said. “This is not how any of us expected the semester to unfold.” The College is putting the community’s health and safety first, and the longer a large number of people stay and potentially spread the virus, the more dangerous the situation can become. 

Although the vast majority of the student body is not at high risk of falling seriously ill to COVID-19, there are some people in the community who, if they are not vulnerable themselves, care for people who are at greater risk. Furthermore, faculty and staff who have young children will likely need to be at home when schools close due to the risk.

Dean Murray said, addressing the seniors, “This is hardest on you. All your faculty and all your staff understand that.” A senior at the forum asked why the seniors could not be housed on campus, to which she responded, “if there was another way we could do this, we would.”

“We have people who cannot go home,” she said. There are people who will risk being homeless if they are removed from Holy Cross because they would not have a home to go to otherwise. Some members of the community also cannot go home because they are from countries that have closed their borders. 

This situation is one that “requires sacrifice from all of us,” and the College does not have enough resources for the entire senior class. Goods in stores are in low supply. Furthermore, the people who are staying at Holy Cross need a safe workspace: a large number of students on campus will pose a risk to those who will be on campus for the rest of the semester.

The College is currently addressing issues on a “first-things-first” basis. Questions such as those about refunds on room and board will be answered in later communications. Further information regarding the full situation will be provided on Tuesday, March 31. 

It is important for members of the community to check their email frequently for updates from Holy Cross. The college’s website for COVID-19 updates ( will be updated as well. 

Dean Murray stated that Holy Cross is not the only college or university that has shifted toward distance learning because of the COVID-19 outbreak, and there is cross-institution communication to create the best plans moving forward. She is anticipating holding another Dean’s Forum online at the end of the month and again at the end of April.

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