On March 13, 2020, Ursinus College extended its spring break and, soon after that, transitioned to remote learning and working for the remainder of the spring semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented health crisis impacting millions around the globe. Despite the challenges, the Bear community adapted and—thanks to some creative thinking and an aggressive testing policy—resumed its residential undergraduate experience and in-person instruction in the fall.
His face partially covered by a mask, Dean of the College Mark Schneider sits in the field house in the Floy Lewis Bakes Center in early September while attending a virtual meeting of the college’s leadership on Microsoft Teams. To his right, first-year students form a line to get tested for COVID-19, a weekly ritual now as common to the Ursinus experience as, say, eating lunch in Wismer Center.
Then again, not even lunch in Wismer is what it used to be.
A noontime visit to the dining hub on a Friday—typically buzzing with activity—reveals vacant tables and chairs. Six hours later, only a few students are sitting down to eat dinner.
But the Collegeville campus is still bustling with activity. Students—all of them masked—walk to and from classes. Their temperatures are checked by members of a new health corps group stationed outside of Wismer. A tap dance class takes place on Eleanor Frost Snell Alumnae Field, with students standing on their own personal platform. And instructors teach in tents situated outdoors between the Kaleidoscope Performing Arts Center and Floy Lewis Bakes Center.
This is the new normal.
“Our success depends on many things that are significant: compliance with wearing masks; the health of our surrounding community; the ability to construct learning environments here that have enabled everyone to be physically distant,” said Schneider, who is also vice president of academic affairs and leader of the college’s virus task force.
Most importantly, however, is a comprehensive testing policy that The Philadelphia Inquirer called, “one of the most aggressive … of area colleges as it tries to keep the virus off its campus.”
“I am most impressed by our students’ resiliency and ability to adapt,” said Missy Bryant, dean of students. “That can be said for our entire community, but I see our students’ behavior and compliance with the guidelines as the key factor in our success.”
In March, there was still much to learn about COVID-19. As students broke for spring break, the virus became more widespread in southeastern Pennsylvania, and bringing students back to campus threatened the health and safety of the entire community.
“There was this cascade of decisions from major institutions stemming from, ‘Oh my goodness, we simply can’t handle this,’” Schneider said. “We knew so little about the consequences of the virus for 18- to-22-year-olds, how it could spread, and our resources for dealing with it.”
Not going remote, he said, “could have been disastrous.”
“The sheer suddenness of the switch to remote learning in March was difficult for everyone, like driving into a sharp curve at night when no signs warned you it was coming,” said Kelly Sorensen, associate dean of academic affairs and professor of philosophy and religious studies.
Sorensen said one faculty member went through a dozen takes of a video recording where he was explaining concepts for students. And others agonized over helping students who lacked a sufficient Internet connection at home, or space where they could work without interruption.
The community adapted and, with an enormous assist from the college’s library and information technology (LIT) team—which provided key resources for faculty, staff and students to help in the transition to remote learning and working—the end of the spring semester was a relative success.
LIT led over 35 training sessions in the spring and fall of 2020, including a two-week accelerated training program and a four-week workshop series that focused on designing an online or blended course. They also invested in new video conferencing, recording and hosting software; equipped outdoor tents with Wi-Fi access; and developed several online training courses and web pages with resources, tutorials and instructions on how to teach, work and learn remotely.