Panel discusses potential academic calendar, health policies for upcoming year

College emphasizes resuming in-person classes in the fall with modifications to academic calendar

In an email from Provost Ron Cole on Friday, May 22, the campus community was invited to attend a panel discussion via Zoom regarding a potential academic calendar and health policies plan for the 2020-21 academic year. In addition to Cole, the panel included President Hilary Link, Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students April Thompson, Dean of Curriculum and Registrar Ian Binnington, Dean of Institutional Diversity Kristin Dukes and the Director of Athletics and Recreation Bill Ross.

The panelists met at 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 26, and discussed the intricacies of the plan for the 2020-21 academic calendar. Link indicated that the college is very optimistic about the ability of students, faculty and staff to return to campus given the low incidence rates of COVID-19 in Crawford County and the college’s small, community-oriented population. 

“We are so incredibly fortunate to have faculty and practitioner expertise as well as a wide array of alumni in the public health and pandemic management area so we are particularly well-suited to be able to have these planning conversations,” Link said. 

The college has been using the same guiding principles used for developing the belonging retrieval process and other important scenarios to ensure the preservation of community well-being, academic equity and a safe learning environment. 

“We have approached the planning for reopening the college by asking ourselves a simple question: can we reopen the college safely and if we can, what are all of the things that we need to take into consideration to be able to do so?,” Link said. 

In an effort to evaluate these, Link indicated that senior leadership and the Administrative Executive Committee have created twelve operational groups that research all of the functional areas associated with reopening the college in the fall. The groups are led by members of the AEC along with faculty, staff and students, all of whom will spend their summer researching the global circumstances to create comprehensive plans. 

“We need to be prepared to pivot and be as flexible and nimble as the global situation evolves,” Link stated. 

Crawford County does not have a public health agency, so the college created an internal public health agency to handle the evolving pandemic. Link indicated that her office will release a longer statement regarding the operational groups and the internal health agency

“The academic calendar affects operations across the entire campus, so the plan was developed in collaboration with areas across the college,” Cole said. “We have included Student Life, Athletics, Financial Aid, Financial Services, and student input in developing this plan.” 

The proposal for the 2020-21 academic calendar includes a portion of the fall semester instruction completed remotely. Students would complete the last two weeks of their fall semester classes online, including final exams. Remote instruction would resume in the spring semester with a single, three-week module course in mid-January. Students would take three courses in-person during the second module of the spring semester until completion of the courses in mid-May. Under the current plan, students would take their previously registered four courses to completion during the fall semester. The spring plan assumes an average of four courses per semester, however, students will be allowed to take more courses, Cole indicated. 

According to Binnington, the courses taken during the 2020-21 academic year will result in a grade as opposed to the emergency credit/no credit protocol available last semester. Classes that are already registered for the fall will not be affected but student plans for the spring semester may change.

“The spring semester model has several advantages,” Cole said. “(Students) leaving at Thanksgiving and not returning until early February will result in the campus being as sparsely populated as possible during what it is predicted to be peak flu season and the peak season, where we might expect a resurgence of COVID-19. It is ideal to have as few people on campus as possible during that interval. Another advantage of the proposal is it reduces the course load that students will be taking and faculty will be teaching at any one time.”

For students beginning their senior comprehensive projects, these courses will not be scheduled over the three-week module in January, instead, comps may be extended for different periods of time to accommodate the schedule, Cole indicated. 

“We are going to be mindful of the fact that we need to distribute classes to various different types of students, first-years through seniors, and different sorts of majors,” Binnington said.

The three-week module course would not be limited to certain areas of study as faculty have been rearranging their courses to suit this module. For lab courses, there may be variety between the natural sciences on whether or not these can be included in the January module, Binnington commented.

“We envision courses from across the curriculum that have the potential to be offered during that January module,” Cole said. “However, all courses pedagogically would not make sense to do during that time period but there are a lot of courses that might be really fun to take during that time. We are going to start off by asking every department to contribute some percentage of their courses to that January module.”

Some courses, such as music, dance and movement studies, and studio art, may be unavailable due to social distancing guidelines, however, the departments are holding meetings to develop courses in those areas that adhere to distancing requirements, Cole indicated.

“It is my intent, as Provost of the college, to try to ensure as robust of an educational opportunity, as we can,” Cole said. 

When students return to campus, move-in will be completed in phases over a ten-day span to limit contact. According to Link, mandatory COVID-19 testing on the student population will begin when students return to campus to prevent an outbreak on campus.

“Between our internal health agency and all of our planning processes, we have an extensive plan that includes testing the entire campus community when people come back,” Link said. 

Any student that has a positive test will be relocated to off-campus housing and their contacts will be traced by public health officials, Thompson added.

If students are unable to return to campus due to travel bans, the college is making arrangements for courses to be able to be taken via remote instruction, according to Cole. Students may also opt to stay at the college during the break, if they cannot go home or wish to stay on campus to complete remote instruction either out of necessity or comfort.

“We assume that any plan we have will involve social distancing, including learning spaces and social spaces, where some students and faculty will be unable to participate in face-to-face classes,” Cole said. 

Classrooms may need to be outfitted to accommodate social distancing procedures by utilizing larger spaces, such as the Henderson Campus Center. The college expects some students may have in-person instruction while others may have remote instruction depending on personal circumstances, Binnington indicated. He acknowledged that this classroom composition may also change on a day-to-day basis. 

“The academic year 2020-21 will not look like previous academic years,” Binnington said. “We are committed to delivering to you, the student body and also the faculty and staff, the best educational experience we can manage.”

During the in-person portions of the fall and spring semesters, students and faculty will be required to obey social distancing procedures and mandatory masking to protect the community. Events, most likely, will not occur as the college will be limiting the number of people gathering as dictated by the state mandates, Thompson commented.

“It is likely that events will be shut down or discouraged unless they are within a pod group or individuals that you always hang out with or those who are committed to the same practices – you can gather with those same people but not large scale parties or events,” Thomspon said. “For example, we will not have the Involvement Fair in the traditional ways that you have seen it but we are looking into more creative ways to make this a great event that does not gather hundreds of people into one place,” 

With regard to co-curricular groups and activities, the college has yet to decide how these will be affected and any decisions will be based on the current situation in Crawford County and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention regulations, Link indicated. 

According to Ross, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has yet to announce plans for 2020-21 seasons and all sporting arrangements will be subject to the conference’s decisions.

With regard to student employment, the college has yet to decide how this will be affected, but they are dedicated to ensuring the financial equity of our students, Dukes indicated. 

“We are looking carefully at student employment opportunities to ensure that students have equitable access to employment opportunities that we do bring back to campus,” Dukes said. “Again, it may depend on what we are allowed to do and what physical distancing guidelines are at the time.”

Dining halls may resort to take-out only options or outdoor spaces depending on the current situation with social distancing procedures. Students will be required to wear masks, however, communities such as individuals in the same pod or sports team will be able to dine together. As for residence halls, it will be challenging to socially distance from hallmates and roommates; therefore, the college is making arrangements to offer any student interested in a single, the option to have one.

According to Thompson, the college is securing the financial aid available to students but monetary changes in room and board are dependent upon the cost associated with new policy changes, such as dining hall accommodations and offering all students the ability to have singles, if the room is available. 

According to Cole, the quality of coursework will not change during the 2020-21 academic year, so there will not be a reduction in tuition due to remote instruction.

“I believe that the value of an Allegheny education is not governed by the number of days spent on campus but it is governed by the quality of the experience that you have while you are there,”Binnington said. “I think students will have a high-quality experience even if it is a number of days shorter on campus.”