Unprecedented challenges, but surprisingly strong fall enrollment projections
After spring break 2020, almost every college and university in America switched from on-campus delivery of classes to online coursework. Students were, in most cases, allowed to watch recordings of individual class meetings if they were unable to attend “in person” via Zoom or other online platform, creating “asynchronous learning experiences.”
In that spirit, The Business Journal held an asynchronous panel discussion among the presidents (and chancellor) of the region’s four-year colleges and universities in late May. Each administrator was asked, via phone or Zoom, the same questions regarding the effects of the COVID crisis on their spring and summer terms, and their planning for fall 2020 and beyond. The administrators who took part were Dr. Bill Greer, president of Milligan University; Dr. Donna Henry, chancellor of the University of Virginia – Wise; Dr. Scott Hummel, president of Tusculum University; Dr. Brian Noland, president of East Tennessee State University; Dr. John Wells, president of Emory & Henry College; and Dr. Alexander Whitaker, president of King University. In this, the first of a two-part series, we focus on one question. What do we actually know about fall 2020?
The Business Journal: What has been the process you’ve used to plan for fall 2020 and what can you say right now about fall term?
Dr. Bill Greer, president, Milligan University: We have every intention of returning to face-to-face learning. Milligan is an institution that’s very keen on the concept of community of faculty, staff and students, so it’s very important for us to get back together, but we want to get back together in a way that people have confidence about, and that there is a safe and healthy environment.
So, since this began, we have had a response team. Initially we met every day. As we have settled into this new normal, if you will, that has slowed a bit, but we still meet a couple of times a week and send out weekly updates. That team of people is made up of my cabinet as well as our campus nurse, our dean of students and our director of property and risk management.
We are now expanding that group and dividing into five planning teams that are about to begin their work in earnest. The response team had been working already, but we felt the need to divide into smaller groups to engage more faculty, staff and students in those planning groups. So, we have an academic and instructional technology planning group. We have a campus life group. We have an athletics group. We have a health and safety group and we have a residence and dining team.
All of these planning teams will be addressing various aspects of what it looks like to come back together under the circumstances that we’re in today and maintain some flexibility because circumstances can change. One thing we have learned about this pandemic is when you make a decision in the morning, you may have to remake it in the afternoon because of changing circumstances. It’s slowed a bit, but as we see more and more places reopening and returning to normal, I expect we’ll have that need to be flexible again.
So, those teams will be addressing all the various protocols, all the things we need to be considering in order to bring the community back safely and productively. We’ll be looking at everything from density of residential facilities to how we go about feeding our campus to public and group activities – whether it’s theater productions, concerts or chapel services, how many people should be in a classroom at a time, how the schedule needs to be varied in order to be able to thin it out a bit so there’s a safer number of people together at a time, how we need to go about maybe providing a mixture of in-person and online support to facilitate that. There are a million details, and I don’t even know what they all are. But, there is a lot of guidance out there, from regional organizations and agencies – whether it’s education consortia or the CDC or the State Department of Health and the governor’s office – all of those will be considered as we decide what steps to take.
Dr. Donna Henry, chancellor, University of Virginia – Wise: Shortly after the governor announced the state of emergency, most institutions across the Commonwealth decided to transition to virtual learning environments and sent all of our students home, or didn’t bring them back from spring break, as was our case. The Council of Presidents of Virginia, which is all the presidents of public higher ed, plus several community college presidents, began meeting through conference calls on Zoom just really to share with each other what we were doing and how we were cooperating, getting some feedback and just trying to benefit from each others’ knowledge across higher education. That group has continued to meet, and then the governor convened his COVID -19 Education Workgroup, and that group has been meeting every other week and the goal for that group is to help the secretary of education and the governor have a seamless plan from pre-K through higher ed. It’s really a policy level group that is working on recommendations that affect systemic issues – everything from the digital divide and how that impacts education to food insecurity to mental health and the other impacts of COVID. There is also a higher education working group that is a component of that who is working together to make some recommendations to the governor with a plan the governor will outline for schools and how we can proceed with instruction, with some gating criteria which I expect to be similar to his phased plan. So, what are the gates we need to be able to get through to reopen schools, bring students back, and then, I suspect each institution, since we’re all so different, will develop our own plans. The governor hopes to have that guidance out within the next two weeks.
We have had our own internal working group that’s led by our provost, really looking at the academic calendar. We have a group looking at housing and what housing will look like and what facilities, planning and cleaning will look like. We have ordered PPE for the fall semester.
Our goal is to bring students back this fall. That working group is planning to get their information to me this week and then we hope to dovetail that with the guidance from the governor. I suspect a lot of his guidance, and really what we’re relying on is, when we bring students back to campus, we need to ensure that we can track symptoms, that we can do testing and that we have access to testing, and that additionally, if we have students who test positive, we’ll need to work on tracing so we can be sure we have some best practices. So the working groups are working pretty closely with the Virginia Department of Health for those resources, and then higher education is working with the governor to come up with a plan, particularly for the testing piece.
Dr. Scott Hummel, president, Tusculum University: I think a lot of universities were initially looking at how they were scheduling fall term. Would they have a delayed start? Would they start online and then go to face-to-face? A lot of thought was put into scheduling that fall term. I actually think that because any potential resurgence of the virus is not likely to happen on schedule, I think – and this is where input comes in – I think it will be a better approach to actually start on time, have protocols and procedures in place to reduce the chance of a spread, and if there is a positive here and there, how do we handle that? How do we mitigate that? How do we then keep going, while keeping people safe?
That’s really been our focus: our protocols and procedures for students coming into a safe environment, keeping it as safe as possible, and then mitigating that risk if there is a positive, because frankly there is quite likely to be a positive. It would be hard to imagine, and I think it would be a little bit fairy tale to think that we’re not going to have a positive at all. There’s no way we can keep everybody completely from it.
This is a very complex process. Unlike many businesses in which you only have two factors to consider: your employees and the customers you may come in contact with, universities have to have protocols and procedures in place for our employees, so our employees have worked as much remotely as possible and we will continue actually going forward. If faculty and staff can work remotely, we’re going to encourage that. That’s one thing on the employee side.
The other thing is related to students, certainly to athletics and events. If we end up planning to have athletics, we may end up having fewer games. We may be forced to spread people out when they come to those games. If we’re facing a potential resurgence, we may not allow fans. So, we actually have a process that’s not just how we’re going to do, but how we’re going to adapt. How will we adapt to a positive test? How will we adapt if we have multiple of those? And we may have to change protocols and procedures in light of changing circumstances. So, we will go into it with protections for our athletic events. We’re already going into it with protections for practices and locker rooms and gyms. We’re already going to go into it with protections for the classroom.
We’re already going to go into it with protections for the dorms. For example, in the dorms, we’re going to try to spread students out as much as possible. We plan to have students in single rooms as much as possible, or, if we have a room where we had people tripled, now we’re doubled or even singled. Whereas normally for efficiency’s sake you want as many students in as few dorm rooms as possible, for this we’re prone to spread students out, and actually set aside some space in our residential areas – and we may not need to use it – but if we do, we would set aside space for quarantine area. So, let’s say someone comes in contact with someone who tests positive. We’re going to want them to quarantine to another area that we already have designated, get them tested as quickly as possible, use the fast testing, so that if they get a negative test they can come back out. Then that space would be available for others who might then have to go back into quarantine.
So, to establish all these things, we have established a task force chaired by Doug Jones (VP, athletics and university initiatives). He is involving people across the university in the areas in which they interact. So, in the classroom and interactive space, involving our academic VP and provost as well as other faculty, in athletics, involving coaches, in the cafeteria, student affairs. So, really, we’re getting a very broad range of input that is being managed through this task force that is bringing forth very specific recommendations for very specific procedures and protocols for our campus and our environment. This is all being informed by broader CDC and state guidelines. But those are broad, general guidelines. We’re having to make decisions not just for a university setting, but for our setting. That requires this task force working across the university.
Dr. Brian Noland, president, East Tennessee State University: As we look toward the fall, there are a lot of things for which we have planning certainty, but there are unlimited things for which we have planning uncertainty.
It is our hope and intent to bring students back to campus in the fall. We have a committee that has been meeting for the better part of a month reviewing other institutional actions, CDC recommendations and evolving best practices that would allow us to safely return students, faculty and staff for the fall back on campus. The hope is to have students in residence halls. The hope is to have students on grounds. The hope is to do so in a manner that puts safety first. So how do we socially distance a 200-student classroom? We’re working through it.
We also have the unique variable of the University School on campus and if you can tell me how we socially distance a kindergarten class, I’d like to know because we haven’t figured that one out yet.
So, there are implications here for athletics, for the Martin Center. Every single aspect of the institution is touched. I think you’re going to see East Tennessee State University be on-grounds, but with some courses hybrid. Our larger courses may be partially online, partially on-grounds. We have a significant number of programs in the health sciences, so you have the need for those students to work through their clinicals into rotations and all of the experiential learning associated therein. Likewise, for our teacher candidates from the Clemmer College of Education, in order for them to graduate, they have to be in the local K-12 system.
So, there’s a whole lot of unknowns as we have about another week before I receive preliminary recommendations from our committee. I’ll review those recommendations. Our hope is to bring some of those employees back on campus in June and then be in a position to respond as conditions in the fall respond.
We may start the semester a little early. We may end the semester a little early. I can’t altogether speculate on what that report will give me, but I have a decent sense of the theme.
At this point we are right within the enrollment projections we had originally set for fall semester. Our summer term enrollment is essentially flat. Undergraduate enrollment is up 80, graduate students down about 60. I feel that if we are able to open, that enrollment will be within the projected ranges pre-COVID. But a lot of that is predicated on our ability to reopen. For now, enrollment-wise, I feel pretty good about the numbers.
Dr. John Wells, president, Emory & Henry College: Our first two sessions of summer are online. We are hoping to have a seated, or at least partially-seated session for our third session of summer term, but we’re certainly waiting for directives from the governor about what he intends to allow. It would, if we were able to have a seated or multi-modal delivery in that third summer session, give us some time to perfect our protocols headed into the fall.
But we’re like everybody else. We’re having to wait and be students of this virus to learn as much as we can about it and to see how it plays out. We want to put the health of our students and our workers ahead of everything.
But that is our goal right now, to have that third session at least partially seated. We’d like to have that opportunity to do a beta test to make sure our protocols and procedures are properly in place for the fall. It would be really helpful.
We are using the administration, the staff and the faculty in planning for the fall term. We have a COVID team meeting three times a week, trying to anticipate everything we can. We have broken it down – because really when you look at the logistics, it is a massive logistical undertaking to really provide a safe space for students, faculty and staff – we have broken it down into subcategories and have subcommittees looking into those. Most of the cabinet sits on that COVID team, so they’re hearing the planning as it’s taking place.
I’m a strong believer in trying to blur those boundaries so the administration is being part of the planning process and the execution of that planning. Sometimes things get lost between a standing committee and the administrative structure. So, if you can intermingle them, so much the better. Everyone’s using the same nomenclature and shares the same outcomes.
Ahead of the COVID virus, Emory & Henry was significantly ahead in its deposits. We were looking really good for the fall. When we made the decision to go off-campus in mid-March, people began taking a wait and see approach. But in the last few weeks, those deposits are beginning to pick back up.
We’re closing up the gap with transfer students, and there are a lot of students who are saying they want to stay closer to home. We are seeing that phenomenon. So, students who were going to another college here in Virginia, and even one who was going to a nationally-known liberal arts institution in Ohio, are coming back here, wanting to be closer to home.
Dr. Alexander “Whit” Whitaker, president, King University: We will be returning to campus August 24. People will start coming back to campus two weeks before that. We’re looking at the whole list of things we have to do to return.
Philosophically, there are a couple of ways to approach these problems. One is to say, ‘let’s write down all the potential things that could happen and come up with a comprehensive plan for each one.’ I have read that some schools are doing that, and God bless them for having the resources and the staff that can put together 25 or 30 different contingency plans. I don’t think that’s particularly helpful or prudent.
I think it’s much better to make sure your toolbox is ready for any contingencies, so you focus on the most likely things that could happen, but you have enough nimbleness and flexibility you can respond because you have the right tools in your toolbox to do so.
So, some of the things we’re looking at are the gateway to coming back on campus: how do you make sure people are well when they get here? How do you keep them well through good behavior in terms of distancing and how do you space them out in the dining hall? How do we arrange our chairs in our classes? What things are just too dangerous to do? For example, choral practice in a really close room is probably not a smart thing to do right now. All these things we’re looking at.
We’ve gone through every single class we’ll be teaching in the fall to see where they’re scheduled and what the population is likely to be so we can decide which classrooms will work and which won’t. Can we use technology to help reduce the population? We have set aside one whole floor of one residence hall for potential isolation or quarantine use so we have the ability, if we have a sick student or students, or someone who may have been exposed out of the population, to ensure we hope they can continue their studies right there in their room until they get released.
One of the complicating factors not everyone has thought about is, not only do we have to respond to the county, the state and the federal government, but we also have to respond to our accrediting body. We have to respond to the NCAA and to our athletic conference and we have to be responsive to the strictures that will be in place in the cities and states where we would be playing sports. The layers of regulation and consideration we have to give to every single question are considerable.
The other philosophical approach is: we don’t make hard and fast decisions until we have to. Right now, we do not have the knowledge to make certain decisions. We do not know, for instance, the degree to which we will have testing available, the kind of testing it will be, how long the results will take to come back, and whether we can administer tests ourselves. We just don’t know if treatment will change the nature of the disease. We don’t know a vaccine schedule. So, a lot of things will become clearer as we get to the fall that will dictate how we handle students.
Next month: the extent of the financial hit from COVID-19 and how much relief CARES Act funding is providing, plus a look forward to admissions at a time when high school seniors have missed extra-curricular activities and standardized testing.