After suddenly moving the remainder of 2020 spring semester classes fully online due to the spread of COVID-19, leadership colleges and universities around the country are making plans for how, when and in what capacity they will welcome students back to their campuses later this year.
Committees and task forces have been appointed to evaluate national, state and other applicable guidance and to develop plans for the fall under still-evolving circumstances.
Many universities, including East Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville have already started transitioning employees back to work in the physical on-campus buildings, and many institutions including Tusculum University have already installed plexiglass panels in administrative buildings.
Plans for students to return to campuses continue to be announced, with many academic advising appointments still taking place electronically while leadership at institutions decide on protocols and procedures to put in place to mitigate risks related to resuming activities on campuses.
Walters State President Dr. Tony Miksa said in an official statement the college has created a reopening task force to develop a phased approach to reopening campuses. Advising appointments are occurring on campus by appointment, but further information has not been made public.
Tusculum University President Dr. Scott Hummel said discussions with other universities in the South Atlantic Conference, the collegiate athletic conference Tusculum belongs to, have led to collaboration between institutions to develop such plans relating to a range of aspects of the college experience beyond athletics.
“We can be friendly competitors on the court, but when we’re dealing with the same issues there is a really strong collaboration,” Hummel said.
One change Tusculum University has announced that Hummel said resulted from discussions and collaborations with other universities was an updated 2020-21 academic calendar intended to reduce travel and subsequent potential coronavirus transmission during the semester.
According to the new calendar, the fall 2020 semester is now set to start a week earlier than originally planned on Aug. 17, and students will not return to campus after the Thanksgiving holiday break. The two-day fall break has been eliminated, all final exams for the fall semester will be conducted online, and the fall graduation ceremony is now scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 21.
“The big reason for starting earlier is so that we don’t have students come back after Thanksgiving,” Hummel said. “One of the most vulnerable times would be to have students go home, particularly if they’ve got to fly through major airports. They could be fine but then become exposed while using public transportation. The student’s home may not be a COVID hotspot, but getting through major airports could be a problem.”
Hummel said despite initial hopes that the virus might not affect the 2020-21 academic calendar, university leadership has reworked the spring semester as well. The spring semester is now scheduled to start Jan. 25, a week later than initially planned, and the weeklong spring break has also been eliminated from the revised calendar.
Tusculum’s updated academic calendar has the same number of originally intended instruction days, while the athletic calendar, still under discussion along with details of how athletic events might look this year, will likely be shortened, Hummel said.
East Tennessee State University has also announced changes to its academic calendar including that the university will be open and classes will be held on Labor Day in September and Veterans Day in November.
Fall break at ETSU has been rescheduled to Thanksgiving week, and the last day of in-person classes is scheduled for Nov. 20. Remote instruction for all classes will take place following Thanksgiving week from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4, as well as for final exams.
In an additional effort to reduce contact that could spread COVID-19, Hummel said Tusculum is in the process of evaluating where classes will be held on campus.
“The equation for an efficient classroom has been to have it at capacity, but that’s not the formula anymore,” Hummel said.
To help promote and allow social distancing, Tusculum is likely to make further changes to the previously determined class locations.
The University of Tennessee has also announced that changes are being made to previously scheduled class times and locations to allow and encourage social distancing on campus. These changes are being made and finalized throughout the month of June, and students will be notified in July when they are able to make adjustments to their schedules, according to the university’s website, where several coronavirus-related guides have been published.
Another option Tusculum University leadership is considering is one where classes may be split into groups, with one group participating in class and the remainder tuning in to the lecture electronically. The medium for how each group participates could be alternated so that all students are able to receive the same instruction and access without classrooms being too crowded.
Hummel said digital options are not intended to fully eliminate the face-to-face interaction.
“When we can have that face-to-face experience, we want to have that,” Hummel said. “We just want to mitigate exposure through the use of technology.”
RAMPED UP SANITATION
Facilities and housekeeping teams are in the midst of the usual routine summer cleaning and maintenance work on campus, including in residence halls. These processes are standard and would be taking place this summer under normal circumstances, but Facilities Management Manager Chad Grindstaff said a new cleaning chemical called Virex has been introduced.
“The biggest change is the chemicals we’re using now to deal with COVID, and we’re ramping up the frequency of cleaning in common and high-traffic areas,” Grindstaff said.
Grindstaff said under normal circumstances, one container of the highly concentrated cleaner could last a year or more, but in preparation for students to return to the residential campus and physical classrooms, Tusculum staff are taking extra and more stringent cleaning measures over the summer and will be cleaning each classroom between class periods when classes start.
Grindstaff said staff typically use machines that spray cleaning chemicals to clean athletic equipment and areas on campus. These machines are made for outdoor use but are suitable for large, well-ventilated areas like the indoor practice field.
New battery powered machines made for indoor use, which give the chemicals an electromagnetic charge to help the chemical stick to all angles of classroom surfaces, have been ordered and are due to arrive this summer, Grindstaff said. These will be used in classrooms during class changeovers.
Grindstaff said the university has started gathering supplies of Virex as well as masks, hand sanitizer and other supplies, to have enough on hand for the increased sanitation measures and in case of future shortages.
Hummel said Tusculum University also plans to spread students out as much as possible in the residence halls, with dorm rooms that would normally house two students to hold only one student per room.
Grindstaff said facilities staff will begin removing furniture from these rooms once a second cleaning with Virex has been completed in each dorm room affected.
Also a residential campus, ETSU has announced plans to stagger arrivals to campus in the fall. Students moving to campus should sign up for a time to move in, according to a memo from President Dr. Brian Noland.
Hummel said among other possible protocols, Tusculum is considering requiring some students to return to campus early in order to self isolate before beginning classes. To reduce the amount of time a student would need to remain isolated, the university is also looking into required testing for certain groups of students to possibly include incoming international students and athletes.
Hummel said Tusculum is not expecting any international exchange students either coming to or from Tusculum this year, but there are some students from abroad completing a full degree at the university. Last year there were 93 international students who lived on Tusculum’s residential campus.
Further information will continue to be released from Tusculum and other universities throughout the summer. Plans are still subject to change depending on the evolving situation and related guidance.