When evaluating performance in reopening campuses this fall amidst a pandemic, many U.S. colleges are giving themselves ‘mediocre grades.’
Kaplan surveyed admissions officers at over 300 higher learning institutions asking them to grade their industry’s reopening performance. Respondents, who were surveyed for two weeks from mid to late-September, took into consideration factors such as implementing new safety precautions, delivering courses, and communicating with students and parents.
Only 4% gave a grade of A, with 36% giving a B, 51% giving a C, 9% giving a D, and 1% giving an F. The survey was done at a time when universities across the country began experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases.
UNIVERSITIES FORCED TO ADAPT OVERNIGHT. KIND OF
Back in March, as states across the country announced shutdowns, universities followed suit and began closing campuses.
Many colleges were forced to adapt and come up with new, innovative ways to continue delivering a quality education to students in a safe, socially distant manner. B-schools announced new hybrid learning models, extensive testing, and reimagined what classroom instruction in a “new normal” would look like.
“The idea of a traditional classroom has changed overnight,” Laku Chidambaram, associate dean for Academic Programs and Engagement and W.P. Woods Professor of MIS at the University of Oklahoma’s Michael F. Price College of Business, writes for P&Q. “As has the very idea of teaching itself. Students are zooming in to classes. Instructors are recording tutorials. Teams are working in virtual breakout rooms. Labs are being taught in immersive environments.”
FALL REOPENING PLANS
While the initial closure of campuses happened rapidly, schools have had months to prepare for this fall as many health experts predicted a fall and winter surge in Coronvirus cases. That is, schools shouldn’t have been surprised by an influx of cases this fall.
The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia did just that, closing campus in March and then rethinking its strategy for reopening the fall semester. Faculty members spent the time piloting and testing a number of virtual and hybrid classroom models. School officials worked with the health department on reopening plans. And in the midst of it all, COVID-19 continued to sweep across the nation killing more than 20,000 Americans – surpassing the number of Americans killed in World War I and the Vietnam War, combined.
William & Mary reopened campus on August 19 with a compressed Fall semester schedule starting early and ending before Thanksgiving. Additionally, the school required rounds of mandatory testing: before a student arrived on campus, one month into arriving, and one more in October. Students were also brought onto campus in a phased approach, with freshmen and graduate students arriving first then upperclassmen arriving two to three weeks later.
“We were able to establish a cultural norm with the new students and get them acclimated to campus while phasing everyone else coming in after clearing them on testing,” Jennifer Dahnke, assistant dean at William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business, says. “It really cut down on cases. Anything we found, we were able to isolate and keep those students off campus.”
A NEW NORMAL
When it came to classroom instruction, William & Mary introduced a hybrid model, cutting class capacity at 45% and having half of the students come in one day and the other half coming in another with some being fully remote.
At the Mason School of Business, classrooms that are often shared between all levels of undergrad and graduate students are now isolated and specifically assigned to sets of students in order to minimize transmission risk. The university, as a whole, also requires every student on campus to wear a mask and practice social distancing.
“We took harsh steps early on for violators which probably sent a message around not following the guidelines,” Dahnke says. “If they are anywhere on the William & Mary campus, indoor or out, it is an expectation that everyone in this community is masked.”
And the efforts have paid off. Since August, William & Mary has administered a total of 23,841 tests for students. Among those, just 58 were positive, with 20 being pre-arrival positives (the school requires a negative test in order for a student to return to campus). Those numbers are relatively low when compared to other universities in the U.S. According to The New York Times, more than 50 colleges have reported at least 1,000 cases over the course of the pandemic, with more than 375 colleges reporting at least 100 cases.
When asked what grade she would give the Mason School of Business in terms of its reopening efforts, Dahnke confidently said “an A.”
“The combination is working,” she says. “Each of these steps is a piece of the pie that gives another layer of protection rather than anyone action minimizing things across the board.”
The journey to reopening hasn’t been easy, Dahnke says, and it most definitely isn’t over. The university has been closely following local and federal guidance on protocols and guidelines in its efforts to reopen – an up and down, back and forth exercise that requires coming up with a plan only to scrap and revise it last minute. It’s a process that Dahnke says has actually helped the B-school adapt and grow.
“We’ve had so many changes, disruptions, innovative ideas, ways of thinking, and constant reexamining of our work, that we’re actually going to come out of this as a stronger business school with better programs,” she says. “It’s forcing us to think about all the activities we’re doing, where the value is added, and communicating and interacting with people in ways we never thought possible.”
Next spring, the Mason School of Business expects to reopen campus again with similar health and safety protocols in place.
When asked about how she feels on the transition to a ‘new normal,’ Dahnke says she believes that the university is adapting the right way by intentionally planning every step of the process and ensuring that its students can remained engaged. If anything, Dahnke says, she misses the vibrant energy of a bustling campus pre-COVID. And while there is no telling when that type of normalcy may return, Dahnke is sure of one thing – she’ll be ready.
“We’re all going into uncharted territory right now. Whether you’re faculty, staff, or student, there’s no playbook for this. It really is a once in a lifetime pandemic that we’re in,” Dahnke says. “We’re working through it one day at a time. But think about it in the big picture and it’s just a little blip in time. We’re going to come out on the other side just fine.”