Reflecting on the Fall Semester:
Looking Back as we Move Ahead

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Barbara Walters Campus Center exterior

Life on the Sarah Lawrence campus in fall 2020 was unlike anything in the College’s history: nearly all classes convened online, students were asked to socialize in pods, on-campus events required capacity limitations, and face masks provided a new way to make a fashion statement. And of course, regular nasal swabs to test for COVID-19 are hard-to-forget hallmarks of the semester.

Simply put, planning and executing the fall semester—the success of which was lauded by National Geographic in a November 2020 article titled “The Colleges with Virtually No Coronavirus Cases”—was a heavy lift. Starting in early summer, staff sprang into action as plans firmed up, transforming campus to ready it as a COVID-conscious home for a de-densified population. Efforts to mitigate the virus’s spread were unfailing, their importance reinforced constantly through communications, signage, and social media. More than 3,500 reusable cloth face masks were purchased and distributed to students (both on and off campus), faculty, and staff. An additional 11,400 single-use masks were also procured so members of the community could quickly grab one in a pinch and never find themselves mask-less. Entire HVAC systems were cleaned and air filters upgraded to MERV 13. 1,500 bottles of hand sanitizer were distributed, 200 hand sanitizing stations were purchased and installed across campus, and nearly 1,000 containers of surface wipes were given to departments, faculty, and staff and placed in classrooms and common spaces.

Making it through the fall semester was not just a challenge for the College—it was for many students as well. As the pandemic raged on and impacted families’ health and financial well-being, it became clear that many of our students would need additional support in order to begin or continue their college education. Living its values, the College leaned into this situation: financial aid packages were increased, with 83% of students receiving grants and scholarships this year compared to 75% last year. Overall, 1,245 undergraduate and 213 graduate students were enrolled for the fall semester, with 394 undergraduate students residing in single-occupancy rooms on campus, primarily—by design—our first-year students.

Out of the challenges posed by COVID, opportunities and new learnings emerged—many of which deserve, and will receive, exploration into how they might continue in the semesters and years ahead. Notably, online summer courses for first-year students—a first for the College—were a resounding success, as were new programs designed to foster engagement and community: SLC Reads and Belonging at SLC. Changes in registration and move-in procedures were well-received and led to improved experiences for faculty, students, and families.

As a College that strives to be a hub of intellectual and cultural activity not just for its campus community, but for its neighbors as well, it was unthinkable to have a fall semester void of events. Unable to gather in person, staff and faculty quickly took our typically bursting calendar online. As a result, we were able to bring College programming to a much wider audience, and saw our numbers of event attendees—including alumni, families, and the general public in addition to students, faculty, and staff—increase dramatically. The Office of Alumni Relations hosted 32 events, including the College’s yearlong Justice series, and welcomed nearly 1,400 attendees from 42 states and 17 countries. On campus, the Office of Student Involvement hosted 440 events, both in person and online, exclusively for students. Our event calendar is another example of opportunity arising from challenge, and we look forward to virtual components for events even when able to gather fully in person.

When all was said and done at the close of the fall semester on December 18, 2020, our numbers made clear that our efforts were well worth it. Over the course of the semester, only 7 residential students tested positive and needed to isolate, and a small number of those students’ close contacts spent time in quarantine housing. Only twice did our regularly-scheduled surveillance testing result in more than one student testing positive, an indication of exceedingly rare community spread. The semester’s success was a direct reflection of every member of this community’s commitment to each other—and their commitment to be #SarahLawrenceTogether in a time like no other.

Informed by the lessons of the fall 2020 semester, the spring semester begins on February 1. Learn more about our spring plans

About Sarah Lawrence College

Founded in 1926, Sarah Lawrence is a prestigious, coeducational liberal arts college that consistently ranks among the leading liberal arts colleges in the country. Sarah Lawrence is known for its pioneering approach to education, rich history of impassioned intellectual and civic engagement, and vibrant, successful alumni. In close proximity to the unparalleled offerings of New York City, the historic campus is home to an intellectually curious and diverse community.