Compressed schedules, remote work and grab-and-go meals are all ‘normal’ Fall 2020 college experiences

Jennifer Marangos, Contibuting Writer//September 25, 2020

Compressed schedules, remote work and grab-and-go meals are all ‘normal’ Fall 2020 college experiences

Jennifer Marangos, Contibuting Writer//September 25, 2020

There are likely as many models for higher education in response to the Covid-19 pandemic this fall as there are colleges and universities across the country. In fact, in eastern and central Pennsylvania schools are offering classes entirely online, entirely on-campus and just about everything in between.

York College, for example, brought the majority of its approximately 4,000 students back to campus a little bit early this fall and plans to end the semester earlier than it typically would, with the students finishing classes and taking final exams remotely, according to Mary Dolheimer, chief communications and marketing officer.

“We compressed the fall semester,” she explains. “We removed any breaks. When they pack up for Thanksgiving they won’t be returning to campus. We wanted to get them through the semester with as few gaps as possible to reduce the chance that we would transition to remote due to a resurgence (of Covid-19).

”Harrisburg University, on the other hand, is operating remotely for the fall 2020 semester, which began on Aug. 31, and it is a transition for which the institution and its faculty were well-prepared, says University President Eric Darr.

“We have been delivering blended online to thousands and thousands of graduate students for a lot of years now,” Darr says. “The infrastructure is the same. The technology was there. The faculty was already educated on the platform. All the training and education had already been done and the investment in the technology had already been done. For us it was not too much of a change.” The biggest challenge in making the transition, he adds, was making sure the science courses for which the university is known would continue to meet their learning objectives in a virtual format.

The university will be bringing 12 senior biotechnology majors back to campus for a week in October for a required lab class that the faculty simply could not find an acceptable way for the students to complete remotely.

Bringing students back to York College safely required effort on several different fronts, Dolheimer says. For example, implementing social distancing in campus facilities meant moving furniture and marking furniture not to be used. Plus ventilation systems were checked and everything was cleaned top to bottom with approved cleaning agents. And, capacity has been greatly reduced in the dining hall, the library and common spaces, she says.

Classrooms were also equipped with microphones and cameras to enable remote learning for those students who were not able to return to campus due to documented medical issues.

“We’ve added outdoor seating to provide additional space,” she says. “We’ve closed the dining hall to most seating accommodations. We are offering more of a ‘grab-and-go’ option so you no longer have to go through the line and pick what you want.”

Bethlehem-based Lehigh University, which is offering both on-campus and remote classes this fall, also needed to take a look at its campus facilities to make things as safe as possible for returning students and faculty, according to Lehigh Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Nathan Urban.

In addition to spending the summer assessing the university’s physical spaces, Urban says, Lehigh put together many opportunities for faculty to get some additional training about best practices for remote instruction. “We wanted to make sure that faculty knew what had worked well in the spring and knew best practices from other universities and what our local experts could tell them as well, including experts from our College of Education,” he says.

Lehigh only offered on-campus housing to first-year students for the fall semester and allowed all students to choose between fully remote or on-campus learning. Those who opted for fully remote learning — even if living in nearby off-campus student housing — have no access to campus buildings other than the student health center.

This hybrid approach means that most Lehigh classes are being taught to students in a classroom on campus and students participating via remote learning simultaneously.

While no one has a crystal ball to help predict what the future will hold with respect to the pandemic, York College’s Dolheimer says the school has already altered its spring 2021 calendar with the safety of its students and faculty in mind.

“We’ll return to campus a little later than usual and be operating with a compressed schedule as well,” she says. “We’re not coming back until Feb. 1 and we usually return a week or two before that. Right now we have scheduled some holidays and breaks but that will be under consideration. We’ll see what it is like in the spring.”