Safety measures in place for fall semester
JOHNSON CITY (Aug. 20, 2020) – In just a few days, the fall 2020 semester will begin at East Tennessee State University, and as students, faculty and staff prepare for the start of a new academic year, several changes to campus operations have been put in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The institution’s values are clear: people come first,” said ETSU President Brian Noland. “Each of us has a responsibility to make decisions that safeguard our own health as well as the health and safety of others. Protecting the health of everyone and maintaining a safe campus environment have been our highest priorities throughout this pandemic, and the decisions we have made are all aligned with that goal.”
Noland added that recommendations from the institution’s COVID-19 Medical Response Team have served as the foundation for modifications to campus operations, such as a new university policy announced in late July that requires all ETSU students, faculty and staff as well as visitors to campus to wear a face covering. The policy states that face coverings must be worn in classrooms and other public spaces as well as in outdoor areas where a physical distance of six feet cannot be maintained between persons.
Additionally, a series of operational stages were developed by the Future Operations Workgroup to provide levels of restrictions and other health and safety guidelines in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this month, President Noland announced that ETSU would remain in stage 2 with modifications for the beginning of the fall semester in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Reducing campus population density
As part of an overall effort to reduce the population density on campus during peak times, more than 80 percent of the course sections offered by ETSU this fall will be taught online, and employees are continuing to work remotely where possible, with some on campus, including options for staffing rotations within offices.
“Our faculty spent the entire summer reviewing each course and evaluating the possibility of altering the format of course delivery, such as transitioning some on-ground courses to online, or providing remote options for select on-ground courses,” said Dr. Wilsie S. Bishop, senior vice president for Academics and interim provost. “One of the factors driving these decisions was whether these course competencies should be taught on ground and, if so, how might we accomplish physical distancing guidelines in the classroom.”
Bishop noted that accommodations will be made, as possible, for those students who have on-ground courses but are not able to be present on campus.
Significant enhancements have been made to ETSU’s academic infrastructure to support online learning, according to Dr. Karen King, chief information officer and senior vice provost for Information Technology Services.
“We have procured more than 200 hotspots that students can check out as well as additional laptops,” King said. “All of our classrooms have full web conferencing and lecture capture capabilities. Our team is also in the process of enhancing our outdoor Wi-Fi.”
Campus facilities, like the recently renovated D.P. Culp Student Center, are designed to encourage gatherings and interaction. Applying new rules to promote the opposite has been challenging, but manageable.
“We have certainly had our work cut out for us,” said Jeremy Ross, chief operations officer. “Something we cannot see but know is a major threat to our health has pushed us to reshape the way we utilize our facilities and the way our employees work. Our COVID-19 Task Force has implemented new policies and protocols to efficiently continue our operations with the safety of our community remaining the top priority.”
One such example is events, as ETSU regularly brings the region to campus to attend guest lectures, concerts, plays and performances. Large in-person events have been postponed or canceled, and indoor meetings or gatherings not associated with coursework will be limited to 15 people without special permission. Many virtual events will continue to be offered this fall, such as a special Welcome Week Concert with X Ambassadors on Saturday, Aug. 29, at 8 p.m.
The fall 2020 academic calendar has also been adjusted. Fall Break has been moved to the week of Thanksgiving, and all on-ground classes will move online following the Thanksgiving holiday.
A safe ‘home away from home’
“Hundreds of our students depend on us to provide housing as well as access to our dining facilities,” said Dr. Joe Sherlin, vice president for Student Life and Enrollment.
Though the university’s residence halls are now open, the overall capacity of students living on campus has been significantly decreased for the fall in order to reduce the population density. In a typical year, ETSU Housing and Residence Life can accommodate nearly 3,000 students in its 10 residence halls, but for the fall 2020 semester, that number will be lowered to approximately 60%.
“We have also made the proactive decision to transition all of our residence halls to single occupancy for the fall semester,” Sherlin said. “Some facilities such as Centennial Hall and Buc Ridge provide individual rooms for our students, but the majority of other facilities are designed as double rooms. With this move to single occupancy, all students will have their own bedroom.” Sherlin noted that students who are being reassigned to a single room will not be charged an additional fee. To reduce the number of people in the common areas within the residence halls during the upcoming move-in weekend, all students are being assigned staggered move-in times.
Testing for COVID-19
Upon moving into residence halls, students are provided the option of taking a COVID-19 test, regardless of whether they are experiencing any symptoms. ETSU Health has provided testing for student athletes upon arrival to campus.
Students who present with symptoms at any time always have the option of contacting the ETSU University Health Center to learn more about testing options. This information, as well as steps to report positive COVID-19 test results, the policy on face coverings and other public health guidelines were provided in the Bucs Are Back: COVID-19 Safety Pledge. This training has been shared with all members of the ETSU community in advance of the beginning of the fall semester.
“The University Health Center offers convenient, drive-up COVID-19 testing for any of our students, faculty or staff members who would like a test,” said Dr. Roslyn Robinson, ETSU Health CNO and associate dean of practice and community partnerships in the College of Nursing. “We are here to serve ETSU and encourage any member of our campus community to call and make an appointment if they would like a test here on campus. We have seen a significant decrease in the amount of time it takes to get test results; currently, results are coming back in two to three days.”
Increased cleaning and sanitation protocols
“Our Facilities Management team is committed to adhering to the highest protocols for cleaning and sanitation and to doing everything we can to ensure the safety of our students, faculty, staff and campus visitors,” said Dan O’Brien, executive director of Facilities Management.
According to O’Brien, the E-Mister – a new disinfectant spray for cleaning surfaces – will be used across the ETSU campus on a daily basis. Within residence halls, the E-Mister will be sprayed multiple times each day in community restrooms and shower areas, and in the common areas and hallways at least once per day. The E-Mister will also be used in classrooms, restrooms and hallways on campus.
Within classrooms and laboratories, modifications have been made to meet physical distancing guidelines. This includes moving desks apart and placing limitations on the number of persons sitting at a table.
“Hand sanitizing stations can be found at the main entrances of all of our buildings,” said Laura Bailey, assistant vice president for capital planning. “In addition, Plexiglas Service Shields have been installed in many offices, particularly those high-traffic student service areas. Any office or department needing a Plexiglas shield should contact Facilities Management.”
The Basler Center for Physical Activity (CPA) is now open to students, faculty and staff on an appointment-only basis. Equipment has been spaced apart to allow for physical distancing, and the CPA will be closed each day from 1:30-3 p.m. to allow for a complete sanitization of the entire building.
Changes for athletics
Last week, the Southern Conference announced that it will not have fall conference competition due to the concerns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This was a difficult decision for everyone, but in the best interest of health and safety of all student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans, it is the best choice,” said Scott Carter, director of Intercollegiate Athletics, who explained that regular-season competition and championships for all fall sports will be moved to the spring.
‘The right thing to do’
As jobless numbers hit record rates and health experts warned that the pandemic would likely continue into the fall, it became evident that students and their families would be financially impacted by the pandemic. To provide students the opportunity to plan ahead, the ETSU Board of Trustees voted in April to maintain tuition and fees at current levels with no increases for the 2020-21 academic year.
“It was the right thing to do,” Noland said. “The ETSU Board of Trustees believes in the power of higher education and we must do all we can to ensure cost is not a barrier to achieving a college degree.”
In addition to the zero tuition increase for the fall 2020 semester, a new ETSU Advantage campaign also includes two new initiatives aimed at making higher education more available. The ETSU Promise Plus program begins this fall and is open to first-time, full-time freshmen eligible for the Tennessee Education Lottery (HOPE) Scholarship and the maximum Pell Grant. The Free Freshmen Tuition program is available to first-time, full-time freshmen enrolling in the fall and spring semesters who are HOPE-eligible and also recipients of the Tennessee Student Assistance Award (TSAA).
“This year is going to be different”
“The ETSU experience will be a bit different this fall not because of the pandemic, but because of the people who make this institution a special place,” Noland said. “Whether students are learning on-ground or online, it will not make a difference in the academic quality they receive from our faculty. The spirit of ETSU and our teaching, research and service mission are alive and well.”
Offices are open and continue to provide in-person and remote access to student services, such as Admissions, Financial Aid and Academic Advising. Extended hours are being offered to assist students as they prepare for the start of classes on Aug. 24. More information is available at etsu.edu/hours.
Many returning students have not seen friends since before spring break last March when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused courses to move online. It may be tempting to return to social norms, but policies are in place to safeguard health and so that services and facilities such as the CPA, Sherrod Library and Culp Student Center can remain open.
“We realize there will be many joyous reunions next week as students return to campus, but students must not forget the importance of protecting themselves and others by wearing face coverings, maintaining physical distance and following guidelines for students living on campus,” Sherlin said. “We are prepared to address issues of non-compliance by students who disregard these expectations and put themselves and members of the ETSU community at risk.
“If we all socialize, study and work together safely, I am confident we will enjoy a unique, yet successful semester.”
“The steps we are taking as a campus to protect the health of everyone are similar to the measures being taken by businesses, schools, health care systems and communities across the region,” Noland commented. “We are all in this together.”