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Sweet Briar College uniquely suited to weather storm, reopen in August

Sweet Briar College uniquely suited to weather storm, reopen in August

Only $5 for 5 months

Like the millions of college students scattered to the wind when the coronavirus pandemic shut down her school in March, Sweet Briar College junior Caroline Waters is eager to return to campus.

Because the college retooled its calendar to get the entire first semester in before Thanksgiving break, she gets to start class Aug. 11.

This year she — and every other Vixen on campus — has her own room at no additional cost, one of several changes made as officials work to make the 3,250-acre campus safe for students to return.

Other than face masks, COVID-19 testing and the college's Patteson House — a residence hall typically used for overflow and housing over semester breaks — being set aside to isolate those who test positive, Waters doesn’t expect much change, though.

Sweet Briar was built to weather storms. During the Spanish Flu Pandemic, not a single life was lost on campus. In 2015 school leaders tried to close the college — financial difficulties were "insurmountable" and enrollment had fallen to less than 600 students. Vixens responded en masse, raising more than $28 million in less than four months. The college survived — enrollment will be at more than 350 this year — with its innovative restructuring and self-sustainability efforts setting it apart.

There is more to it than the 8-to-1 student teacher ratio. There are about 6.5 acres for each of the 500 bodies on campus — miles of running trails, horseback riding and boating all enhanced by solitude.

The large lecture classes with hundreds of students and crowded sporting events that are common at many colleges and universities are nowhere to be found at Sweet Briar.

“There aren’t a whole lot of schools that can meet the expectations of social distancing,” said Meredith Woo, president of the college. “It takes an extraordinarily rare college, like Sweet Briar, to actually meet the requirement.”

Financially, like colleges and universities across the nation, the college was affected by the sudden campus closure in the spring. Sweet Briar issued prorated room and board refunds to students for the weeks when campus was shut down.

In terms of fall 2020 student admission deposits, Woo said the college is tracking higher than fall 2019 numbers — deposits are up 20%. But, she said, there’s still the chance those enrollment numbers won’t materialize come fall, as students and parents could feel it is too unsafe to return to campus amid the pandemic. 

As an upperclassman, Waters said she'll be living in the college's on-campus apartments with her own bedroom and bathroom.

Waters said the college's on-campus housing capabilities and low enrollment have allowed it to offer single rooms for any student who wants one, and for the first time that single room won’t cost extra.

In addition to housing changes, the college has redesigned its dining hall experience to allow for social distancing. Tables designed to seat six or more will seat one or two, and dining hall capacity will be limited. Sweet Briar College spokesperson Dana Poleski said the college is exploring the option of adding some seating to an area outside its dining hall.

Face coverings will be required in shared spaces on campus, additional sanitizing stations will be on campus and the college will conduct “regular testing” during the fall semester.

Woo said the college is working with Quest Diagnostics to discuss options and determine a testing plan for the fall semester. Making the campus “COVID-19 ready” — by adding sanitizing stations, face masks, hygiene signage and testing — Woo said, comes with a $1 million price tag.

The college also is encouraging students to remain on campus for the entirety of the fall semester, to reduce the possibility of students leaving and returning to campus after potentially being exposed to the virus.

Even with all these changes, Waters said she doesn't think the campus dynamic will change that much. Classes have always been small and students have always utilized the campus' ample space, so she's hopeful that these guidelines won't affect the day-to-day feel of campus.

Lisa Powell, an associate professor of environmental studies at Sweet Briar, has been advising some students who will be coming to campus in the fall for the first time and said those students are excited to be on campus for their first semester of college.

Powell has been involved in integrating the campus’ 3,250 acres of land and new 27,000-square-foot greenhouse into student life.

In the greenhouse, which can be seen from the campus dining hall, vegetables will be grown and served to students, farm-to-table-style, in the fall semester. Basil, tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, peppers and other greens will be grown this fall.

Food insecurity has been one of the many effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and Powell said Sweet Briar is learning to better use its land for the sustainability of its community.

“Students really are having the opportunity to get hands-on experience in agriculture,” Powell said.

Sweet Briar enlisted administrators, faculty and students to its COVID-19 task force to discuss campus life, housing and all things related to reopening campus.

Waters served on the task force to provide a student perspective, she said.

"It's been wonderful that they have actively involved students' opinions in this [plan]," Waters said. "It says monumental things about how Sweet Briar is putting its students first... I know that the opinions I have voiced on behalf of my class or on behalf of my peers have been heard and have been discussed and have been acted upon."

Photos: Looking back at Sweet Briar College five years after announcement school would close

On March 3, 2015, the board of directors of Sweet Briar College in Amherst County announced the school would close that August, citing financial struggles. Students, alumnae and other supporters rallied, taking the matter to court. In June 2015, Virginia's attorney general announced a mediated settlement had been reached--the school would remain open with new leadership and millions of dollars raised.

Here's a look in photos at the impact of the 2015 events.

Jamey Cross covers education. Reach her at (434) 385-5532.

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