The Months Ahead for Pomona (11/19/20)

Dear Pomona College Community,

With the Thanksgiving break almost here and the close of the semester not far behind, I’m writing with an update on our path through, and eventually past, what has been an all-encompassing crisis for our community, nation and world.

I write with hope, as the world recently has received some preliminary but stunningly positive news on the vaccine front. I also write with concern, as I know we have some very difficult days and months ahead as the pandemic accelerates and hospitals fill with patients. We all need to keep up our guard when it comes to the virus.

As we near the holidays, I am grateful for the tireless work of our alumni, parents and other members of our extended community who are on the front lines in public health, medicine and so many other fields. They are allowing society to move forward through this emergency. I also want to express my appreciation for the endurance and creativity of our faculty and staff. The duration and depth of this crisis has tested us all, and you have risen to the challenge. To our students, I salute your resilience and adaptability in this very difficult time, and I have no doubt you will do well on your finals. You are almost to the holiday break!

Now I want to share some steps forward in our work to make possible a phased return of students to campus for spring semester.

Like elsewhere, Los Angeles County is at a difficult point right now, with cases and hospitalizations rising. During this ongoing crisis, however, we have spent months preparing our physical campus and putting in place systems for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing. We have gained greater knowledge as we have consulted with experts and learned lessons from the experience of other institutions. We are ready to begin welcoming some students back to campus, committing to observe public health measures, once county officials allow it.

California’s COVID-19 guidelines for higher education, though rigorous, allow a clear path for a phased, responsible return of students. Our immediate challenge lies in additional layers of restriction issued by Los Angeles County.

The current county approach is one-size-fits-all, even though our region is home to a wide range of institutions. I and partners in higher education are building momentum for a change in the county’s posture toward smaller institutions. Recently, I and others met with Kathryn Barger, chair of the county’s Board of Supervisors, and with the staff of Supervisor Janice Hahn. At the Board of Supervisors meeting earlier this month, Supervisors Barger and Hahn introduced a resolution, which passed 5-0, directing the public health department to report back on changes required to align the county with the state’s higher education protocols, as well as areas where alignment is not recommended. We will update the community when we hear more.

In their resolution, Supervisors Hahn and Barger cited the example of colleges in other major metropolitan areas across the country that have safely resumed on-campus living and learning. Yesterday, I and other college presidents met with staff of Supervisor Hilda Solis, who voted for the resolution mentioned earlier and whose district reaches from Claremont to Eagle Rock. You can make your voice heard as well: For those who live in Los Angeles County, links to maps of the five supervisorial districts can help you determine the supervisor elected for your district, and contact information is available here.

We also are communicating directly with public health officials to explain safety steps we are taking and to make the case for Pomona and similar small institutions to move forward with a phased return of students for spring semester through a waiver or pilot program, as we have proposed in detail. We meet with public health again next week and will continue to seek to begin a responsible return of students to campus. I don’t need to remind you that to be successful, we will all need to work together to maintain physical distancing, wear masks and take precautions each and every day.

As we ready the campus, this semester we put in place the Pomona Safe protocols, including the establishment of an on-campus clinic staffed by a nurse to serve faculty and staff carrying out remote teaching and maintaining essential operations. At the same time, Student Health Services, which provides care for students of the undergraduate colleges, has entered into a contract with Shield T3, the testing arm of the University of Illinois. Shield will build a lab onsite and will administer PCR tests with a six-hour turnaround for results.

As we gear up for the next phase of response to this crisis, I have called together an expanded group to advise me on immediate and pressing decisions. The 2020-21 COVID-19 Phased Reopening Task Force includes several members of my executive staff, the chair of the faculty and divisional representatives of the faculty executive committee, two representatives from the student body and two representatives from the Staff Council. I am grateful for their commitment of time and energy as the range of decisions grows at a rapid pace. The task force members are:

  • Christina Ciambriello, chief of staff
  • Robert Gaines, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college 
  • Robert Goldberg, vice president, chief operating officer and treasurer   
  • Avis Hinkson, vice president for student affairs and dean of the college  
  • Pritina Irvin, coordinator, alumni and family engagement 
  • Jade Star Lackey, associate professor of geology 
  • Selena Lopez ’22 
  • Dan O'Leary, Carnegie Professor of Chemistry 
  • Mary Paster, professor of linguistics and cognitive science 
  • Alexis Reyes, assistant director, Sustainability Integration Office  
  • Robert Robinson, assistant vice president, facilities 
  • Nathan Tran ’23
  • Kenneth Baxter Wolf, John Sutton Miner Professor of History and professor of classics 

I also want to thank the large number of you who participated in the survey about spring semester plans. Your responses are helping to shape our plans to welcome back some students. Please note that if our proposal is approved for spring, our on-campus student population would be at a lower density than usual. No student would be required to return to campus. We eagerly look forward to fall, when we expect a full return to residential life at Pomona.

I sense we are all beginning to get a glimpse of the day when our campus is fully open, and students are once again studying or relaxing on our beloved Marston Quad. I can’t wait to see you all in-person once it becomes possible again.

We have much work ahead to fulfill our strategic vision, to serve as an engine of opportunity in American higher education, and to better the world by taking on grand challenges through our exceptional liberal arts experience.

As we move forward together, I thank you all for your commitment to our enduring Sagehen community. I hope the holidays bring you rest, renewal and hope for a brighter future ahead.


With gratitude,