June ended far differently than it began. By the third week of June, the number of COVID-19 infections reached new highs, as did the average rate of hospitalizations. Last week, Utah Governor Gary Herbert approved the requirement of wearing masks in public for Salt Lake County; this has been a requirement in all shared indoor spaces at Westminster College since May 21. The recent surges in infections here and around the country, coupled with the beginning of the fall semester drawing nearer, have brought heightened anxiety and uncertainty.
Throughout the pandemic there has been an important core of staff working both on campus and remotely to help keep the college operational and as safe as possible. The COVID-19 working group continues to meet weekly and assess updated public health information, cleaning protocols, centralization of supplies, HVAC system filtration, on- and off-site testing options, symptom-checking and contact tracing software, community exposure contingency plans, and communication strategies, among other things. The work is intense, incessant, and performed in a context of limited resources; everyone involved deserves our deep respect and appreciation.
In addition to keeping abreast of the most recent and available information and attempting to mitigate risk for the college community, my highest priority for Westminster, as an institution of higher education, is that Westminster fulfills its commitments to its students. The curriculum working group, comprised primarily of faculty, continues to work on instructional strategies that are responsive to student needs in consideration of evolving health information. This work is exceptionally stressful, not only because of personal circumstances and anxieties, but also because each week brings new information about infection rates, morbidity, treatment, and testing. I am impressed by and appreciative of the many faculty who are working to fulfill the college's educational commitment in multiple ways and to plan for various modalities for fall instruction.
At this point, the college still plans to convene in-person for the fall semester. Westminster's fall registrations continue to increase slowly with each announcement of this intention and with additional information regarding the college's strategies. The college will continue public-health measures that facilitate protection for everyone, implement strategies to assist the college's most vulnerable populations, and work to provide a full and flexible curriculum that includes enhanced use of appropriate and effective technologies. This does not require all faculty to be in classrooms throughout the entirety of their course. The college has practice with this now; our flexibility need not compromise our quality.
As students, staff, and faculty begin joining those of us who have been living and working on campus throughout the spring and summer, they will find a beautiful yet changed campus. Staff and faculty presence on campus will fluctuate depending on the progression of the pandemic, with some remote work continuing throughout the year for everyone, including student employees, depending on the work to be done and the determination of supervisors. The college's health measures will require behavioral changes that may feel cumbersome and restrictive, and the inability to gather in groups, in person, in close proximity, and without face coverings will necessarily inhibit exchanges that foster empathy and create a sense of connectedness. The college will need to be particularly patient and forgiving to preserve the college community in this context.
In addition to some major areas of planning for the fall, the college will need to make the following decisions over the summer, with this tentative schedule:
- By July 17: Students will be notified via email regarding move-in processes and procedures.
- By July 25: The college will decide in collaboration with the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, whether fall athletic competitions will be held, and if so, under what conditions.
- By July 31: The college will announce any necessary modifications to the academic course schedule.
- By July 31: The college will decide whether the college will require individuals returning from “hot spots” to quarantine before coming to campus.
- By August 5: The college will determine the extent of required testing and whether it can be done on campus. The college's minimum goal is to provide free testing to all students.
- By August 12: The college will institute a campus-wide symptom checking system for all students, staff, and faculty. Symptom checking is already occurring in high-exposure areas of campus, such as the Health, Wellness, and Athletic Center.
The college will continue to provide as much information regarding fall planning as soon as it can and consistent with the evolving nature of the pandemic. A weekly COVID-19 Update will be sent to faculty, staff, students, and parents between now and the start of classes. Look for those emails on Thursdays. Additionally, beginning this week, Westminster will send a summary of information and decision points to the campus following the COVID-19 working group meetings. Considerable planning has already taken place in several areas of campus life.
Classes will begin on August 17 and end December 4, with all courses completed remotely after the Thanksgiving break. Students in campus residences may remain on campus during and beyond Thanksgiving until the end of the term with the expectation that they stay in Utah while on break.
While faculty are working to prepare courses that mostly blend in-person and remote instruction, staff have been assessing classrooms and determining maximum occupancy under social distancing guidelines. The changes in classroom capacity and modes of instruction may necessitate modifications to the academic schedule, which the college plans to have announced by July 31. The college is currently working to provide technology that will allow individual students who need access to in-person courses but cannot physically attend to do so remotely. Courses with a substantial online component will be significantly different than last spring, when courses were moved quickly to remote delivery under emergency conditions.
Faculty and Staff
Although more staff are increasingly coming back to campus, some will continue with remote arrangements as informed by their supervisors. Faculty may continue to access offices under the face covering and distancing guidelines in effect across campus. All staff and faculty, whether working on campus or remotely, should already be checking their symptoms daily and notifying supervisors of any symptoms or illness; the college is working to develop a web-based, symptom-checking and advice application that will be accessible from any internet-connected device.
Incoming and Continuing Students
During June, new students engaged in virtual Griffin GearUps, where they had the opportunity to meet their classmates, had one-on-one advising appointments with a faculty advisor, met with Financial Aid to review their financial aid packages, and discussed payment options with Student Account Services. The Office of Student Success and Retention helped ensure that first-year students are enrolled in a Learning Community and have a schedule that has them looking forward to the fall. In addition to serving first-year students, faculty and staff in Student Success and Retention have been contacting continuing students, especially those whose schedules have been disrupted by changing course caps or other curricular changes and who need help adjusting their schedules. More students are reaching out to Disability Services to prepare for fall, and upcoming plans include the convening of a Universal Access Group and an increased emphasis on serving students with disabilities.
Residential housing will follow guidelines developed by the CDC for congregate housing, which includes significantly reducing housing density while allocating beds for students' potential isolation in quarantine. All students will be assigned to single bedrooms. To minimize potential exposure to and spread of COVID-19, the Office of Residence Life will create a staggered move-in experience for all residential students. Students will be assigned a move-in date and time according to their status as an early arrival participant, first-year student, transfer student, or returning student. Residents will be limited to only 2 move-in helpers during their assigned time. The move-in process and procedures will be shared on July 17 to students via their Westminster email.
New Student Orientation
In preparation for New Student Orientation, the Parent and Family Experience will be facilitated virtually to allow for both synchronous and asynchronous involvement. The First-Year and Transfer Student Experiences will include virtual sessions and small group gatherings. These programs are scheduled for August 15–18. The updated orientation schedules will be available on the new student orientation site by July 20.
Health and Safety
All community members are expected to observe face covering requirements and to practice appropriate hand cleaning and sanitizing behavior. These practices will continue to be part of our daily lives at least through the fall and possibly far beyond. Campus cleaning has changed since the spring, with all janitorial staff completing CDC approved training and implementing appropriate protocols, such as disinfecting high-touch areas twice daily. Hand sanitizer stations are being made available at every building entrance. Cleaning supplies will be distributed for use in classrooms and public facing offices. A centralized ordering system for bottle refills and other supplies is being implemented for areas that need frequent resupply of materials. Please know that recent guidance regarding surface contact transmission suggests that COVID-19 spreads most easily between people, rather than by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your face. Classroom cleaning kits will continue to be available for those faculty who want to participate in more frequent cleaning, and people using specialized equipment will be asked to disinfect the equipment they have handled before and after use. More extensive protocols are in place for higher risk activities, such as using the locker rooms in the Health, Wellness, and Athletic Center. Staff and faculty will be provided with workplace safety information modules later this summer.
Although the likelihood of transmission through the college's heating and cooling systems is low, the college is checking the adequacy of its air filtration systems. Aerosol transmission of COVID-19 through lingering particles in classrooms, restrooms, and other enclosed spaces is reduced considerably through the consistent and proper use of face coverings, which makes this practice essential for everyone on campus.
Shaw will continue to be open with face coverings required to enter the food service area. Seating density has been reduced to facilitate social distancing, and dining hours will increase the week prior to new student orientation. The Westminster website continues to be updated with information regarding food service on campus.
At some point, Westminster is likely to have a community member who tests positive and has exposed others on campus. Faculty, staff, and students who have experienced significant exposure (being within 6 feet of a COVID-19 positive individual for at least 15 minutes) or tested positive for COVID-19 should follow the reporting expectations published on the Westminster website. Students living in campus residences should expect to be relocated during periods of quarantine. As of this writing, the Utah Department of Health is only testing individuals who are symptomatic and is recommending quarantine for people who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 up to 2 days before that person became sick or tested positive. The college will continue to monitor and share Utah Department of Health guidance with the campus community on a regular basis.
Campus Events and Athletics
At this time, and until further notice, the college is only proceeding with events where social distancing can be preserved. The college will be doubling the seating capacity outdoors and encourage outside activity whenever possible. Student clubs and organizations, community engagement, and student affairs programming will continue to the extent possible but only with face coverings, social distancing, symptom checking, and, in some cases, regular COVID-19 testing in effect.
In addition to following institutional guidelines and protocols, Athletics is also following the health and safety guidance of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Core Principles of Resocialization of Sport, which allows training and practice under strict protocols along with phased guidelines in preparation for fall athletic participation. The college knows the importance of athletics to many of its students and is balancing their desires with the risks of competition. Currently, student-athletes who wish to use campus facilities to voluntarily train are required to complete daily symptom and temperature checks by the college's certified athletic trainers prior to any activity. Decisions regarding team travel or competition during the fall semester will be made later in July and may vary based on the sport. These decisions will be made in collaboration with the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
Ongoing Monitoring and Planning
The COVID-19 working group will continue to convene throughout the summer and fall semester, and the college will continue monitoring the progression of COVID-19. Local conditions, such as the number of hospitalizations and local healthcare capacity to manage increased caseloads, may require additional changes to the college's plan and a return to remote operations. If the college must make this decision, students in residence may be encouraged, though not required, to complete the term remotely.
The decisions Westminster has made over the past several months have been informed by local and state health experts, academic leadership at the college and across the country, Westminster students, staff and faculty, and members of the Board of Trustees. I continue to value your concerns and ideas, and I appreciate your dedication to the college during this difficult time. The college will continue to proceed carefully and cautiously, with the confidence that a Westminster education will be even more valuable in the months and years to come.