Crash Course

Students paint on easels outdoors while wearing masks

Planning for reopening in Fall 2020 began almost six months earlier. As students across the country scrambled to return home during the spring semester, at the urging of state governors, faculty, staff, and administrators hunkered down to prepare for a future that could draw on the past, have the capability and know-how to meet current needs, and the flexibility and capacity to pivot quickly as circumstances changed. Leaning heavily on liberals arts skills, values, and habits, we fashioned a fall semester that, while different, was still uniquely Denison.

What it all looked like:

The Numbers

In fall semester, all students were given the option of being on campus for residential learning and living, or participating remotely. In total, 1,850 students returned to campus and about 350 remained home to participate in remote learning (many of whom were international students who faced visa and travel challenges). During the course of the semester, 4,308 COVID-19 tests were administered, 5,000 gallons of hand sanitizer and disinfectant were used, 11 tents were erected, over 12,000 square feet of outdoor gathering/class space were implemented; 26,000 face masks were distributed; and fewer than 20 cases occurred among the student population.

Teaching and Learning

Faculty became the students this summer when they took courses in technologies and resources that opened up new opportunities to do what they do best. They ramped up to become experts in Zoom technologies and breakout rooms, camera placement angles, and sound equipment as they taught students both on campus and in time zones around the globe. Courses took place under tents on campus and faculty conducted office hours in Adirondack chairs on A-Quad or via Zoom. Campus often resembled an open-air performance venue with music, dance, and theatre classes and rehearsals taking place on the lawn next to The Eisner Center, on Davis Plaza and at other locales across campus.

Health & Wellness:

Clinicians and staff therapists quickly pivoted to learn new systems to help students achieve optimal wellness—so important in the midst of a pandemic. For example: teletherapy gave students options for both clinical and mental health virtual consultations, two residence halls were set-aside for quarantine and isolation purposes, and a comprehensive system of both diagnostic and signal (random) testing informed medical staff of the campus viral health to help keep COVID under control — and students on campus healthy. As a result of these efforts and the incredible commitment of Denison students, there were few COVID-19 cases this fall.

Remote Learning:

Taking part remotely presented unique challenges with asynchronous classes, international internet snafus, and more. In support, Denison recruited remote-learning students from each class to serve as an advisory board, and worked to accommodate academic issues, such as mail embargo of textbooks to certain countries. Engagement of remote students happened outside of the classroom as well with virtual fitness classes, trivia nights, concerts and more made available via Zoom and other technologies.

Social Life:

COVID restrictions brought out the creativity of staff and students who collaborated on ways to have fun in person as well as virtually in fall semester. Outdoor movie nights, yoga on the quad, and food truck feasts were just some of the ways students gathered and connected. Students were able to submit their safe-socializing proposals and receive small grants to fund them. Some of the student-generated ideas included: a Mid-Autumn Festival and a Painting Day at the Moonies. In addition, student organizations were encouraged to meet (and could do so virtually and in person) and hold activities. Mid-way through the semester students were permitted to have in-room guests (following safety protocols of course).

Athletics:

In July, the NCAC made the decision to suspend intercollegiate athletics for the remainder of the calendar year. While certainly disappointing, Denison coaches and trainers wasted no time envisioning and delivering a fall season focused on individual and team development and growth. Student athletes practiced, trained, and held intrasquad scrimmages. Off the field, they participated in career networking and coaching sessions, mindfulness activities, and social events including everything from music video competitions to cookouts.

Housing and Dining:

Denison is in the midst of implementing a five-year residence hall master plan which included the opening of Silverstein Hall in fall semester. The new 165-bed apartment complex is complete with a coffee and wine bar, indoor and outdoor social spaces and a convenience store. The Housing team also expertly coordinated a masterful move-in process this fall allowing more than 1,800 students and their helpers to quickly and efficiently move into residence halls. The process occurred over an extended four-day period (versus the traditional one-day move in) to help reduce density in res halls and allow for distancing and other safe practices. Dining services reconfigured dining halls and re-imagined food service with build-your-own salad bars and in with pre-made salad stations. The team ramped up their take-out menus but also continued to provide fresh, local food options delivered by friendly, smiling staff members who are like extended family members for Denison students.

Operations and Facilities:

Our staff worked tirelessly this summer and throughout the semester to create the safest possible environment for students, faculty, and staff. This included sheets of plexiglass for shields in work and dining areas, hundreds of liters of hand sanitizer, and increased cleaning and sanitation protocols. Every building on campus was assessed and configured for efficient traffic flow and socially distanced use — that means every desk in every classroom was measured and positioned to ensure six feet of distance between students and faculty.

In the end, it was a successful semester thanks to the care, commitment, and creativity of faculty staff and students. But, it wasn’t without its challenges and there are always opportunities for improvement. This spring, we are using what we learned from fall as well as feedback and recommendations from students, faculty and staff, to design a safe, fun and successful semester. We will continue to rely on our liberal arts skills, values and habits to assess and pivot as new information, tools, and technologies become available.

Published December 2020