In mid-June, the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education issued guidance for New Jersey colleges, requiring them to make plans for restarting operations and address 10 areas of college life before reopening campuses.
Currently, 38 higher education institutions have submitted plans for review by the state and are sharing them on their websites. There’s one important caveat upfront: The extent of in-person events for the fall semester will depend on the prevalence of COVID-19 and any decisions made by the state between now and a return to campus.
Six-foot social distancing. Requirements to wear masks or facial coverings in public areas, even dormitory hallways and lounges. More frequent cleaning of classrooms and bathrooms: All these are common components of the restart plans. Many colleges will also require students, faculty and staff to complete a simple self-assessment, such as a temperature check or review of COVID-19 symptoms, to access the college network.
Although the state announced reopening guidance in June, colleges had formed multidisciplinary committees early in the pandemic and have been making plans for months. And while the focus was on safety, college officials say they attempted, whenever possible, to retain as much as possible of the traditional college experience.
“We know Rowan is at its best when we offer an experiential learning environment, where people are interacting with other people,” said Kevin S. Koett, interim vice president of student life/dean of students, at Rowan University. “But certainly safety and security are paramount to us, and we developed protocols that are consistent across all areas of campus life.”
Fewer dorm occupants
That includes housing. This fall, according to the 54-page Return to Rowan plan, the Glassboro-based university is preparing to have its dormitories at 80% capacity, with only one or two students to a traditional dorm room. One dorm, Triad Hall, will be reserved as isolation housing for residential students who need to be quarantined. Still, said Koett, the university anticipates being able to provide campus housing to all students who want it.
Within common areas of the dorms, such as lounges and hallways, Rowan students will be required to wear masks or facial coverings and maintain social distancing. One Rowan rule is common to many colleges’ plans: strict limitations on external guests in dorm rooms. Except for family members in certain circumstances, such as move-in day, no outside guests will be allowed in dorm rooms, nor will large gatherings of in-dorm residents in one room be allowed. In other words, no boyfriends or girlfriends in dorm rooms or pizza parties with numerous guests.
College administrators realize these new rules might be unpopular and at times even challenging to enforce but say they’re essential. Joy Himmel, a licensed clinical counselor and registered nurse with a doctorate in psychology who serves on the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 Task Force, believes most students understand that things have to be different for now, and that the schools have their best interests in mind.
“Students tend to want to do the right thing most of the time, and there will be peer pressure to conform to the new expectations,” said Himmel. “A lot of work will go into establishing safe practices with the caveat that we are ‘all in this together’ and need to watch out for each other. That’s not to say there won’t be a percentage of students who challenge the rules, but the hope is that the social norm of compliance will prevail.”
Stockton University students, too, will experience campus life differently than before, as outlined in its restart plan. As a self-described “Six-Foot Campus,” Stockton will have one-way directional signage posted along sidewalks and corridors; hand-sanitizing stations outside classrooms with the expectation faculty and students will use disinfecting wipes on lecterns and seats before and after class; and seating in shuttle transportation at 50% capacity.
And, as in the past, Stockton has turned to local hotels for additional student housing. COVID-19 guidelines limit the room capacity of campus housing, and on Friday, the university said it signed an agreement for up to 400 rooms at the Showboat Atlantic City Hotel to be used for student housing. Food service areas will offer prepackaged food only, and there’ll be plexiglass between food service workers and customers. There will be fewer large-scale events on campus this fall, and similar to Rowan, Stockton will have a “no visitor” policy in residential halls.
Christopher Catching, vice president for student affairs at Stockton, believes training will be key to compliance. “It’s a lot of change, and it will be challenging for students to follow the rules, but we will be communicating with them constantly,” he said. “It will be more than telling them what to do; it’s also about why these protocols are important for everyone’s health and well-being.”
Even with the changes, Catching said, “We’re trying to provide our students with the most normal educational experience possible, but one thing we’ve learned these past few months is that nothing is guaranteed and there are many unknowns. Overall, I think we’re well prepared to provide a quality experience for our students and also a safe community for them, our faculty and staff.”
What about the persistent rule breakers? Rowan’s Koett said, “We’ll certainly look at everything on an individual basis, but if somebody simply doesn’t want to follow the guidelines, then we would ask them to continue their education in an online environment. Obviously, we want to make sure that we’re not impeding students’ academic progress. But if someone simply doesn’t want to comply, we have to make decisions during this pandemic that are in the best interest for the common health of our campus.”
Restart plans are designed not only to safeguard students, but faculty and staff as well in the classroom, laboratory and office spaces. Many colleges are requiring virtual meetings to continue even when employees return to campus. In some instances, faculty are being asked whether they prefer to be in the classroom or teach virtually.
At Stockton and Rowan, union officials are mostly pleased with how their respective administrations are handling COVID-19 workplace decisions. Rodger Jackson, a professor of philosophy and president of the Stockton Federation of College Teachers Local 2275, said, “We’ve been fortunate at Stockton. Our administration is giving considerable flexibility to faculty in terms of how they’re going to teach, whether in person or virtually. We have faculty who are deeply concerned about how they’ll balance their work with their children’s school situations and others who have health issues, so the administration’s stance toward faculty is appreciated.”
Concerns for professional staff and librarians
However, Jackson noted, his union also represents professional staff and librarians, “many of whom have serious concerns about the conditions under which they’re going to return to campus. There appears to be less flexibility and helpfulness for these employees as they navigate back to the workplace.” Whether it’s a matter of inadequate communication or something else, Jackson said, the union is keeping a close eye on the situation. “Anyone who spends much time in a university community comes to understand the importance of professional staff and librarians. They’re essential to students having a rich college experience,” he said.
Joseph Basso, a public relations and advertising professor and president of AFT Local 2373 at Rowan, said a “very good working relationship” exists between himself, provost Anthony Lowman and university senate president William Freind, and that they speak about three times a week.
“Early on, the back-to-work plan sought pretty extensive medical details from faculty who requested to teach remotely, but we’ve come to an agreement where that’s no longer the case,” said Basso. “There was considerable faculty input on the issue, and our concerns were taken seriously.”
Even for faculty such as himself who are comfortable returning to campus, Basso foresees changes in how professors interact with students outside the classroom. “Until there’s a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, anything that can be accomplished by Zoom, email or phone, such as office hours or academic advising, probably will be done those ways,” he said.
What exactly college life will be like, compared to plans, isn’t known, which is why Basso believes flexibility and understanding are important. “We’re in a fluid situation that could change at any time,” he said. “Some people have more anxiety about it than others, and we need to protect them and address their concerns about safety.”