Back To School For Dalton State

This is usually the time of year I get excited knowing I will once again see a full campus following a quiet summer. I love the energy a new semester and new academic year brings.

But this fall semester will look nothing like any we have seen before at Dalton State, or any other college campus for that matter. I believe it is important to acknowledge neither being on campus together nor continuing to operate remotely is ideal under these circumstances. We know there is no easy solution that allows students to continue their education during this pandemic. We, as well as our sister institutions across the state, are bracing for the new normal of being together with no cure or vaccine against COVID-19 in the near term.

The need for students to continue their educational journeys, graduate and obtain employment is greater than ever. However, remote learning is not optimal for some students and can create challenges for delivering some course content. When I taught chemistry, I used to tell my students that studying chemistry without going to the chemistry lab and conducting experiments was like watching cooking shows to try to become a chef.

We know the hands-on application of many of our subjects is critical to the preparation of our students for their future careers. Science labs, health profession courses, the education program and others are developed around students learning by doing. There is no virtual substitution for a nursing major learning to begin an IV, for example.

This is why we have taken great care this summer to develop a comprehensive plan for returning to campus in August. Our goal is to safely bring students back to campus for in-person instruction, but also be ready to shift to remote learning if community health circumstances dictate.

These plans follow guidelines from the University System of Georgia (USG), the Governor’s Task Force, the Georgia Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I will address some of the greatest areas of concern I’ve heard from our community:

• Four pillars – Our plan is built upon four pillars: hygiene, social/physical distancing, symptom checking and face coverings (masks). We believe having all four pillars in place is the best way to bring students back to campus.

Using the analogy of driving a car, we know that wearing a seatbelt is proven to be safer than not wearing a seatbelt. Driving a car with airbags while wearing a seatbelt is even safer. Driving a car with airbags does not mean we do not need to wear our seatbelt or that we can speed or engage in other unsafe driving habits. Each good practice increases our safety. And just like being in a car, nothing can guarantee our absolute safety, but these practices improve our odds.

Beyond the obvious hygiene advice we have been taught since childhood, our plan recognizes the importance of staying a minimum of six feet apart, especially while indoors. Our plan emphasizes the importance of knowing the potential symptoms of COVID-19 and staying home if we have any of these symptoms. Employees and students should stay home if they develop any known COVID-19 warning signs. We care about the health and well-being of all in our Roadrunner family and will work to accommodate them through this pandemic.

We understand not everyone wants to wear a mask when indoors or outdoors where social distancing is not feasible. But this is an important component of the plan. We need everyone to cooperate.

Wearing a face covering around others is just as critical as each of the other three pillars. Because individuals can unknowingly be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus (or could be pre-symptomatic), it is important for everyone to assume they could be contagious. Therefore, covering our mouths and noses lowers the risk of spreading the virus to others to a minimal level.

• Flexibility  A key strategy overlaid in our plan is flexibility. We are being creative. Accommodations are being made on an individual basis for those with health risks who are in greater need of protections from the virus. And we offer several online courses for students who prefer virtual learning. Students can reach out to our Office of Disability Access and Student Support Services, their academic advisors and professors for accommodations and virtual learning opportunities.

Faculty may offer students virtual office hours to allow students to have one-on-one conversations with their professors through video chat. All faculty members are building their courses in an online course management system to create as much flexibility as possible for delivery of course content. Students who may need to shift to online instruction for a period of time will be able to do so.

This approach will also allow classes to meet in person for some course work (such as labs and tests) but utilize our online platform for other parts of the class (such as lectures). Additionally, faculty may divide the students in their classes into smaller groups that meet alternating days to create the physical distancing needed. We want our faculty members to decide what works best for their course content.

If a professor becomes ill or may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, the professor could work remotely for a period of time or hand the class off to a colleague as needed. Similarly, most of our other employees can easily shift to working exclusively from home if needed.

• Academic calendar – We are also condensing the fall semester so students will complete the entire semester before the Thanksgiving break. Students will still receive the same rigor and academic hours because we have removed other breaks during the semester. This decreases the chances of spreading the virus by traveling because students will hopefully remain on campus until Thanksgiving and not return until spring semester.

We choose how to respond to the circumstances we find ourselves in. As the situation continues to evolve, our plan will, too. We are listening to health experts along with all the other stakeholders and will do our best with whatever scenario we find ourselves in. Everyone at Dalton State is committed to helping students find a path to graduation as safely as possible without disrupting students’ education. With your support, we will see students progress this fall in their journeys toward employment in our communities despite this pandemic.

For those who have waited to make a decision about college because of the pandemic, our application deadline for fall semester is Aug. 1, and we have waived our application fee. We are still excited to see you for fall semester. Wash your hands and wear that mask to Protect Our Beaks.