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Plans for the Upcoming Academic Year

Dear Students, Parents, and Members of the Faculty and Staff, 

I hope you are well and finding ways to care for yourselves and others during these challenging times. 

I am writing today to share with you an overview of our current plan for the 2020–21 academic year. The plan outlined below is informed by significant input from faculty, staff members, and students serving on various working groups, and infectious disease and public health experts both within our alumni community and beyond. Members of my senior staff and I have used all of this information to arrive at what we believe is the best approach to providing a robust liberal arts education for our students while protecting the health and safety of our campus community and neighbors. Our work continues to be guided by the following principles: 

  • We will hold paramount the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff members.
  • We will continue to deliver to our students the highly engaged, intellectually enriching educational experience that is foundational to all that we as a College do. 
  • We will make decisions about College finances and operations with empathy, compassion, and humanity and work to maintain operational continuity and retain employees to the greatest extent possible.

We recognize that in the face of COVID-19, there is no perfect approach to the coming academic year. We all have to make adjustments in the interest of keeping our community and those around us safe. The following plan represents our best thinking as to how we can balance our needs and aspirations — some of which are in conflict with each other. Please keep in mind that it is based on what we know today. As we see in the news on a daily basis, the ongoing pandemic remains disruptive and unpredictable. The circumstances on which this plan is based, and over which we have little to no control, could change quickly and force us to reevaluate and alter our approach with little notice. The months ahead will require extreme flexibility and adaptability. I am confident this community is prepared for the challenge.

Return to Campus

Ideally, all students who are able and willing to return to campus this fall would be able to do so. Unfortunately, in light of the measures we must take to adhere to guidance from public health experts and ensure proper physical distancing, we cannot pursue that option at Swarthmore. Instead, we will invite separate cohorts back to campus for the fall semester. 

In close consultation with the Facilities Planning Group, we have determined that we can accommodate approximately 900 students on campus this fall. Typically, we have about 1,500 students on campus. That 900 figure is based on factors such as the number of rooms available to house all students in single bedrooms, the ratio of students to bathrooms in the residence halls, necessary cleaning protocols, our capacity to observe physical distancing in our dining facilities, and our ability to reserve housing spaces in the event that students need to be quarantined and isolated.

In consultation with faculty, and considering numerous factors such as the impact on curricular progress and socioeconomic circumstances that may disadvantage certain students, the following groups of students have the option to return to campus this fall:

  • First-year students
  • Sophomores
  • Incoming transfer students
  • Resident Assistants

Students whose ability to learn remotely is severely challenged by various personal circumstances and who are not included in one of the cohorts above may apply to return to campus this fall. We will soon share details on how to do so.

International students may face unique challenges in returning to the United States. We will follow up with guidance and information specific to international students and their families in the days ahead.

Please note that if you are not in one of the cohorts listed above but choose to live in nearby off-campus housing this fall, you will not have access to campus facilities.

We know that our juniors and seniors will likely be disappointed by this approach. We did not arrive at this decision easily. Our goal is to return to full enrollment for the spring semester. If, based on the course of the virus and what we learn about operations during the fall semester, we are unable to return to full enrollment in the spring, we will prioritize inviting juniors and seniors back to campus for the spring semester, which would give all students an on-campus experience during the academic year and allow seniors to spend their final semester on campus. 

We also realize that some students may be unable or unwilling to return to campus this fall due to any number of COVID-19-related reasons. Some students who are invited back may wish to continue learning remotely. Others may wish to pause their education at Swarthmore. No student is required to return to campus. Within the next week, the Dean’s Office will share a questionnaire asking all students to indicate their plans for the upcoming academic year, based on the information we are sharing today. Please return that questionnaire within 10 days of receiving it so that we can plan accordingly.

We will also soon provide detailed information about our move-in process, first-year orientation, housing selection, and course registration.


We expect that most classes in the fall — including all large lectures — will be held remotely, even for those students who are on campus. Individuals participating in the limited number of in-person classes offered will be required to wear face masks and maintain proper physical distancing. Whether students are on or off campus, they will be able to fully participate in the academic experience. Again, we are determining how our campus spaces may be used in ways that ensure we adhere to public health guidelines and best practices, and we will have clear campus guidelines in place prior to students’ return to campus. No student will be required to attend in-person classes, nor will any faculty member be required to teach on campus this fall.

I applaud the efforts of our students, faculty, and staff members to adjust quickly to a remote learning environment last semester; our ability to deliver on our academic mission under the conditions we faced in the spring is a powerful testament to the flexibility, creativity, and perseverance of the Swarthmore community. That said, we must distinguish between the remote instruction provided under emergency circumstances and the multiple approaches we will offer this fall. We have much more time to plan, and our faculty and instructional staff are preparing compelling and engaging classroom experiences befitting our high academic standards. 

Academic Calendar

We have adjusted the academic calendar to accommodate our continued modified operations. Here is a summary of the revised calendar for the fall 2020 semester: 

  • First day of classes — Monday, Sept. 7 (Labor Day)
  • Last day of on-campus experiences — Friday, Nov. 20
  • Phased departure of students who are on campus — Friday, Nov. 20–Sunday, Nov. 22
  • Thanksgiving break — Saturday, Nov. 21–Sunday, Nov. 29
  • Classes resume fully remotely — Monday, Nov. 30
  • Last day of classes — Friday, Dec. 4
  • Reading period — Saturday, Dec. 5–Monday, Dec. 7
  • Final exams — Tuesday, Dec. 8–Tuesday, Dec. 15

The spring semester will begin on Monday, Feb. 15. Commencement for the Class of 2021 will take place on Sunday, May 30, 2021.

By ending on-campus experiences before Thanksgiving, we reduce student travel to and from campus and, therefore, mitigate the risk of individuals spreading COVID-19. In the interest of reducing travel, we are also eliminating both fall and spring breaks. Please review a more detailed 2020–21 academic calendar on the College’s website

We are also introducing a January term — an intensive, fully remote experience during which students will be able to enroll in one class that will run Jan. 4–29, 2021. This new term will afford us the flexibility to reimagine the distribution of courses across the academic year. Traditionally, students take four courses in each of the fall and spring semesters. Based on feedback from students and faculty alike, we recognize that a four-class load in a remote environment is taxing in ways that differ from the in-person experience. A normal course load in the fall will be 3–3.5 credits. Remaining credit requirements will be distributed across the new J-term and spring semesters. More information is forthcoming. 


Athletics and physical education play a significant role in maintaining and strengthening the well-being of our community members; our colleagues in athletics are designing robust offerings for the upcoming academic year to support our physical and mental health.

Unfortunately, all of the measures we’re putting in place to keep our community members safe — strict physical distancing and masking policies, limits on the number of students returning to campus, severely restricted college travel, etc. — will prohibit our participation in intercollegiate athletic competition for fall sports. Our coaches are developing meaningful and creative ways to engage with members of their teams during the course of the fall semester.  

Tuition, Room, and Board

We recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic downturn have had a significant impact on many of our students and their families. In acknowledgment of this circumstance, we are eliminating the planned tuition increase for the 2020–21 academic year and instead setting tuition at the same rate as the 2019–20 academic year. More details are available here. In addition, the Financial Aid Office has established a reconsideration process for families whose short- and long-term finances have been adversely affected by these difficult times. For more information, please refer to the Financial Aid website

Only students who return to campus will be billed for room and board charges. Because of the change in the academic calendar, we expect that bills for the fall semester will be mailed in late July, and they will be payable in late August. As always, payment plans are available for families upon request; more information about payment plans is available on the College’s website.

Despite the challenging financial circumstances before us, and in keeping with our commitment to equity and inclusion, this academic year we will introduce a Textbook Affordability Program. Through this initiative, the cost of tuition now includes a $700 allowance for all students to help cover the cost of required course materials. We will share additional details about the program prior to the start of the academic year. This new program benefits all students and alleviates some of the hidden costs borne by many of our students and their families. 

Safety Protocols 

For those students who do return, life on campus will be significantly different from what we are accustomed to. We continue to consult with infectious disease and public health experts to develop and implement new protocols designed to minimize the risk of COVID-19 spreading on campus. We will require all students, faculty, and staff to wear face masks while they are in shared spaces on campus. In addition to testing for COVID-19 at the start of the semester, we plan to implement mandatory regular testing and symptom screening of our employees and students who are on campus. Should a member of the campus community contract COVID-19, we will conduct aggressive contact tracing in order to contain the virus to the best of our ability. We will also reserve housing so that we can quarantine students who exhibit symptoms, are determined to have been at risk of exposure, or contract the virus. 

We are working with public health experts and members of the campus community, including a student advisory committee, to finalize our health and safety plan, and we will share additional details in the weeks ahead. 

Town Halls

Before the semester begins, I will host virtual town halls for students, families, faculty, and staff to address your questions. 

Living in Community

This coming academic year will be unlike anything we have experienced. It will require great flexibility and adaptability, as we simply cannot predict the ways in which COVID-19 will continue to disrupt our lives. So while this approach represents our best thinking given the current state of play, we may need to shift quickly in one direction or another with little notice. 

We can be certain of this: Our best approach to minimizing the impact of COVID-19 on our campus community is to embrace a shared sense of responsibility for one another’s well-being. While we cannot eliminate the risks altogether, we can work collectively to mitigate them. We will ask each member of our community to sign a pledge before returning to campus — a commitment to following the College’s policies and protocols and taking appropriate actions to keep one another safe. Although the pledge is still being developed, at a minimum, everyone will be expected to adhere to strict masking policies on campus. Face coverings protect others, including faculty and staff members, who scientific data suggest are generally more susceptible to serious complications from the virus than the vast majority of our students. Everyone will be required to follow strict physical distancing protocols and practice good hygiene, including frequent handwashing. Those who feel ill, or even just a bit under the weather, will be expected to think of the rest of the community and self-isolate. Students will be asked to commit to largely remaining on campus, neither traveling to Philadelphia nor visiting friends at other campuses. As we work to develop practices and policies, please remember that we will do so with the safety of our entire community in mind.

Val Smith