When college students returned to campus for the fall 2020 semester in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the academic year kicked off in a way it never had before.
Several fall sports were canceled. More classes were offered online. Hand sanitizer was made available in every classroom. Dining services became primarily grab-and-go. Visitors from off campus were discouraged or even prohibited. Many universities even adjusted their schedules, eliminating fall break and ending in-person classes before Thanksgiving.
When three of Fort Wayne’s major universities–Indiana Tech, Purdue Fort Wayne (PFW), and the University of Saint Francis (USF)–announced they would have in-person classes, they each took measures to protect students and staff against COVID exposure, while offering an effective learning environment.
“The challenge is that we still want to provide that on-campus, in-person, collegiate experience, but we have to think creatively about how to do that,” says Brian Engelhart, Vice President of Marketing and Communication at Indiana Tech.
A student at Indiana Tech works while wearing a mask.
So far, their efforts appear successful in that they’ve managed to contain cases that arise. Indiana Tech has reported 66 total positive cases among students, staff, and faculty since Aug. 1. As of late-October, they have only eight active cases and, throughout the semester, they have worked to keep their numbers within the single digits, Engelhart says.
PFW has reported a total of 101 students who tested positive for COVID since July 26, and only nine employees have tested positive since April. PFW also reports that they have seen no evidence of virus transmission in their classrooms, which is consistent with early data from schools across the U.S.
USF declined to report the number of positive cases among its students or staff, saying they do not do the testing themselves, but they continue to work daily with the Allen County Health Department to prevent exposures on campus.
Here’s how Indiana Tech, PFW, and USF are managing the fall semester, as well as the challenges and opportunities they see arising in this tumultuous time.
Students at Indiana Tech are required to wear masks on campus.
Classes & residence halls
When the spring semester in 2020 abruptly transitioned to online classes, Indiana Tech, PFW, and USF began planning for how they could safely and responsibly return to in-person classes in the fall. Universities put together tasks forces to run through different scenarios and update their courses for the next academic year.
As a result, each university put safety protocols in place. First and foremost, face masks have been required to be worn at all times within classrooms, common areas, and dining halls, as well as outside when social distancing cannot be maintained. To best help those on campus comply with mask policies, Indiana Tech, PFW, and USF have each distributed face masks to every student and staff member.
Purdue Fort Wayne reminds its students and staff to keep a six-foot social distance.
In addition to face mask requirements, Indiana Tech, PFW, and USF all identify social distancing and maintaining at least six feet of distance between people as one of the primary methods to prevent the spread of COVID.
Jeffrey Malanson, Ph.D., PFW COVID-19 Point of Contact and Director of Strategic Planning and the Office of Academic Innovation explains, “We have de-densified a lot of our classrooms. In addition to putting more distance between students, we’ve restricted the number of students allowed in each classroom. We’ve begun offering more courses online than we typically would, and that was as much about student safety as it was about addressing the needs of the instructors who had health concerns.”
The University of St. Francis Cougar masks up during COVID-19.
Malanson says that PFW even converted its largest auditorium, which typically seats 1,400 people, into a 300-person classroom. He adds that some classes at PFW also operate through a “hybrid mode” where only half the students enrolled in a class attend in person at any given point.
Residential halls at the universities have also limited the number of students assigned to each room or apartment. At the same time, all three universities also leave rooms available for students who are exposed and might need to be isolated or self-quarantined.
Students move into campus housing during COVID-19.
But even as they set aside rooms to meet COVID protocols, none of the three universities have reported low occupancy rates within their residential halls. Their housing has remained full while meeting all the new safety measures for the fall semester, they say.
Another significant aspect of college life that has been disrupted by the pandemic is athletics. Several teams across the Indiana Tech, PFW, and USF have not been able to compete this fall, and the players who can practice must do so in small groups. The Indiana Tech Warrior dons a mask.
To allow student-athletes to keep playing and improving their skills during the pandemic, all three universities rely on frequent testing and contact tracing to restrict the spread of COVID among athletes.
Robert Pastoor, Ph.D., USF Vice President for Student Affairs, explains that while COVID tests aren’t mandatory for typical students, USF is a part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics which requires athletes to be tested. At the beginning of the semester, it took about two weeks to receive tests results, but the USF athletic department now has the ability to do antibody tests for athletes in which results come back within 15 minutes.
The goal at USF–as well as Indiana Tech and PFW–is to allow students to attend practices and games, but at the same time, also enable them to participate in their classes to the fullest extent.
None of the three universities surveyed reported a significant decrease in funding due to reduced athletics events, saying they don’t typically generate revenue from sporting events, as larger schools might.
While most indoor sporting events have been canceled for the winter, Indiana Tech intends to begin its basketball season soon. For fans to attend, Indiana Tech will institute a cap on the number of people in their gymnasium, and every visitor must go through a temperature check at the front door. They also ask students to sign up for events ahead of time so Indiana Tech can use contract tracing to determine if any students might pose a risk of exposure.
Purdue Fort Wayne works to maintain a safe environment by cleaning frequently touched surfaces.
For the most part, all three universities commend their students for their cooperation with the new safety measures.
“Our students themselves find the real importance of being on campus,” says Pastoor.
But despite–and often because of–the protections meant to reduce the spread of COVID, it’s been difficult for students to experience a sense of community at their colleges in 2020.
“The biggest challenge for any institution is the fact that the social distancing and mask-wearing requirements really put a damper on creating a community,” Pastoor says.
Feeling a sense of campus "community" has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders say.
He explains that not seeing someone’s face really changes how people build new relationships. And because of social distancing, large gatherings, such as concerts or parties, are restricted.
“Building that community through difficult times takes hard work and perseverance,” he says.
The pandemic has forced students and faculty members alike to rethink how they connect with others, especially as some students have been isolated and quarantined during the semester.
Instructors, in particular, have needed to find innovative solutions to simplify communication with students, grade online homework, and provide individualized feedback so students can keep up with their studies.
Despite challenges in building community, all three universities have reported that technology has made it easier for students to get access to faculty or advisors. In the past, students might not have been willing to attend office hours, but because of the pandemic, students are more likely to hop on a virtual meeting or reach out with questions outside of formal instructional time.
With support from their universities, many instructors also have the ability to record and livestream in-person classes.
The Purdue Fort Wayne Mastodon dons a mask during COVID-19.
Indiana Tech reported that every classroom on their campus was upgraded with the ability to record and livestream all lessons. In doing so, they hope that if a student falls ill, whether with COVID or another health condition, they will take care of their health without falling behind in their studies.
Innovative solutions such as these are something universities expect to continue even after the pandemic.
“We’ve always had the challenge of: What happens when a student misses class? How can they catch up on that material?” Malanson says. “Getting people to rethink how we can leverage technology, not to replace the traditionally face-to-face classes, but to supplement them and provide some other opportunities is an exciting long-term opportunity for our students.”
Purdue Fort Wayne is operating in a “hybrid mode” where only half the students enrolled in a class attend in person at any given time.
Looking to the future
Across the board, universities are seeing that holding virtual discussions or collaborative sessions gives students vital skills they can put to use after they graduate—particularly as they are likely to enter the job market during a time of increased acceptance of remote work.
“Even in a non-COVID pandemic world, there is still a lot of business that takes place virtually,” Engelhart says. “You might be working with someone across the country or across the globe. Students have probably put some new tools in their toolkit about how to work professionally in a virtual world.”
As they look to the future, Indiana Tech, PFW, and USF leaders have also needed to find alternate ways of engaging with future students. These universities have turned to virtual orientations and tours, where potential students or their parents can attend live sessions with faculty members, video conference with admission counselors, or take virtual tours of campus.
Engelhart explains that Indiana Tech even had student tour guides virtually take visitors through tours and answer questions, just as they would have done if they were having a physical walk-through of campus.
While each of the universities did months of planning to prepare for the fall semester and the virtual services they would provide, they knew they would still need to make changes as the academic year progressed.
Students at the University of St. Francis are required to wear masks on campus.
Malanson says that, at the very beginning of the fall semester, PFW sent a survey to all its faculty members to collect information about their experiences teaching in this environment. Through this survey, PFW was able to receive feedback about social distancing in classrooms, if there is enough hand sanitizer available, if instructors need additional supplies, and other important questions. Based on the feedback they received, the school has already adjusted the seating capacity in nearly every classroom on campus to reduce the number of students in each class.
As universities all look ahead toward the spring semester, they continue to watch and review the case numbers within Allen County, Indiana, and across the U.S. Through the safety measures established this fall semester to protect students and staff from COVID, Indiana Tech, PFW, and USF believe they will continue to have in-person classes available in the spring.
“Based on current conditions, we’re feeling good about our ability to handle the spring semester,” Malanson says, “But it’s really about watching those community conditions and community spread to make sure that we don’t need to make adjustments.”