Life Interrupted

How HWS Stayed Steadfast and Resilient in Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic


A moment arrived in March when the Hobart and William Smith administration knew that — for the safety of students, faculty, staff and the Geneva community — the time had come to move most students off campus and shift to a remote learning model.

We had some sleepless nights on the way to the decision but as we monitored the spread of the virus and had conversations with health care officials, we knew it was the right thing to do,” says Vice President for Campus Life Robb Flowers.

While the spring semester is typically a flurry of activity, instead of finishing Honors projects, mounting theatrical productions, competing for league championships and preparing for beloved traditions such as Moving Up Day, the Hobart Launch and Commencement, administrators found themselves booking flights back to the States for students studying abroad, coordinating the return of on-campus students to their homes and families and providing a safe space for the 200 or so students who needed to remain on campus. All students received a partial credit for room and board, and any student who needed to stay on campus for the remainder of the semester was able to do so free of charge.

“No one wanted to see that moment arrive,” says President Joyce P. Jacobsen, “but everyone tackled the challenges involved in shifting to remote learning with focus and resolve.”

The move had to happen quickly, with both faculty and students diving headfirst into a new reality of Zoom classes, virtual office hours and unfamiliar technology. Everyday vocabulary expanded to include words like “pivot,” “asynchronous” and “breakout rooms.”

Described by Jacobsen as “a massive natural experiment,” the shift required faculty to redefine classrooms and translate experiential learning — including art, science labs, performances, field experiments and research projects — into the online space.

“The faculty did a tremendous job,” says Provost and Dean of Faculty Mary Coffey. “In the history of higher education, I can’t think of another time when so many people were called on to shift their pedagogy with so much speed. Staff in the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and Information Technology created remote teaching guides for faculty and students, and consulted oneon- one to ease the transition.”

Dean for Teaching, Learning and Assessment and CTL Director Susan Pliner reflects on the “complicated and rapid transition” to remote learning that took place. “What most comes to mind is the resiliency displayed by our students and faculty, along with the innovation demonstrated by our staff,” she says. “It was an extraordinary shift during a tenuous time, but our sense of community never wavered and the passion toward student learning carried us through in the face of every obstacle.”

In the first weeks of the spring shutdown of New York State, the entire HWS community held out hope that staying apart would mean we could still be together for two of the most anticipated events of the spring and summer: Commencement and Reunion. Again, the health and well-being of everyone took precedence and both events were postponed until June of 2021.

The outpouring of sympathy for graduates was overwhelming with dozens of faculty, staff, alums and elected officials recording video messages.

“I have felt so fortunate to see almost two decades of students graduate from the Colleges, and it is special each time,” says Dean of William Smith Lisa Kaenzig P’22. “This year, I stood under the trees next to Smith Hall to record my message to the graduates and was struck by my own strong emotions in wishing everything good for this very special group of students in the Classes of 2020 who have persisted in a way that was truly unique in our history.”

One message from the Most Rev. Bishop Michael B. Curry ’75, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, was particularly poignant. Curry, who had been scheduled as the Commencement speaker and who has agreed to return in 2021 to deliver his Commencement address in person, invited graduates to: “dare lives that dare to dream dreams, that dare to hope against hope, that dare to stand for ideals and values and principles like love and justice and compassion and kindness, to dare to ask why not and dare to live it.” (More at

The Hobart and William Smith community also rallied in other significant ways. In a time of uncertainty and hardship, gifts and commitments to the Colleges resulted in the largest fundraising year in HWS history (see story on p. 14), while a newly formed Student Emergency Fund coordinated by Alumni and Alumnae Association leadership and students raised more than $60,000 to provide students with immediate financial assistance. Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Brandon Barile, who oversaw the allocations from the Student Emergency Fund, notes that grants covered a variety of needs “helping students access Wi-Fi from home, get textbooks, obtain technology such as laptops or computer repairs — all things to make their academic experience successful.” In addition, “some more basic needs were addressed such as airfare to get home, rent, utilities, groceries and even costs for at-home counseling since so many students rely on our counseling services and resources on campus.”

More than 393 grants were distributed in total, financed by funds donated by alums, parents, faculty and staff, and monies identified by student leaders for re-allocation from student government. Barile is “grateful as well for student leaders who supported their peers, connecting them to on-campus resources and funding to help get them financially through the pandemic, as much as possible.”

“We were just overwhelmed by the generosity of our alums and parents,” says Vice President for Advancement Bob O’Connor P’22, P’23. “We even had parents who donated their student’s room and board credit to the Colleges. Everyone pitched in.” He notes that the Colleges also received support from two regional foundations — The Max and Marian Farash Charitable Foundation and The Fred L. Emerson Foundation — to help with COVID-related expenses.

With a new model for the spring semester underway, staff began to think through the logistics involved in reopening for the fall. Jacobsen appointed three task forces to consider a range of scenarios for what the fall semester might look like. The Logistics Task Force, overseen by Coffey and Flowers and comprised of faculty, staff and students, conducted scenario planning; outlined plans for social distancing, cleaning, testing and quarantining; and planned for flexible modes of instruction. The Financial Task Force, led by then-incoming Chair of the Board of Trustees Craig Stine ’81, P’17 and consisting of trustees and senior staff, focused on the projected financial implications of the pandemic. The Community Coordination Task Force, led by Flowers and Vice President and General Counsel Lou Guard ’07, sought the input of regional officials, health care leaders, local alums, parents, politicians and community leaders to imagine a campus reopening that would be safe for HWS, Geneva, Ontario County and the region as a whole.

“The goal was clear — create a scenario in which we could open for in-person classes in the fall,” explains Flowers. “The detailed planning we conducted throughout the summer was to ensure we could do just that.”

That planning resulted in a wholesale reimagining of teaching, learning and living spaces. A thorough environmental review of every classroom, residence hall room and office resulted in floor plans for each that allow for safe social distancing. Enhanced cleaning and sterilization protocols were rolled out. To promote good hygiene practices, more than 300 hand-sanitizing stations were installed across campus and personal protective equipment was distributed. Dining services were redesigned to accommodate pre-wrapped options, noncontact transfers and Plexiglas dividers in seating areas. The Colleges changed the academic calendar for the fall, shortening the schedule by canceling fall break, requiring students to remain in the immediate vicinity of Geneva during the semester and returning most students home at Thanksgiving for the rest of the semester. Plans were set in motion for a phased return to campus in August, including quarantining and testing. And an addendum was added to the Community Standards, signed by each returning student, that spoke to each student’s responsibility to wear PPE, adhere to social distancing protocols and maintain enhanced cleaning protocols.

Each faculty member determined their preferred teaching mode for the fall — fully in person, remote or a hybrid of the two. Enrollment limits were determined and learning spaces reconfigured to allow for de-densification and social distancing requirements. When the fall semester opened, about threequarters of courses were fully or partially in person with the remainder delivered remotely.

“Faculty made decisions that were in the best interest of their own health and personal situations and the Colleges responded, offering support and technology resources as possible,” says Coffey.

President Jacobsen monitored the impact of the virus and the shutdown through the lens of her deep experience in and understanding of economics, from the macro — following financial and labor market trends, to the micro — asking the Financial Aid office to work with students and families on a case-by-case basis to see that their financial needs were understood and met. In between taking courses on contact tracing and learning about microbial transfer, Jacobsen and members of the staff connected with colleagues across the nation, in the New York Six consortium and in the Rochester area. “We have helped one another to determine best practices and to work together with local and state agencies for further consideration of higher education,” Jacobsen explains. “Especially in Upstate New York, the success of higher education relates directly to the success of our local communities.”

In order to allow for 14-day quarantines required by New York State, between August 1 and August 24 when classes began, the Colleges successfully returned students to their residence halls through a staggered and orderly process that allowed everyone to maintain safe protocols at all times. The Colleges administered more than 2,000 COVID-19 tests and received test results from a number of other persons upon arrival to campus. Every day, staff members drove test swabs to the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass., to expedite results. When the Colleges opened for classes, only one person had tested positive, believed to be a result of the presence of antigens. That person, asymptomatic, was moved to an isolation facility, along with the one other person with whom they had any close contact. The Colleges were in immediate dialogue with Ontario County Public Health staff to ensure the safety of everyone.

While initial testing results and campus-wide adherence to the new community standards hint at a successful fall, Flowers says that the Colleges are not taking a victory lap. “We just cannot,” he says. “Although we are working with urgency and doing everything we can to stop any spread of the virus, we are also prepared for positive cases with detailed quarantine and isolation protocols. Should we need to move to a remote model, temporarily or for the remainder of the semester, we are ready to do so. We are balancing the health and wellbeing of our community with the need to provide the kind of instruction model that gives our students an exceptional education. We will continue to monitor our progress.” During the first week of classes, the Colleges began surveillance testing of 200 – 300 individuals each week.

“Coming back to campus to teach my hybrid courses was unexpectedly joyous,” says Professor of Dance Donna Davenport. “Being with students in person again filled me with a sense of happiness I had not anticipated. And actually seeing our familiar students, albeit behind their masks, was a blessed reunion. Our mutual losses have generated these wondrous moments.”

Professor of Religious Studies Michael Dobkowski agrees. “Although teaching remotely in the spring went well, there is nothing like the personal contact that in-person teaching affords, even behind masks and observing social distancing,” he says. “It confirms why HWS is such a special place. There are challenges, of course, and teaching with a mask while monitoring Zoom for those who are connecting remotely can be taxing, but it has also been exhilarating. I am heartened by the spirit of cooperation and flexibility displayed by the students. We all are doing what we can to keep our campus safe and to maximize the educational experience.”

Most students have returned to campus, like Alex Dwyer ’23, who plans to double major in environmental studies and geoscience. “After months of quarantine and remote learning I’ve come to truly appreciate the experiential learning that I get while living at HWS,” she says. “I’ve been impressed by how willing and excited my professors are to make the best of the situation. We’re making it work, we’re staying safe and we’re realizing that we can do a lot even in tough times.”

Around 120 students decided to learn remotely this semester, choosing to stay home and take classes via Zoom. Justus Bey ’23, at home in Texas for the fall semester, has found remote learning to be one of the bigger challenges of his college career — although there have been benefits. “Between learning from home and managing my work schedule, I’ve gained a much better grip on my time management,” he says. “We all have to adjust to change in the world and be able to manage it.”

Adjusting to and managing change is on the minds of everyone in the Hobart and William Smith community. While campus and day-to-day interactions look different, what hasn’t changed is the resolve of everyone to participate in the exchange of knowledge, even and especially in a moment of unprecedented historical significance.

In the words of President Jacobsen, the HWS community remains “steadfast and resilient, with an enhanced sense of purpose.”


A COVID-19 Dashboard of current cases as well as detailed documentation and all opening plans are available on the HWS website at