As second pandemic semester begins, universities apply lessons learned

By Kate Szambecki, contributor

The second full semester of the COVID-19 era classes at EMU got off to a smoother start than the first, when several positive tests among residence hall staff resulted in a two-week postponement of move-in day. This time, on Jan. 17 EMU finished testing all 340 undergraduates who live on campus, with just one positive result, and classes began as scheduled on Jan. 19.

The reassuring launch of the spring semester appears to be the latest example in what Dean of Students Shannon Dycus described as a pattern of progress since the academic year began – rooted in an appeal to students’ sense of community responsibility.

EMU Dean of Students Shannon Dycus

“There is a very difficult line of making rules and inviting people to participate in something that matters,” Dycus said. “We worked really hard to figure out how to invite students to participate in all of the protocols because it mattered, and not just because they were rules. In most senses, I think that worked well. Then that trickled. I think students cared about each other, students cared about staying healthy, and because of that care we did the things that we needed to do to stay safe. And then so many people are watching and become inspired.”

Students, faculty, and staff at JMU and EMU now have one full semester of pandemic learning under their belts. During that time, they’ve seen numerous changes, including mask mandates, symptom trackers, and limited in-person gatherings. Both universities will continue offering hybrid, or hy-flex schedules, meaning some classes will be all online, some will be all in-person, and some will be a combination of the two.

One big difference at both schools this semester is entry testing for all residential students. After EMU’s relatively uneventful round of testing earlier this month, JMU will test around 6,000 students between Friday, Jan. 29 through Sunday, Jan. 31, with a negative result required for moving into dorms.

Additionally, JMU will conduct surveillance testing, increase its number of isolation and quarantine beds, and triple its testing capacity for the spring.

“We’re in the process now of finalizing a plan to offer testing to our off-campus students as well,” said Tim Miller, the university’s vice-president of student affairs. “We’ve been told that we are going to get another 6,000-plus tests from the state so we will be able to do [that testing].”

JMU will have another 6,000 tests available for surveillance testing and has ordered an additional 10,000, said Miller, allowing it to provide an average of 100 tests per day.

Online learning: not easier

As for academics, JMU Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Heather Coltman told The Citizen that misconceptions have accompanied the pandemic pivot to online learning.

“There’s an underlying assumption among maybe people outside higher ed, and even inside higher ed, that online teaching is easier, that you don’t have to do as much, that you shouldn’t have to pay as much, that you should get a reduction in tuition, but it’s actually the opposite,” Coltman said. “Especially for faculty that have not done this before, there is incredible thought and planning in a number of complex ways.”

Now, Coltman said, faculty have the benefit of a semester’s worth of experience.

“We’ve had more time to plan, faculty have had more time to take more training sessions or workshops, and there has been a lot of activity and a lot of response from faculty to get better skilled at hybrid or virtual teaching,” she said. “It’s a dynamic and fluid situation, but I think the faculty’s commitment to that deep engagement with the students is something that has not changed.”

At EMU, Dycus said, engaging with students is also a top priority for the new semester.

“I think that sometimes fear overcame our opportunities to be creative, or to be in community, and we didn’t get together in the simple and quirky ways that we might have been able, because we were trying to be safe or because we were afraid or we didn’t know how,” Dycus said. “I don’t think that we as leaders encouraged that as well as we could have, and so that’s part of the work that I’m trying to put into this semester—that we can prioritize how we are well as well as being safe.”

Dycus said that virtual learning has also created new opportunities, such as inviting Princeton Ph.D. candidate Nyle Fort to deliver EMU’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Convocation.

“[We thought] wait a minute, we can have conversations with really thoughtful people without the expense and even the barriers that come with them being across the world,” Dycus said.

The same approach applies locally as well.

“I think the collaboration across institutions has been so helpful, collaborating with other universities, the City of Harrisonburg, the Virginia Department of Health—for this experience that we kind of lean on each other for.”

Miller and Coltman from JMU agreed.

“Everyone is eager to learn from each other, and that is one of the greatest things that can come out of this,” Coltman said.

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