Letter to the Community: March Update

Posted on April 08, 2020 by Meredith Woo

April 8, 2020

Dear Members of the Sweet Briar Community,

First, let me express the hope that you and your loved ones continue to be safe and in good health. I also want to thank you, whether you are working on campus or remotely from home, for your dedication and effort to carrying on and making things as “normal” as possible in these extraordinary times.

The month of March felt like it lasted for an eternity, didn’t it? We made so many academic and financial decisions, all quickly, and there is much to share with you. As you know, the impact of the coronavirus on the economy is great. At Sweet Briar, our primary sources of revenue (student-related such as tuition and room and board; endowment; auxiliaries; and fundraising) have all been affected. Fortunately, there are a number of steps we can take to help the College weather the storm.

The federal CARES Act, passed in the last week of March, can provide some relief for us through the US Department of Education, the Small Business Administration (SBA), and the Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Act also delivers significant funds to the states to administer relief to the higher education sector. Collectively, these funds could potentially cover faculty and staff payroll, technology, room and board refunds, and auxiliary revenue replacement.

The details of how the funds through the CARES Act will flow are yet to be determined, but we know that we will qualify under the “Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund,” which determines aid based on an institution’s percentages of full-time enrolled Pell grant recipients vs. other FTE. We may also qualify for support from the “Fund for the Improvement of Post/Secondary Education (FIPSE),” which will be targeted toward colleges that are “hard hit.” Our most promising source of support through the CARES act is the COVID-19 SBA “Payroll Protection Program.” The College just applied for it. We are also preparing an application for the SBA’s “Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program” or EIDL, and we are looking into USDA loan programs that could potentially benefit our agricultural initiatives.

We are also seeking emergency student support from foundations and key individual donors. These special funds will be used for scholarships, room and board, travel, shipping, and activity fees, such that the pandemic does not create new barriers for our students to continue their studies.

Even before the CARES Act passed, we produced calculations on the economic impact of COVID-19 on the College, as well as the College’s economic contribution to Amherst County, which is estimated to be $25 million a year. In conveying the critical importance of supporting Sweet Briar – both as an important institution in its own right and for its outsized role as a major employer in Amherst County – we engaged with local, state, and federal leaders. We have also spoken with a large number of government relations experts, and we are in communication with officials in the SBA and the USDA, and with higher education advocacy groups.

We are working around the clock, and we have the confidence that comes with the deep knowledge we are doing everything we possibly can, and as best we can.

And now, I have a number of “regular” updates for you.


In spite of the slowdown in enrollment deposits across the country, admissions met its monthly goal for March, and the number of deposits stands today at 84. That compares favorably to this time last year, and applications and admits both continue at a steady range of 15 to 20 percent over last year.

Our key recruitment strategy for this year was the campus visit, but in the wake of COVID-19, we quickly moved to deliver virtual experiences, including a virtual admitted student program, a virtual overnight program, a virtual open house for the admitted students weekend of April 24 and 25, and virtual mini-open house programs for target audiences, including transfers, international students, athletes and equestrians. We have incentivized early (before May 1) deposits, and we are conducting high-touch outreach to families of admitted students and making rapid adjustments to aid packages based on changing family circumstances. In addition, because higher education surveys report the increasing preference of prospective students to stay close to home, we are also targeting local students – defined as within 200 miles from Sweet Briar in all directions – for our marketing campaigns. Kudos to our Admissions, Financial Aid, and Communications teams for their terrific work in these areas.

Academics and Athletics

I want to salute the faculty for moving to remote education so quickly while continuing to provide the quality instruction that is Sweet Briar’s hallmark. Many thanks as well to our IT team, who are working heroically to support remote teaching. The students themselves are also taking leading roles to ensure life and learning continue as normal. The Student Academic Affairs Committee has been busy creating virtual study groups, and the Student Government Association has completed the election of next year’s leadership.

There are small things that mean much. The College coordinated outreach to deliver junior class rings since junior banquet wasn’t able to take place. One of my students, Maeve Hillengas, showed me her ring during my one-one-one Google Hangout with her.

The Dean’s Office instated a change to grade policy for Spring 2020, allowing students to request that any course be converted to pass/credit/no-credit after completing the term, and it will be starting fall registration on April 9. We continue to help students retrieve their belongs and to stay connected, for those who wish to do so, with Horizon Behavioral Health. Meanwhile, the necessary work preparing for SASCS re-affirmation continues, including the Quality Enhancement Program (QEP), led by Business professor, Tim Schauer.

Athletes and equestrians are continuing to lead in enrollment. Out of the current 84 deposits, 31 are equestrian (37 percent), for a combined total of 65 percent between the equestrians and athletes. Not surprisingly, these programs are creating virtual campus visits and social media designed for student recruitment. Sweet Briar Equestrian also brought home a bunch of awards, from NCEA, IHSA and ECAC. With the growing size of the equestrian program, we are at full capacity and had to terminate the agreement with the University of Lynchburg, which allowed them to use our facilities.

Alumnae Relations and Development

Just as the counting was ending for the March Days of Giving, which netted $1.8 million in only eight days, the College made a decision to move instruction online and keep students at home. With great alacrity, AR & D pivoted to address the greatest and unprecedented needs of the College.  In collaboration with my office and Communications, AR & D devised a government relations strategy for pandemic relief funding, and launched a comprehensive crisis communications strategy, which also emphasizes Sweet Briar’s safety and rural location.

Finance, Operations, Auxiliaries

Construction on the greenhouse, in spite of some COVID-19 related delays, is expected to be complete by mid-May. We also finalized the riding stables contract for completion over the summer.

The business team worked through the room and board credit issue for our students’ families, reaching a decision that is as effective as it is morally justifiable. With the Florence Elston Inn & Conference Center closed to outside events, the Inn staff has been reassigned to other projects for the time being. The approximately 20 students remaining on campus as well as faculty and staff are still enjoying take-out only dining from Daisy’s Café. The bookstore is now solely online.

For safety we have closed all access gates to the campus except the main entrance. Campus Safety now runs 24/7 shifts at the front gate to allow entry or deny access. Residents, faculty, staff, and invited guests on college business are permitted on campus.

Meanwhile, the grounds crew team continues to work (while practicing appropriate physical distancing) as the campus bursts into spring colors. Virginia at its prettiest, with the humble dogwood and redbud every bit as stunning as the cherries and camellias that preceded them. Wherever you are, I hope you can enjoy this beautiful spring.

We’ll get through this. Be well.

Meredith Woo