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Defending the Den By Ed Moorhouse

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.

“I believe the most important thing that helped faculty, staff and students shift to remote teaching, working and learning was adaptability,” said Christine Iannicelli, an instructional technology librarian. “Our campus community was willing to adapt to the myriad of changes that occurred and continue to occur during the pandemic, including adapting to changes in supported technology and new approaches to course design and delivery, and being patient if and when technology issues arose.”

“Faculty continue to experiment with and share ideas with each other on innovative approaches to teaching and are open to changing their approaches based on student feedback. If we as a campus continue to work together, be open-minded and adaptable, brainstorm new and innovative ways to improve our processes and course deliveries, and include the students as active co-creators of the learning process, I believe we will continue to be successful,” she said.

The lessons learned from the spring semester helped inform some of the key decisions about what a return to in-person instruction amid a pandemic would look like. No stone was left unturned; every detail was carefully considered.

Sorensen noted that emerging data about remote courses indicated connections between faculty and students are the leading factor in course completion and student course satisfaction. “Our small class sizes made it easier for those connections to form and strengthen.”

“The patience and flexibility of the college community with each other really stands out,” Sorensen said. “Some classes are being held in the wrestling practice room. Some are on the basketball court. Others are in the Berman Museum, which is a beautiful space, but not built acoustically for classes. And I’ve been impressed with how readily students have kept to the masking, physical distancing and occupancy rules.”

It took complete buy-in from the students to make a return to in-person instruction and a residential experience work. Over the summer, the student affairs leadership team worked with Robert Dawley—a professor of biology and chair of the student conduct committee who co-leads the health corps program as well as representatives from Ursinus College Student Government (UCSG) to create guidelines that mitigate risk and allow students to have a positive on-campus experience.

As the guidelines were being developed, Ursinus hosted a number of interactive Zoom meetings with students to hear their questions and get their input.

“Having students involved in the process and committed to remaining in person have been essential factors in our success,” Bryant said. “Students have been diligent about compliance and it has paid off.”

Prior to the start of the semester, the college set up a special COVID-19 email address to receive questions from parents and students—hundreds of questions came in per week—and President Brock Blomberg hosted weekly virtual meetings with faculty and staff to keep the community informed of important decisions. The Bears Return webpage and COVID-19 dashboard—which tracks weekly testing results—also have been critical to keeping the community informed of the overall health of the campus. And the student, faculty and staff health corps serves as ambassadors to help “Defend the Den.”

Ursinus began the academic year with 1,490 full-time degree-seeking registered students, with 1,280 living on campus. This fall, about 29% of courses are being taught virtually, and students had the option to take all of their courses remotely, either while living on campus or at home. Residence halls are at about 80 percent capacity, with students living in single and double rooms.

After a phased move-in process, first-year students were welcomed back to campus earlier than normal—about two and a half weeks before their upper-class peers—and they participated in a “block schedule” version of the Common Intellectual Experience. There were 30 sections of 16 students each, with three of them held entirely virtually.

I’m in awe of the various ways that staff, faculty and students continue to reinvent their roles to build this on-campus experience.”

Stephanie Mackler, professor of education and assistant dean of the college, said that faculty fully embraced the CIE block schedule and “brought an extraordinary degree of energy and excitement to re-thinking the course in light of the current circumstances.”

She said faculty carefully considered how they used classroom time, practiced teaching in masks, learned how to best include students learning remotely into classroom discussion, and more. Mackler credited CIE coordinators and faculty, the Center for Writing and Speaking, the Institute for Student Success, the registrar’s office, LIT and facilities for making it a success.

“I am confident that even if we do not repeat a block CIE in the future, we’ll still take some powerful lessons from this year about how to approach the material, organize our classes, and create the kind of meaningful discussions about essential questions that are at the heart of an Ursinus education,” she said.

Outside of the classroom, events like homecoming were canceled and members of the community were asked to remain off campus—something met with a tremendous amount of support from Collegeville leaders like Mayor Aidsand “Ace” Wright-Riggins. Meanwhile, student-athletes and coaches had to adjust to a semester without Centennial Conference competition.

“Practices have a different flavor, but the team dynamics are there, and I think that’s really helpful to many of the students,” Director of Athletics Laura Moliken said. “They have some opportunity for a sense of normalcy and team interaction, albeit different than pre-COVID times.”

As upper-class students returned and the semester began, the most critical component to the return to in-person instruction was a comprehensive testing of all students on campus so that, Schneider said, “we were never going to be surprised by the health situation.”

Initially, student testing was supervised by an on-site administrator, but the college shifted to a partnership with CIC-Health and the Broad Institute, a recognized global leader among genomics research organizations that provides an easy, self-administered nasal swab with a high level of reliability. The change allowed for the college to supervise the student testing on its own. A contact tracing team—trained by Montgomery County health officials and led on campus by Dawley and Nicole Ivaska, a lecturer in health and exercise physiology—as well as a case management team, bring a boots-on-the-ground approach to the day-to-day management of COVID-19 testing.

“I’m in awe of the various ways that staff, faculty and students continue to reinvent their roles to build this on-campus experience,” said Lauren Finnegan, director of counseling and wellness. “So many people have stepped outside of their standard job expectations to provide invaluable services that have become necessary to our success.”

Additionally, Ursinus continues to remain in close contact with county health officials, who have been key partners with the college in its return to a residential learning experience.

There is no right answer for dealing with COVID-19, but Schneider remains cautiously optimistic in Ursinus’s ability to maintain a safe and healthy campus.

“We continue to look at changes that are happening in the testing environment and the situation as a whole,” he said. “We must be able to maintain focus and stamina. That's not easy. Certainly, people are just exhausted by it, but we can’t ever say, ‘Oh, everything's good. Now we don't have to do anything anymore.’ That's a recipe for disaster.”

“It’s going to be a long slog, but it’s been a community effort and we’ve had success. It’s been remarkable how our community has responded,” he said.

President Brock Blomberg agreed. He’s personally heard from fellow college presidents who say Ursinus has been up to the challenge.

“Honestly, this is fundamentally a story about people helping each other adapt. And thankfully, that’s something ingrained in the Ursinus culture,” Blomberg said.

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