COVID-19 and Colleges: Learning in the Time of a Pandemic
Local universities celebrate recent graduates, plan for future
By mid-March 2020, many college students throughout the country had already packed up. They departed their dorm rooms and apartments not in anticipation of summer break, but in the wake of the first outbreaks of the novel coronavirus. Whether social distancing practices to flatten the curve of increasing positive COVID-19 cases and deaths would last a few weeks or a month then remained unknown.
But as March gave way to April and May, Zoom classes were followed by Zoom commencements, with the class of 2020 closing out their college years in front of computer screens rather than learning in lecture halls and celebrating in gymnasiums packed for graduation. The world that awaits them is unlike one we've seen before.
For 2019-20's freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, summer break hangs heavy, not like a comma dividing two clauses but a bolded ellipsis … will the fall feel at all familiar?
As the long tail of the pandemic wags on, its blows to both public safety and the economy continue to land hard. But there are still credits to earn, degrees to complete. And for many, the college experience is just about to begin.
"With infectious-disease experts forecasting recurring waves of COVID-19 contagion, a number of colleges are coalescing around a plan to send students home by Thanksgiving this fall," wrote Bennett Leckrone for the Chronicle of Higher Education on May 20.
In Erie, on June 10, Gannon University became the first to announce a plan to that effect.
"We're trying to ensure that our employees and our students and their families have as much time as they possibly can to plan and to know what it is they need to be planning for," says Gannon President Dr. Keith Taylor.
Taylor credits the Gannon community and his leadership team of roughly 100 people working on the university's adaptive plans for the fall to "meet our mission and our purpose of transforming lives."
On the heels of granting 841 degrees — from doctorates to associates, a 102 increase from last year — the Gannon plan is to resume classes on campus Aug. 10 and conclude Nov. 16 with finals week to follow and students to head homeward before Thanksgiving. The modified schedule omits a fall break.
The full plan, which is available on the university's website, remains flexible, Taylor acknowledges.
"I have been talking about creating the safest environment we can and having a healthy place for all. Safe does not mean disease-free. Safe does not mean that there won't be challenges or that things won't happen. But they were going to happen on our campus, whether there was COVID or not; they're going to happen all over Erie and across the country. So there is a need for us to have faith that we are putting the best plans in place," Taylor says. "And those plans are going to change as the environment changes and as new data comes across."
Taylor points out, too, that in addition to those with operational background and skillsets, there are faculty members with doctorates in epidemiology, microbiology, molecular biology, anatomy, and stem cell biology working to create that safe environment.
"We've got pretty strong leadership when it comes to managing something like this," he says. "It doesn't mean we're perfect, doesn't mean we've got all the answers, but what we do have are brains smart enough to listen to the CDC and listen to the Department of Health and listen to the people out there that really are living this every day."
Hallmarks of the new plans appear as many might expect: social distancing in classrooms, a relaxed attendance policy to accommodate for students needing to isolate or quarantine, and students, faculty, and staff donning masks in public spaces. There'll be increased cleaning and sanitizing of spaces, thermal scanners and thermometers to measure individual temperatures, dining services emphasizing takeaway options, and more.
"Based on the approval date of Erie County's transition to Green status, we intend to cycle some employees back to our Erie campus beginning July 1 so that the university is fully operational by the time students start arriving in July."
Like Gannon, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania has circled a date on the calendar and announced its plans to the public. Edinboro President Dr. Guiyou Huang outlined the details of the university's plan via email on the afternoon of Friday, June 12.
EUP will begin classes Monday, Aug. 17, and conclude before Thanksgiving on Friday, Nov. 20. Final exams will be conducted remotely the following week, and since finals week will be online, both housing and dining services billing will be prorated to reflect that adjustment.
According to Huang, when it comes to courses, "classes will be offered through a blend of in-person and online instruction to allow for social distancing by limiting the number of students in the classroom at a given class meeting; face coverings will be required in all campus buildings, shared public spaces and in areas where social distancing is not possible; those enrolled in face-to-face classes will be assigned a seat, and attendance will be taken regularly; all classes will be designed so that they can quickly pivot to fully online delivery if necessary; students with health issues should work with the Office for Accessibility Services to arrange for accommodations; faculty office and advising hours and other campus services will be provided in a way that allows for social distancing."
The full plan, which reviews on-campus housing, dining, safety, and more, is available on the university's website. Accompanying it is a video message from Provost and Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs Michael Hannan and Director of Safety and Risk Management Jim Dahle.
"Additional details will be forthcoming between now and the start of the semester, but we wanted to ensure you have essential information now," writes Huang. "On behalf of the faculty and staff of Edinboro University, I want to tell you how excited we are about your return to campus."
Like Gannon and Edinboro, Mercyhurst University also has a date on the calendar. However, the fleshed-out plan has not yet been released to the public at the time of this writing.
And like Gannon, courses will begin earlier, in Mercyhurst's case on Aug. 19, and end Nov. 24, two days before Thanksgiving. At Mercyhurst, students will complete finals remotely between Dec. 1 and 4, with students not returning to campus until the spring term.
"As we prepare to address all of the potential issues with reopening this fall, both those anticipated and those unexpected, we are committed to establishing a level of readiness that will enable us to implement change, pivot, adapt, and meet the challenges head-on," says Mercyhurst President Michael Victor.
"For our return to campus to be effective, we must reinforce a climate of shared responsibility. Together, we can create an environment that enables safe behaviors and reduces the spread of COVID-19, but a dynamic campus environment will only be sustained if everyone — students, faculty, staff, and visitors — takes responsibility for their own health and safety and the health and safety of those around them."
These measures include a reconfiguring of classrooms and laboratories to reduce density and maintain physical distancing; an amalgam learning experience of face-to-face, hybrid, and remote instruction; and modified housing and dining services.
The return to campus follows the largest graduating class in the university's 94-year history. "All told, 893 students across all campuses and all programs were slated to graduate," Victor reports, who says he's working daily with his COVID-19 Task Force.
Penn State Behrend recently announced that "campus-based residential instruction" will begin on Monday, Aug. 24, ending Friday, Nov. 20.
"We are taking steps to prepare the physical campus," says Dr. Ralph Ford, Penn State Behrend's chancellor, "adding plexiglass barriers at high-traffic common areas, for example, and conducting a census of the instructional space in all classrooms and labs, as well as any available space in our properties in Knowledge Park, in the event we need to continue social distancing. We will also be making bulk purchases of health and safety equipment, including masks, thermometers, and additional hand-sanitizing stations."
Like the other college leaders, Ford acknowledges that the shift to remote-learning in the spring on short notice was a "monumental task." He credits the adaptability of the Behrend community to its long history with the Penn State World Campus, which "offers several degree programs taught entirely by Behrend faculty members, was a significant advantage when we switched to remote learning. With a heavy lift by the staff of our eLearning Center and the technology resources of the larger university, we moved nearly 1,200 classes and labs fully online without missing a single day of scheduled instruction."
In spring, Behrend granted 674 degrees, down just 39 from 2019, which was the university's record freshman class.
Ford notes that this semester's emphasis is on safety. As for enrollment, Ford acknowledges the nationwide impact colleges and universities are anticipating experiencing.
"We expect to have fewer students from out-of-state, and from other countries. We are exploring ways that Penn State can offer our international students in-country courses paired with high-quality online classes that will allow them to continue their enrollment at Penn State Behrend," he says. "We'll know more about that in the weeks to come."
But while applications outside of Erie County may be down, Ford says Behrend is experiencing an increase from local students throughout the surrounding areas.
"Penn State has introduced a Flex Plan program that enables students to begin their education at a Penn State campus close to home, and in the case of Penn State Behrend, many of those students are likely to remain with us through graduation, as more than three-quarters of our students do now."
In an era of flexibility, Ford notes the university's "rolling admission" approach, allowing the campus to "continue enrolling students as we approach the start of the academic year. The application deadlines are later, and in many cases are being waived altogether."
"Students and their families have a lot to consider this year, and we aren't rushing them," Ford adds. "As the pandemic continues to evolve and the landscape for fall instruction becomes clearer, families will be in a much better position to make a decision. When they're ready, we'll be ready for them."
Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine is also planning to have students, faculty, and staff return to campus, but official dates have not yet been announced.
Dr. Silvia Ferretti, provost, senior vice president, and dean of academic affairs at LECOM, credits the institution's contingency plan with the smooth transition from in-person to online learning across its Erie and Seton Hill campuses and its Florida location in Bradenton.
"Throughout it all, we were mission-driven to ensure that all of our students, including our 539 fourth-year medical students, would graduate on time because we knew they were desperately needed on the front lines in combating the coronavirus," she says. "At the graduate, professional education level, our students are determined to stay the course when it comes to reaching their professional goals of becoming physicians, pharmacists, dentists, or health care administrators. They never once missed a beat, and that's evidenced by the 99 percent match rate of our osteopathic medical students who will enter residency programs this summer."
Like others, the 2019-20 academic year was a banner one for LECOM. Across the three locations, the institution graduated 1,254 students, with 610 at Erie, 537 at Bradenton, and 107 from Seton Hill. While typically LECOM would host two in-person commencements, one for the students in both Erie and Seton Hill and one for the Floridian students, both were pivoted online.
"LECOM President and CEO Dr. John Ferretti delivered a special message to this year's graduating class that paid tribute to their resilience and to the sacrifices they've had to make," Silvia Ferretti reports. "His message also spoke to the noble profession our graduates will be entering at a time when they're needed more than ever."
When it comes to the fall term, Ferretti anticipates classes will be delivered in a hybrid format across the institution's various locations. According to her, enrollment across the campuses are on track. "The virus hasn't impacted our numbers," she adds.
"LECOM has always been an innovative leader in the way we've taught our students," Ferretti says. "Each student has the ability to choose a learning pathway that is the right fit for his or her specific learning style. That includes online distance education."
No doubt, in March, universities nationwide found themselves in uncharted territory. In many ways, as the public health crisis and the economic crisis perpetuated by the pandemic plod on.
But many institutions, including Erie's own, are navigating their way through. Some have more specific plans presented today than others, but all are remaining flexible and hopeful and are recognizing the inherent opportunity to innovate through times of crises.
This experience has been, and will continue to be, a learning experience for us all, including recent 2020 grads and the incoming class of 2024 nationwide and here in Erie. The times, indeed, they are a-changin'.
Ben Speggen can be contacted at Bspeggen@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @BenSpeggen.