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In first year at Northfield campus, Thomas Aquinas College grapples with COVID-19 closures

  • Sophomore roommates Sophie Steigerwald, left, of Wisconsin, and Simone Kelly, right, of California, stand inside their new dorm at Thomas Aquinas College in Northfield in August 2019. Students were forced to cut their first year at the New England campus short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the college is looking to bring students back for the fall. Staff File Photo/Andy Castillo

Staff Writer
Published: 5/11/2020 6:47:40 PM

NORTHFIELD — Students at Thomas Aquinas College were forced to cut their first year at the New England campus short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the college is looking to bring students back for the fall.

According to Chris Weinkopf, director of communications for Thomas Aquinas College, the Northfield campus’ approximately 70 students were sent home on March 17. The school’s sister campus in Santa Paula, Calif., closed the same day. The college has since switched to online learning, something it has never done before.

“It was definitely disappointing for our seniors out in California and for all our students in New England,” Weinkopf said of the campus closures.

While students were saddened at the thought of missing the “beautiful” New England spring in Northfield, he said they have been “wonderfully optimistic” about finishing the semester’s classes online and returning for the fall.

“They’re excited to come back,” Weinkopf said. “One after the other has told me they are like a family out in New England and they can’t wait to be together again.”

Weinkopf said having an in-person class experience is fundamental to Thomas Aquinas College’s academic programs. Rather than lectures, the college uses discussion-based classes and teaches from the Great Books of the Western World.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, these classroom discussions are now being held virtually. Weinkopf said the school had never conducted virtual learning before because of its commitment to in-person discussion.

With the volunteer help of John Birch, an alumnus and the father of two students on the California campus, Thomas Aquinas College transitioned to online learning within one week of closing its campuses. The co-founder and chief operating officer at Virtual Service Operations (VSO) in Nokesville, Va., Birch provides cloud-based technological assistance to institutions of all sizes.

Birch’s partner and co-founder, Stephen O’Keefe, is chair of Christendom College’s board of directors. Mindful that small colleges could be overwhelmed by the prospect of suddenly launching an online learning platform, the two offered VSO’s assistance, pro bono, to several Catholic schools.

The transition has proven more successful than anticipated, Weinkopf said. Graduating seniors from Thomas Aquinas College’s California campus defended their theses virtually to a panel of faculty members via Zoom video conferencing. The college has also been streaming Mass from the California chapel for students to join.

“What everyone will tell you is that it worked better than we feared, but we would not transition to it permanently,” Weinkopf said of online learning. “We like doing things the way we did before.”

While the college aims to have students return to their campuses in the fall, Weinkopf acknowledged this is contingent on necessary approval from governments in California and Massachusetts.

“The goal is to finish this year the best we can,” Weinkopf said. “We’re looking forward, as everyone in the world is, to when we can see each other face to face again.”

Roughly 70 students roamed the Northfield campus this school year, and the college plans to bring in a new freshmen class next year. By recruiting a new class of roughly 35 students each year, the school aims to eventually build a student population of 400, roughly the same size as the California campus population. Weinkopf said Thomas Aquinas College recruits staff members as needed to match the class sizes.

Faculty and staff who work on the Northfield campus live in the area full-time, and some faculty are still living on campus. The Northfield campus also hosts a high school summer program, which is set for July 26 to Aug. 8. Weinkopf said Thomas Aquinas College still intends to host this program, but will make a final decision as it approaches.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.

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