Going back to campus? Read this.
Image credit, The Foothill Dragon Press
For most colleges the time is quickly approaching for a full return to campus. For some schools that will be this fall, for others it will be January. For most of us, we’ve already been at least partially on campus for some time. As we all start working toward this milestone, there are a lot of considerations to keep in mind. So this piece will lay out some of the key things that need to be kept in mind during the transition. This piece, nor any other piece on the topic will be perfect for your institution but will hopefully suggests some things you haven’t thought of and act as a starting point for your own transition discussions.
As usual, I’ll be writing from the perspective of a non-residential community college campus transition. However these recommendations should have value for any higher education institution. These are important considerations for administrators tasked with developing the conditions, rules and overseeing the transition, and equally important for faculty and staff to keep in mind as discussions occur with your administration about the process.
And that’s the first recommendation, include everyone! The single most important thing in this entire transition will be building a sense of safety and confidence into the campus community. In order to do that you are going to want to be truly collaborative and transparent with the process and how decisions are made. It will be important to back recommendations with data and official guidelines particularly from your county health services, state governor’s office and the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Having solid sources for the decisions that you’ve made will help instill confidence in the campus population. It will be important to hold open forums that include faculty, staff and students. People need to be able to express their concerns, make suggestions, know who to turn to for the answers to their questions and have some of their misconceptions publicly dispelled.
Which leads directly to the second piece of advice. Clear communication is absolutely necessary. A document, preferably web based and mobile accessible, needs to be developed, published and made available to the campus community. The document needs to be comprehensive in scope, but you should avoid putting together an eighty page document for the community to read. While your institution’s Emergency Operations Command (or similar structure) may want to have such a document, that level of detail will overwhelm most people. Some campuses have also developed trainings around that manual.
My recommendation is to provide access to the more in depth document, but present a more condensed version for community consumption. What people want to know is key information: how will the campus protect us; what are the rules for masks, distance, etc…; do I need to be vaccinated; how can I get tested; what do I do if one of my students test positive, etc… It also would be helpful to either have single page, or single graphics that reflect procedures. For example, what to do if a student reports they have tested positive? How do students, staff and faculty access testing and vaccination services? How to respond to someone not willing to wear a mask? Providing clear instructions related to campus COVID guidelines will help both with feelings of confidence and safety as well as reducing confusion on campus.
Occupancy Assessments and Facilities
One of the biggest issues are the local/state/national social distancing rules. When you look at a standard classroom that normally held 35-45 seats, social distancing will seriously put a crimp in those numbers. Our assessments have typically shown with six foot distancing those rooms now have a capacity of 16. Now our hope, since they’ve reduced K-12 distance requirements to three feet that we’ll have higher occupancy numbers by fall at the latest. Without that relief we’re looking at having to do hyflex split sections with students either in rotation, half in person half the time, or splitting the class permanently between in person and online. This of course will increase workloads and require a higher skill level by faculty. If you have a faculty union they’ll likely want to talk about that.
Regardless of the rules, you’ll need to do walk through assessments on every campus space. This gets particularly interesting in student service areas. Many institutions have moved toward one-stop concepts, so this means lots of service windows in sometimes much too crowded areas. Add to that the need for plexiglass barriers and spacing for staff and you’ve got a huge planning project on your hands to be able to carryout effective service operations.
In addition, every space, hallway, study carrel, library work areas and on and on have to be assessed. This is the sort of thing that needs to be happening already if you’re planning to go back in the fall. And of course once the rules change, will have to be reassessed. From experience I can tell you, you are underestimating the number of spaces in the area you are responsible for and you aren’t thinking about bathroom occupancy and all of those spaces students will just hang out in.
Basic Safety Recommendation and PPE
All of the basic safety recommendations that any campus needs can be found at the CDC site, OSHA site as well as your state and county health services sites. The core safety procedures are pretty straight forward, everyone wearing a mask, frequent handwashing, and maintaining six foot social distancing. Also having alcohol wipes and hand sanitizer available for use is of course important.
You will also need to develop cleaning schedules and make sure they are widely known. People will want to know how, when and how often the spaces they work in are being cleaned.
The largest variable in the whole return to campus is unsurprisingly people. The largest concern we had in our return to campus was, how would our students respond to the mask and social distancing rules? The really positive aspect of this was how well the student’s responded. Over the last year since we’ve had students back on campus we’ve had no issues with students refusing to wear PPE. While we have had positive COVID cases and have had to quarantine some students and staff, we have not had a single case of on campus transmission. The largest issue we’ve had is students being excited to see each other and wanting to be too close, hug, or hold close-up conversations. This has been pretty easily controlled with gentle reminders. Students up to this point have primarily been from hands-on classes. These students want to be on campus and understand that if the rules aren’t followed they won’t be able to be. For some programs like automotive, that would mean suspending the program, likely to post-COVID times. So we’ve had some good leverage on the students who have been back so far.
As campuses transition to having more general education related classes back on campus that leverage goes away. So it will be interesting to see how the larger student body will respond. It is important that there are clearly established policies and procedures to deal with these issues. What will be the consequences be for a student who refuses? How will faculty be expected to respond to those issues? At one point should administrators or public safety become involved? These policies and procedures need to be clearly laid out.
Testing and Vaccinations
While I was writing this article the University of California and California State systems have announced that they will require all students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated in order to return to campus in the fall for in person classes, except for cases of medical exception. My own district is currently debating whether or not to follow suit. While the two four-year systems represent one million faculty, staff and students, the California Community College has over two million students, so it will be interesting to see how these institutions respond.
There will obviously be a lot of politics around this type of decision and a similar decision in a more politically conservative state may not be as easily implemented. I’m also sure that there will be some legal challenges to the recent decision. Faculty and staff attitudes are also really important to address around testing and vaccinations. I’ve had a lot of discussion with faculty in my area, particular those who are older or have immune-compromised family, and they are concerned about the idea of being around students, staff and faculty who are not vaccinated. This means that employees and students will need sufficient lead time on decisions as well as clear guidelines and the consequences of not following them.
Positive Tests and Contact Tracing
Inevitably you will have students, faculty and staff who will test positive for COVID. Likely by now your county and campus have clear guidelines on how to address these cases. Typically the infected person will remain off-campus until they are cleared to return by a doctor. The college or county will likely require documentation be presented for that to happen. Contact tracing can be important to determining if you have transmission on campus and determining if there is a cluster in a particular campus area.
Some campuses have controlled contact tracing data by having campus access points, creating campus access request systems and logging campus entries. As numbers of people returning to campus increase, this becomes increasingly difficult and even infeasible. Most campuses will need to rely on class rosters and then contacting people the infected reports as having close contact with during the infectious period.
The real question becomes, who and how will this contact tracing be done. Is your county handling this process, or the campus? If your campus will be doing it, who’s responsibility will it be? Have you appropriately staffed up for this work? Have you budgeted for it? There will need to be some sort of administrative function around this activity. Additionally, if you have intercollegiate sports, your local/state conference will likely have testing requirements for athletes, this will also have to have a structure. Your athletic trainers will have a very large roll to play in this process.
One area that might get overlooked is the emotional impacts of returning to campus. Most colleges have been good about increasing counseling, especially crisis counseling services during the pandemic. We all understand the past year has been a trauma of varying levels on all of us. For that reason we’ve beefed up mental health and emotional support services. It can be easy to overlook the impact that returning to campus may have. Sometimes people do a great job of holding things together during a crisis and fall apart after the emergent issue has passed. That’s where we’ll be at when we return. Additionally, people will be reintegrating into crowds for the first time in a year. Although this is a positive thing, it might be stressful and triggering for some students, particularly if they have pre-existing levels of social anxiety. We can also forget we have employees with these issues as well. So it’s important to make sure the campus community understands what resources are available to them as we transition.
Continuing Communication (Public Forums and Surveys)
We often make the mistake of assessing attitudes pre-implementation for anything we do for our campuses. However, we often forget to check our progress. I recommend, during the first full semester after students return, that you do a satisfaction survey mid-semester where you also provide for some open-ended input. It will be important to find out what you’re doing right and where you need to improve, as well as what you might have forgotten.
We have all been participating in the most challenging and interesting experiment of our career. The next phase might be the most challenging one yet, but given what most of us have really accomplished over the last year, I believe we’re up to the challenge, good luck.