Thankful For A Safe Fall Semester

At a time when it is easier to focus on all the challenges, I am consciously reminding myself all we have to be thankful for at Dalton State.

It has been a hard semester for our Roadrunner family, and I am proud to say our students and employees have risen to the challenge. They did what we asked them to do so we could be together safely on campus this fall. I am forever grateful for the hard work they put in to get through not just this semester, but this year.

We knew in order to remain open for face-to-face classes this fall it would take everyone working together, while showing each other extra kindness and grace. I saw people come together and do everything possible to help students succeed so they wouldn’t fall off their path to graduation and their future. I saw determination. I saw incredible creativity. And I saw inspiring support for one another.

When we began this fall 2020 semester in early August, it was with trepidation. We had consulted numerous pandemic experts and brainstormed and planned for months, but we honestly did not know if our plan would work.

Would we be able to keep our employees and students safe while we engaged in person and on campus for the first time since March? As I write this, I feel comfortable stating we are managing successfully. We are in the midst of finals now and will complete the semester this week before the Thanksgiving holiday. We have begun evaluating what went well, and what we hope to improve upon next semester.

Our plans were based on four pillars, each critical to our success: hygiene (frequent hand washing and covering our coughs and sneezes); distancing (ensuring a minimum of 6 feet distance from each other); face coverings (wearing of cloth masks to help prevent the spread of virus to or from others); symptom checking (not coming to campus if exhibiting any COVID-19 symptoms or while waiting for test results after direct exposure to someone with COVID-19). I believe following these four pillars of our plan was vital to our success. 

Another key to our success was the flexibility we built into our courses. Students who were not seriously ill could continue their coursework virtually instead of missing out on weeks of class and possibly having to withdraw. 

We also shifted some classes to completely online/virtual to accommodate the health needs of some of our more vulnerable faculty. And we offered a number of classes in a “flipped” model where half the class participates in person one day per week while the other half is participating virtually. Then students trade places for the next class. This is a tremendously heavy lift by our faculty to reinvent their courses for both in-person and virtual delivery.

Adding to the campus flexibility beyond the classroom, we offered most every service and extracurricular activity both virtually and in person. Students could meet with their financial aid counselor, check out a library book, receive personal counseling services or even other medical services from our Ken White Student Health Center either virtually or in person. And the virtual exercise sessions offered by campus recreation were a big hit!

Many of the activities we offer to help students engage outside the classroom and meet other students were available both in person and virtually. We actually saw an increase in student participation in these activities in our virtual events compared to in-person events in previous semesters. The ability to offer these extracurricular services and activities speaks of the commitment and creativity of our staff.

Our plan for the spring semester is based on what we have learned from this fall semester. We listened to feedback from faculty, staff and students for the plan.

We pushed the start date for spring semester a little farther out than normal to allow people to self-quarantine after winter break before returning to campus. We have also shortened our semester to remove some breaks, a model being adopted by many colleges across the nation. This model decreases the chances of students traveling outside the region and bringing COVID-19 back to campus, but still allows them some time off to refresh. That’s an area we improved upon from fall, where we eliminated all breaks.

We will continue offering flexibility in both class scheduling and services. Students can now review the expected class format prior registering. Some students prefer to be online as much as possible while others prefer to be in person as often as possible. Some subjects lend themselves well to virtual instruction and others do not. We offer a number of academic programs and classes that require in-person hands-on activities, such as in our health professions and physical science fields.

While we communicate regularly with students about best practices for participating safely in classes and activities on campus, we know distributing important information across a broad spectrum of channels is critical. Therefore, we’ve asked faculty to periodically share critical COVID-19 updates and information with their students during classes. 

We look forward to the day when we can be together again without worrying about COVID-19. Until then, we must find ways to push forward while acknowledging the threat of this virus.

We are all exhausted, mentally, emotionally and physically. As we enter the holiday season, I hope we take opportunities to rest and recharge. We all need it.

This is one of the hardest semesters many of us have experienced as educators. I am extremely thankful for the extraordinary efforts of Dalton State employees and students.