It is possible to reopen campuses safely — here’s how we did it at Denison.
Reopening a college campus in the midst of a pandemic is not what I imagined when I became a college president. But it’s where I find myself.
Classes at Denison University started on Aug. 17, and currently, we have 1,800 students enrolled for the full residential learning experience (another 300 are studying remotely), and so far, we have experienced 10 COVID-19 cases.
How did we find success? We have taken a multi-pronged approach. The health of our community has been our North Star, but we have focused holistically on all of the obligations that we have as an institution: to our students, to our employees and to the local community.
We are managing four kinds of risk: the COVID-19 health risk, mission risk of delivering an education differently, financial risks and reputation risk. Most days it feels like managing a series of neverending paradoxes that come at us with breathtaking speed and imperfect information.
We have found success by creating clear principles to guide decision making.
Principle number one: Be guided by experts. At the start of the pandemic, we formed a close relationship with a team of epidemiologists and research scientists at the Wexner Medical Center at The Ohio State University. They have become an extension of our cross-organizational COVID-19 response team.
Principle number two: Be guided by data and science even when both were incomplete and changing. Let the best available data and best thinking of the moment guide decision making.
Principle number three: Be flexible and adaptable. We have leaned into the liberal arts we teach our students. Have strong views that are lightly held and constantly seek out data that challenges current approaches and views. Put the pieces in place to adapt and shift quickly.
In early spring, it felt easy to say, “If health is our concern, we’ll just keep campus closed and go 100 percent remote for the semester,” but by June it was also clear that this addressed only a sliver of the challenges and obligations we faced.
For example, Denison is socioeconomically diverse. What’s our obligation to those students? Everybody was put in the same boat last spring of having to go home and learn remotely, but not all students have arrangements on the home front that are conducive to progressing in their studies and lives.
Like all colleges, we employ hundreds of staff. They are rightly nervous about losing paychecks and benefits and they are deeply loyal to the college. They needed — and deserved — to know that we would stand beside and behind them through the pandemic.
Success started with testing. We are tracking and assessing the viral health of the Denison community on a daily basis across multiple data points and trend lines that measure the prevalence of infection and the ability to contain and stay ahead of any outbreaks. These data are reviewed not just by Denison but also by county public health officials and our team of epidemiological experts.
Additionally, we have taken a balanced and realistic approach to keeping students safe while still giving them human connection. As we got into the fall semester, we realized the need to balance the health risks of COVID-19 with the mental health challenges that come from social isolation.
We realized that managing the riskiest forms of behavior, required giving a little on forms of less risky behavior.
For example, instead of housing all students in isolated single rooms, we’re utilizing a variety of housing options, including doubles and triples and quads. In this way, each rooming unit is like a miniature family. That is no small consideration for the psychological wellbeing of students, particularly those who are far away from home and feeling isolated.
Trips to crowded bars and restaurants in town are out. But grabbing takeout from a restaurant and having a socially distanced picnic is in. We put up lots of tents and bought a lot of outdoor chairs and placed them around the campus.
We’re also maintaining varsity and club athletics, despite the fact that no competitions will be held. We are focused on enjoying the camaraderie of being part of a team through practices and strength and conditioning work.
Communication has been key. We in the education sphere must continue to relay updates to students and staff and urge what we need people to do and not do. Part of this includes engaging, listening and learning. At Denison, we are conducting student surveys every Monday to measure the mood on campus and gather ideas from students. We are using all of this information to course correct and ensure we are getting feedback on changing needs.
If there’s a theme here, it’s that there’s a reasonable and rational way through the paradoxes and tensions of this moment. It doesn’t have to be a choice between packed sporting events or no sports at all; nor does it have to be a choice between huge parties and monastic isolation.
We’re taking the long view. COVID-19 is something that could potentially impact us for 12 to 24 months, which means we need a sustainable way to make the college experience work, while doing so as safely as possible.
It feels like tempting fate to write this piece half-way through the semester. So far, the path is working. Humility, nimbleness and agility are the watchwords as we move forward. But with mutual consideration and trust, and a continuing emphasis on science, data, safety, and creativity, our community will continue to thrive as a place of learning, despite the challenges that 2020 has thrown our way.