'Nothing Concrete' As Colleges, Universities Prepare For Fall Reopening
There have been a lot of questions about what public schooling in West Virginia will look like in the fall, but there’s also quite a few questions about higher education.
Colleges and universities have been releasing updates on their websites in recent months about what they’re doing to prepare for a return to campuses in the fall – but uncertainty remains.
At Shepherd University, Jenny Lind plays two roles – accounting student and a lead campus service worker in Shepherd University’s facilities department. As part of facilities, she and her team are responsible for keeping all buildings, classrooms, dormitories – basically the entire campus – clean.
For workers like Lind, the coronavirus pandemic presented challenges.
“We had numerous discussions, and because there was so much uncertainty, especially at first, we didn't know how it could be killed,” Lind said. “If it was chemicals or if it was light, UV; we had to understand actually how the virus spread and what we needed to do to actually kill the virus.”
While her cleaning regimen hasn’t really changed much, what has changed is Lind and her team are cleaning more often. And she said when students return in the fall, that frequency will ramp up even more.
Typically, cleaning staff work after-hours. They do their work once people have left a building, but Lind said that won’t be the norm anymore, and her team will be making extra efforts to be seen.
Knowing how much they’re doing, she said it makes her feel safe to return to her own classes.
“I personally know that everything has been sanitized,” she explained. “I know that the classrooms have been sanitized. I know that the bathrooms have been sanitized; all the touch points, so yes, I am more confident that it’s safe.”
But not everyone feels as safe to return to college this fall.
In fact, one online petition, hosted on Change.org, has received more than 1,200 signatures, and continues to climb, calling on West Virginia University to cancel all in-person classes this fall and reduce tuition if the school goes entirely online.
Across West Virginia, colleges and universities have produced contingency plans to prepare for a return to in-person classes, according to the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.
In all schools, face masks will be required of students, faculty, staff and visitors. Dormitories, in many cases, will now be single occupancy rooms instead of sharing with another classmate. There will be more grab-and-go style meals with more outdoor dining areas.
Staff and students will be required to take their temperature every day, and class sizes will be reduced, desks spaced out, and many courses are now hybrids, where some instruction will be done in-person, while some of it will be remote.
And many classes will just be online.
But there’s still concern whether this is enough for students to feel safe enough to return to campuses.
“I'm worried that we're going to have a year where our best minds are not going to college because of fears of the coronavirus,” said Sarah Armstrong Tucker, chancellor of the Community and Technical College System of West Virginia and the interim chancellor of the Higher Education Policy Commission.
“We have real fears about enrollment for the fall,” Tucker said. “Are families going to feel safe sending their children to college? Are adults going to feel safe returning to school when you're in an environment where you're not supposed to be with a group of more than 25 people?”
The enrollment concern is a big one for colleges and universities, because if there aren’t enough students paying tuition and fees, it’s more challenging to meet financial bottom lines.
Tucker said it’s been a constant collaborative effort with education officials, local health departments and the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to prepare for any scenario and make sure campuses are as safe as possible.
“We’re having discussions about all of it,” she said. “I think we're probably at about plan S, right now, for the fall.”
According to the HEPC, many of West Virginia’s higher education institutions, both two and four-years, are experiencing a varying level of lower enrollment for the fall – especially in the case of students at 4-year institutions who would typically be looking to live in on-campus housing.
Both Marshall University and WVU told West Virginia Public Broadcasting that compared to last year, they’re seeing a slight decline so far in fall enrollment numbers.
WVU said, while it’s too soon to tell what next year will look like, projections are not as low as the school had predicted they might be when the pandemic started.
But it won’t be known until later in the year what those enrollment numbers will actually look like for West Virginia’s higher education institutions or which schools will feel the most impact from enrollment numbers.
“One of the most frustrating things about the coronavirus and this pandemic is that there is absolutely nothing concrete,” said Holly Morgan Frye, vice president for student affairs and the director of community relations at Shepherd University. “Every time we make a plan, something changes, and we have to make another plan.”
Frye also leads the health task force at Shepherd, which formed in response to the pandemic.
“The majority of our students really want to be back on campus, and we want to be able to do that,” she said. “So, we’re taking a look at every aspect of the university. Everything from what supplies are needed, how we can de-densify our classrooms, how we can create pedestrian traffic flows to reduce contact, how we can enforce the policies that we are creating.”
Some colleges and universities, according to the HEPC, will also be requiring coronavirus testing of students, while others are looking at at-risk student testing and screening of specific populations.
At Shepherd, Frye said they are considering target testing, such as testing all the athletes if there was an outbreak, or an entire dormitory if there was an outbreak there.
This week, Gov. Jim Justice met with the state’s higher education officials to share his specific requests for a safe return to campus in the fall.
Justice is calling on all colleges and universities to test out-of-state students for the coronavirus upon returning to campus.
He also said he will provide any additional resources for a safe reopening, such as access to support from the National Guard and the West Virginia DHHR.