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With aims for in-person learning this fall, area colleges mull plans for ‘Class of COVID-19’

UPDATED: Tue., March 2, 2021

Danika Lundgren sometimes forgets she graduated from high school.

A member of Ridgeview High School’s Class of 2020 in Redmond, Oregon, Lundgren saw her senior year abruptly ended by the COVID-19 pandemic. She was readying for her final golf season when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown shut down in-person learning at K-12 schools for the rest of the school year. And while Ridgeview closed out with virtual learning, Lundgren was among seniors with enough credits allowed to effectively graduate early, per the state Department of Education’s Graduation Pathways 2020 program.

Lundgren formally graduated by appointment that June, taking the stage at a specified time with a small group of loved ones for her diploma and a photo. She has since moved on to Whitworth University, where COVID-19 restrictions have stifled the on-campus living experience.

Finding community through the university golf team has helped.

“It’s really not that big of a deal, but it adds a layer of stress. You have one little symptom and you have to report it. It causes a big shuffle,” she said. “That gets a little tiring, but I’m really grateful for how Whitworth is handling quarantine and COVID overall. I think they’re doing really well.”

Nowadays, Lundgren offers college advice to her brother Greg as he mulls his options. As his senior year at Ridgeview has been predominantly virtual up until last week, resources through the high school’s college and career center have been relatively limited, she said.

“I’m happy with my choice of college and I think there’s been quite a few good parts of this year, but overall, COVID-19 has really made it challenging for everyone,” Lundgren said. “I really look forward to when things, next year, we can hopefully have a more normal college experience, because I guess I don’t really know what the normal college experience is yet.”

Over the past month, several colleges and universities across Eastern Washington have announced plans to do just that for the coming fall.

Institutions are planning for as robust of an in-person experience as allowed by the ongoing pandemic. They’re doing so tentatively, however, citing state and federal guidelines that could change over time.

College leaders are encouraged by the improving availability of COVID-19 vaccines. At this point, most area colleges and universities are encouraging, but not requiring, vaccinations for students and staff.

“To plan to be largely face-to-face in the fall is an enormous undertaking. It touches every part of the university, from how we do instruction, to how many janitorial staff we need, to what kind of programming we need in the residence halls and a thousand other things,” said David May, interim president of Eastern Washington University. “We don’t know that we will be able to be primarily in person in the fall, but if we don’t start planning now, we know that we can’t. It’s simply too long of a process.”

Some face steeper learning curves than others.

To date, most classes at Eastern Washington, Washington State and Gonzaga universities are done virtually, whether it’s fully online or a hybrid between online and in person. Meanwhile, a majority of classes at other schools, including Whitworth and the University of Idaho, have used mostly in-person components.

No matter the approach, all area colleges are taking on what some have described as “the Class of COVID-19,” high school and college students who have endured a year of learning restrictions amid the pandemic. Those restrictions have varied, as most decisions with reopening K-12 schools nationwide have taken place at the district level, according to the Education Commission of the States.

And while area colleges generally feel young students are adaptable and resilient, many institutions across the Inland Northwest are approaching the fall with plans to take more care in reacclimating new and returning learners to in-person campus life.

‘Flipping the switch’

Every September, a bell-ringing ceremony takes place at EWU to signal the first day of classes.

The jangling from the university’s historic One Room School House can be heard across all parts of the Cheney campus, said Jens Larson, EWU’s associate vice president for enrollment management. He joked that some students, particularly those sleeping in, aren’t too fond of the tradition, but the point is otherwise made: College is in session.

“In a virtual environment, you don’t hear the bell. You don’t see the bell. There’s maybe a paragraph in a news article on the university website that the president went and rang the bell,” Larson said, “but otherwise, it’s just like, ‘Did you log in?’ ”

Just as the bell signals a beginning for EWU, proms, senior trips and graduation ceremonies mark the end of a typical high school senior’s secondary education.

Amid COVID-19 restrictions, many students have seen those events either canceled, virtualized or restricted. Individually, those changes might not have much impact, Larson said, but they add up to feel like “all of it’s flowing together without demarcations.”

“I feel like I got to a certain point where I was ready to move on,” Lundgren said. “My senior year graduation was already a loss. I was ready to move on, but I feel like I missed out on some last-minute (college) preparation that happens when you’re in school.”

So as they prepare for next fall, college and university administrators will keep a close eye on any effects that more than a year’s worth of limited socialization and truncated senior years might have on incoming students.

“Some of this is mentally preparing, or flipping the switch, from secondary education to post-secondary education. We’ve never really experienced anything quite like this, so it’s difficult to know what that does to the psyche,” said Kent Porterfield, Gonzaga’s vice provost for Student Affairs. “But I would think students … may worry that not having that last year in the way that they had hoped underprepared them. They may worry about, ‘Am I really ready?’ I think we may be dealing with some of that.”

Reorientation in focus

To help with preparedness, many institutions are taking a more deliberate approach this coming year with student orientation.

Deena Gonzalez, Gonzaga’s provost and senior vice president, said the university is actively thinking about orientations for first- and second-year students, as many sophomores missed out on activities that are integral to the college experience.

They aren’t alone in this regard across the region, as WSU, EWU and Whitworth are among those exploring something of a do-over for their returning classes of sophomores.

“We know that those students don’t necessarily have that kind of ‘Coug anchor’ that a traditional first-year student might get,” said Jill Creighton, WSU’s dean of students and associate vice president for Campus Life. “Our students like to joke they have to earn their ‘Cougar calves’ in their first year as they walk around the hills at WSU Pullman.”

For incoming freshmen, Porterfield said orientation helps assuage anxieties with transitioning from high school to college. Given current events, some institutions are planning to spread out these activities over longer periods of time to help ease that transition.

“Sometimes the feedback you do get out of orientation, not just at GU but sort of writ large, is that it’s a little like drinking out of a firehose. The students are getting a lot, and sometimes, that can be overwhelming,” Porterfield said. “I also think we have to be prepared that students may be ready to experiment a little bit and to dive in again to in-person activities, and we might need to help them with that because not all of that may be healthy.”

A benefit, Larson said, is less disruption if the pandemic does force universities back into a primarily virtual mode for the fall. And while he suspects that students may generally experience something of an acclimation period, Larson said he believes they’ll adjust.

“People … in general, are pretty responsive,” he said, “but I think it will be a little bit of a learning curve because it’ll be both the freedom of going to college coupled with the freedom of the economy and society opening back up again. Those two things might magnify each other.”

‘Calendars don’t mean much anymore’

While in-person is the goal for the fall, more integrated digital learning in higher education is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

That’s partly due to the pandemic’s nature, as a rise in COVID-19 cases could quickly force schools back into a primarily virtual mode. May said EWU, like others across the region, is developing return plans with flexibility in mind.

“If we can’t get there, I’ve been very clear all along: Calendars don’t mean much anymore,” said May, who has served since August as Eastern Washington’s interim president. “Disease spread and positivity rates, hospital utilization rates – all of the metrics the states use and more are what we’re going by. Not by dates. If we had to, we could say, ‘Look, we’re not going to be able to be face-to-face or in person again until the winter, or the spring or whatever we need to do.”

Even so, May said there is no chance that all classes – especially larger ones, such as those with upwards of 70 students – return to a face-to-face format this fall.

“The goal is to not have every single student in a classroom for every single class,” he said. “What we’re starting to hear, really, is that students are actually becoming more OK with some online education even if we’re moving toward more hybrid education as opposed to fully online, but what they’re really missing is the connection of campus life and the campus community.”

WSU is taking a similar track. Phil Weiler, vice president for marketing and communications, said the Provost’s Office is evaluating lessons learned from the pandemic, including the effectiveness of incorporating online learning in larger classes.

“We may not see 200-person lecture classes in the fall and perhaps, maybe, ever again,” Weiler said.

WSU administrators are planning to spend the next several months evaluating class structures, residential plans and more ahead of fall 2021. Creighton said they aren’t sure about roommates at this point, and figuring out where and how to have in-person classes while considering COVID-19 space restrictions and airflow is a game of “Tetris.”

“The metaphor we use is we’re not flipping a switch from off to on; we’re turning a dial slowly,” Weiler said.

The greater appreciation of online learning and processes has been a side effect of the pandemic for area colleges. Porterfield said the online emphasis has created “greater access” not only for instructional programs, but for student services outside of the classroom .

One example at EWU is how direct deposit has become an option for students with refunding excess financial aid as opposed to mailed checks, Larson said.

“Suddenly things that used to take two weeks to do could suddenly be done in two days because they had to be done,” he said. “And so, institutional resources poured into that.”

Will colleges require COVID-19 vaccines?

Whether colleges and universities can actually make COVID-19 vaccines mandatory is a question that may require state and federal guidance to answer.

For now, WSU, EWU, Gonzaga, UI and Whitworth have taken public stances encouraging people to get vaccinated when they have the opportunity.

“WSU will not be requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for faculty, staff, or students at this time, however, the potential for a limited future mandate for some groups is under review,” WSU officials said in a recent statement. “Only through widespread vaccination can the COVID-19 pandemic come to an end.”

President Joe Biden’s remarks earlier this month, during which he said the U.S. is on track to have enough vaccines for 300 million Americans by the end of July, were part of the reason Gonzaga is optimistic about returning to a more in-person experience for fall 2021.

While vaccinations are not required at UI at this point, Provost Torrey Lawrence said things could change over the next six months. Until then, Lawrence said UI is strongly supportive of people getting the vaccine when possible.

“Mandating a health issue like that becomes very complicated,” Lawrence said.

‘Things won’t be normal’

Lawrence said he feels UI freshmen adjusted “very well” to campus life when classes began this past fall.

The university conducted 23,559 COVID-19 tests during the fall semester, posting a 2.7% positivity rate, according to UI’s COVID-19 dashboard. Since the start of the new year, UI has reported approximately 120 positive cases out of more than 8,100 tests to date.

Roughly 70% of the university’s classes have involved an in-person component, whether they are fully in person or on a rotating schedule, Lawrence said. He said the university will remain vigilant for students struggling with the transition to college, especially since incoming freshmen will have spent a year and a half under virtual or otherwise restricted learning conditions.

Likewise, Lawrence said a key part in making in-person learning work is effectively communicating expectations with new students about COVID-19 requirements and safety protocols.

He recommended Washington schools aiming for more in-person experiences take special care with their COVID-19 communications strategies, while otherwise staying flexible and working with local health officials.

“We are proud of what we have accomplished at the University of Idaho,” he said. “The work isn’t done, but we are in a much different place than we were when this all began.”

Whitworth President Beck Taylor offered similar advice. Like UI, Whitworth has maintained a largely on-campus presence, with 86% of undergraduate courses taking place either fully in person or hybrid, Taylor said.

As of Friday, Whitworth had reported 308 total positive coronavirus cases. That includes 165 cases since January, an approximately 115% increase since the start of the new year. In the same span, Gonzaga (40%), WSU (9%), EWU (15%) and UI (19%) have each seen increases of 40% or less, according to a New York Times database.

Whitworth spokeswoman Trisha Coder said university officials knew there was a risk of potential exposure with students who went home for Christmas break and the break before spring term. Meanwhile, student-athletes also began testing to prepare for their seasons, as required by conference and NCAA protocols, Coder said.

As such, Coder said the university implemented mandatory entry testing for all on-campus residents at the start of the January and spring terms, along with surveillance testing that’s continued since September. Over Feb. 15-25, the school recorded only eight new cases.

“Increased testing exposed more cases which allowed us to manage those cases more effectively, which was our goal,” Coder said in a statement.

Taylor announced the university’s goal earlier this month to return to normal operations, which includes “unrestricted occupancy in campus residence halls and a full array of in-person classes and co-curricular experiences.”

He said the university will need to be “quite intentional about reintroducing the community values and the responsibilities associated with in-residence education.

“Despite the excitement I think students have, there will be some relearning and retooling that has to happen,” he said. “And while I expect all of our students will be prepared for college, I think we should also expect that we may need to be patient with students as they enter into a more traditional learning format for the first time in one or two years.”

Hoping fall 2021 can bring a “reset button” for their daughter’s college experience, Rebecca and Steve Lundgren feel “cautiously optimistic” in light of Whitworth’s intentions to resume normal operations.

“Who knows what’ll happen in the fall?” Rebecca Lundgren said. “Things won’t be normal. We’ll have that dreaded term ‘the new normal.’”

Editor’s note: Due to incorrect information provided by Whitworth University, this story was changed on March 2, 2021 to correct the university’s recorded COVID-19 caseload.

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