Above: East Tennessee State University President Dr. Brian Noland
“This is a very fluid situation.”
by Scott Robertson
When ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland spoke with the Business Journal in May regarding planning for the fall semester, Noland said, “there are unlimited things for which we have planning uncertainty.” Time, however, waits for no institution of higher education, and planning uncertainty has had to give way to the certainty of the university offering fall classes.
This should not, however, be interpreted to mean ETSU knows exactly how the semester will play out, Noland said in a virtual town hall July 31. In fact, Noland intimated, the one certain is a level of uncertainty. “We look forward to the energy that emerges when this campus is able to engage in our teaching, research and service missions, but we recognize that this fall is going to look different than falls prior.”
The most obvious difference will be the marked increase in the number of sections and courses making extensive use of online learning. ETSU is a campus of roughly 14,500 students. This fall, the greatest number of students scheduled to be on campus at any one time is 3,300. “That will happen around 11 a.m. on Thursdays,” Noland said.
“Around 18 to 20 percent of our courses will be on the ground. The bulk of those are courses that by virtue of the instruction embedded within the course, have to occur on-ground,” Noland said. “I have a family member who has a career desire to be a welder, and as he reminded me earlier this year, you can’t learn to weld online. You have to do it on the ground. Many of our courses have that similar type of relationship.”
Most of the courses on campus will be taught with a hybrid mix of online and on-ground coursework. “But the significant volume of our courses, almost half, will be provided in an online format,” Noland said.
“The faculty have driven the delivery structures,” Noland added. “We did not set a goal, as many institutions in the country did, to require X percent of our courses in delivery format A or B…those decisions were driven by faculty, and they were driven in an effort to ensure the health and safety of our students.”
If the low density of students on campus is to be the most noticeable change for the fall 2020 semester, then the ubiquity of masks will be close second. Noland announced in late July a policy change mandating masks for everyone on campus. Noland had, earlier in the month, stated in a post-trustees meeting press conference he was “appalled” at the number of people not wearing masks when he and his family were out shopping. Since that time, Noland made it clear his desire to see the effects of the Coronavirus minimized by the use of masks has not changed, but his semantics have.
“People are motivated to change when the ask to change comes from a place of kindness, and we’ve all talked about being good neighbors, of grace and patience and compassion, and not trying to take this from a place of shame and blame and argumentation.
“I think all of us need to recognize that we’re trying hard to be good neighbors, but we also need to recognize that our general rule is that base covenants are required on campus, both within our classrooms as well as other indoor areas – as well as outdoor areas where physical distancing cannot be maintained by at least six feet,” Noland said. “This policy was put in place for the health and safety of everyone who calls ETSU home.”
Some faculty have asked if they could wear transparent face shields when lecturing instead of masks, citing clarity of speech and ease of lip-reading for students with hearing deficits. “Masks are a required portion of the campus experience,” Noland succinctly answered. He immediately followed up with a disclaimer that the university understands some accommodations will need to be made for certain medical conditions, and gave a number to call to apply for such accommodations. Faculty and staff will not need to be masked if they are alone in a room with the door closed, Noland noted, which should make it discourse easier during online courses.
“We will have wipes in every classroom and we will have masks in every classroom,” Noland continued. If a student appears for class without a mask, the professor or instructor will politely offer that student a mask. If the student refuses to wear one after being asked more than once to do so, then the faculty member will ask the student to leave, reminding the student that if they are uncomfortable wearing a mask, then the university offers alternative instruction online for the class.
As for how the administration will handle potential changes is the COVID environment during the course of the semester, Noland has already put forth a four-stage plan, with stage four being “wide open” and stage one being “shut down.”
“I can assure you as a campus we are planning for multiple contingencies,” Noland said. “But at this juncture, we are moving forward in the manner with all the safety protocols we’ve spent the summer working on. We have spent the summer procuring PPE, misters to clean the campus – the work we’ve done from an academic preparation perspective and from a housing perspective. As we’re working through this for the fall, there’s not one data metric alone that will inform our decisions. They’ll be informed in a holistic manner, but in the event that we need to adjust course, we’ll do so accordingly.
“But, I don’t see us adjusting course as abruptly as we did in March,” Noland continued. “We cannot close our research laboratories….so I do not envision us transitioning to a hard phase one as we did in March, but we are preparing structures and protocols if we have to move between phases.
Part of Noland’s confidence the campus can avoid shutting down entirely is the planning that has gone into dealing with students who live on campus and test positive for COVID-19. “We have more than 4,000 tests that are on campus now through our ETSU healthcare services, and our direction with those tests is to ensure that any student, faculty or staff who desires to be tested can be tested here on campus.” Tests are not mandatory for students arriving on campus, Noland said, but, “I think you’ll see a depth and breadth of random testing this fall.”
And with test results now taking as long as 20 days to come back from the largest commercial labs, the university has set aside entire buildings for students who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are awaiting the results of COVID tests. “We have structured services for students so that there will be meal delivery service and daily check-ups so that we are closely monitoring and student who has tested positive and is in quarantine, or a student who is deeply concerned about displaying symptoms.”
The keys to a successful fall semester will be preparation and vigilance. The university has spent the entire summer consumed in preparation, Noland said. Now the transition to vigilance begins. “We are closely monitoring the data around us. If we need to make adjustments we will do so, but I think we are in a benefitted position by virtue of the leadership of the academic aspects of this campus, where more than 80 percent of our courses are online or hybrid, which positions us well as we move through the fall to ensure academic integrity and academic quality.”