Setting a course

Colleges, universities prepare to welcome students back safely

Posted on Jul 29, 2020 :: Insight Insider
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Schools at all levels preparing for the fall semester face a series of competing priorities, with one overarching top concern: ensuring the safety of students and staff.

Fox Valley Technical College President and CEO Susan May says operating safely is of utmost importance at the college, which is tasked with the additional role of serving every industry in the Fox Cities. As the school prepares to open this fall, leaders have remained focused on both of those missions.

“I think that’s the primary thing we’re trying to do is to build in as much flexibility as we possibly can in terms of how we work and how we’re going to deliver educational programming,” May says. “Those critical roles, especially during this time, is where we’ve really put the priority in terms of our resuming in-person educational experiences.”

Because FVTC educates people for vital positions in industries such as public safety and health care, the school could not put that learning on hold. It began figuring out ways to teach safely in person in early April.

For courses and programs that could be moved online last spring, the college did so for the remainder of the semester. This summer, FVTC has offered coursework related to 30 programs, and it’s preparing for the busier fall semester, which gets underway at the end of August.

May says the school’s Center for Instructional Excellence and IT teams have helped instructors prepare to offer content in an online or digital format. For courses and content that can be offered online, that will be the default. When students must do hands-on work on campus, they’ll do so in smaller groups, with no more than nine students and one instructor in most spaces.

“We were really well positioned to (offer online learning) because we’ve got a team on our staff that’s been well established for years,” May says.

Finding new ways

Communio, or the concept of being united as one, is a guiding principle and part of the mission statement of St. Norbert College in De Pere. Given that, operating in a way that requires people to stay farther apart has provided some challenges, says Julie Massey, interim vice president for student affairs for the college.

“We’re here, and we’re here together, but we’re still trying to employ as much physical distancing as possible,” Massey says. “We’re really going to have to stand in that value with our students and help them understand that the precautions they’re taking are, in fact, to keep themselves safe, but they’re also beyond that, to prevent the spread.”

While incoming freshmen will encounter an all-new kind of college entry experience, Massey says SNC has had the opportunity to acclimate them from the beginning. The school has been rolling out information weekly to students and parents as well as holding Zoom meetups that include individual time spent with Green Knight (upperclassmen) mentors.

In determining its plans, SNC is working with public health officials at the city, county and state levels, and its director of health services brings the benefit of coming from a public health background.

Massey says much about the learning experience will look different this year. To keep in-person class sizes smaller, the college is adding learning spaces on campus, including ones it hasn’t previously used for that purpose. It’s working with the facilities department to add and subtract furniture as needed to accommodate physical distancing.

To reduce the likelihood that students will bring the virus home or back to school, SNC has moved the start of the fall semester up to Aug. 24. It’s also canceled its fall long weekend and will end in-person classes after Thanksgiving.

SNC will offer residential living with a maximum of two students per dorm room. Bathrooms will have barriers added between sinks, and students can use Open Table to make dining reservations. The school will also offer expanded dining hours, more outdoor seating and unlimited grab-and-go access.

The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, which last year saw record enrollment and is still awaiting fall 2020 enrollment totals, has a wait list for housing, and Chancellor Michael Alexander says the school is working to accommodate, in a safe manner, everyone who needs housing.

Most kinds of one-on-one student engagements can be done virtually, including program and career advising and mental health counseling. At FVTC, May has seen benefits to this. The college uses Microsoft Teams to conduct virtual advising, and staff say they can spend more one-on-one time with students and that it’s easier and more convenient to connect.

As news stories have arisen about faculty members at colleges and universities expressing fears about the safety of teaching in person this fall, leaders at both SNC and UW-Green Bay say they’re handling the situation on a case-by-case basis.

“We are working with every staff member individually to make sure that they feel safe in the environment they’re going to be working in. That’s essential,” Alexander says.

At SNC, Massey says teachers in the high-risk category may offer their courses entirely online, and courses in general may be offered online, in person or as part of a flex model where half of students report in person some days and virtually other days and vice versa.

Alexander says in thinking of online learning, it’s important to remember students are resilient, and most like interacting with technology.

“I think that there’s a general stereotype that any kind of online education must be inferior. I don’t think that’s true. I think we can be very responsive to students, and we’ve proven that over the last four months,” he says.

Health care access

Colleges and universities have laid out varying plans when it comes to health care and COVID-19 testing. Massey says SNC is not planning to test all students at this time but is set up for testing of symptomatic students. For non-COVID-19 health care, students will be able to access services via telemedicine.

In mid-July, Lawrence University announced it would work with Bellin Health to perform regular COVID-19 testing on campus. Bellin will test students when they arrive on campus this fall and again 14 days later. Faculty and staff also will undergo testing when they return to campus.

“Our goal was to ensure that every Lawrentian will have the opportunity to learn, teach and work as fully and safely as possible,” Lawrence President Mark Burstein said in a press release.

This summer, UW-Green Bay and Prevea Health entered a partnership that provides health and wellness support to UW-Green Bay students at all four of its campuses — Green Bay, Manitowoc, Marinette and Sheboygan. Students will have 24-hour health care and immediate testing access, Alexander says. Additionally, Prevea can help address any situation that might arise.

“That should be a big comfort to parents and a big comfort to students. We have one of the largest health providers in Northeast Wisconsin working directly with us,” Alexander says.

As higher education institutions navigate the many uncertainties of opening for the school year, they’re also focused on the future and continuing to deliver their missions.

Once the region is through the pandemic, it will face a long recovery, and Alexander says he wants UW-Green Bay to play a leading role in helping that along.

“We have to be a part of the solution to that problem,” he says. “We should be the ones driving this through the pandemic and also on the other side of the pandemic.”