Colorado colleges and universities face COVID-19 uncertainty
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Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, colleges and universities across the country had to shut down unexpectedly. Many went on spring break and never came back. The pandemic has sparked a lot of questions. For many college students, the number one questions is, “will I be heading back to campus in the fall?”. We talked with 5 different higher education institutions across the state to find out their plans for the upcoming semester, including our partners at CSU Pueblo, Fort Lewis College, and Colorado Mesa University.

CSU PUEBLO, PUEBLO

CUS Pueblo President Dr. Timothy Mottet is going into his 4th year as an academic leader. “I’ve got the right team in place to help us manage this crisis,” he says. Dr. Mottet and his team had a strategic plan going into the COVID-19 pandemic, launched two years ago, called “Vision 2028”. “It has guided us through the storm”, says Dr. Mottet, “someone once told me we are rowing and not drifting…and we know where north is because our plan is guiding us.” Dr. Mottet adds that because of the crisis, they are actually further ahead in their plan, because of necessity and urgency.

Fall enrollment for new students at CSU Pueblo is actually trending up. However there is a lag with continuing students - sophomores, juniors, and graduate students - who haven’t yet re-enrolled for the fall. “I think they’re probably waiting to find out what’s going to happen in the fall, but if they register and enroll like they normally do, we’ll be down but not at the amount that we were thinking it might be”, says Dr. Mottet.

When it comes to the fall semester, Dr. Mottet says it’s something he and his team have been ‘obsessing over’. The only certainty is that they will definitely be returning to campus, one way or another. They are trying to stay proactive and stay ahead of the virus. He says there are three main components they are considering: amount of virtual classes, student social activities, and student housing. “Each of these variables has dials, you can dial them up, you can dial them down”, says Dr. Mottet. For example, if they increase the amount of online classes, they can also increase the amount of social activities for students. If there are more face-to-face classes, student activities would probably have to be reduced. It’s about trying to mitigate the health risk. Another aspect guiding their decisions are “learning outcomes”. For more skills-based courses, face-to-face classes are essential. For cognitive outcomes, online classes are a great option.

“The residential life piece is challenging, that’s where there’s a lot of risk”, says Dr. Mottet. Right now, the University is looking at cohorting students on floors, and giving them responsibility for the health of their floor mates. He hopes the responsibility will lead to a commitment to practicing good public health.

FORT LEWIS COLLEGE, DURANGO

Fort Lewis College President Dr. Tom Stritikus echos many of the sentiments as Dr. Mottet. “Our staff moved mountains to keep students safe and learning - it was incredible,” says Dr. Stritikus. “Our faculty moved 700 courses online in 5 days. We changed our grading policy in 2 days, to be more flexible to students.”

As for the fall, the college will be open for in-person learning. “We will have students on campus, we will have courses, we will have some aspect of student life, we will have students in residence halls. Exactly what that looks like…we’re now finalizing our plans.” Dr. Stritikus outlines some of the plan’s perimeters, including some form of social distancing and mask wearing. There may also be some reduced-capacity classes, and outdoor classes. “We’re looking at really creative ways to use our space and our amazing physical location to get through these next few months in the fall”.

They are also experimenting with how online learning can continue to enhance their regular courses. “I think this is an opportunity, and we’ve used it as such, to take advantage of what we’ve learned and move it forward.”

COLORADO MESA UNIVERSITY, GRAND JUNCTION

“It was chaotic.” That’s how Colorado Mesa University President Tim Foster describes adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic. Being on the western slope, the University was able to “see the storm coming on the horizon. And as we went off to spring break, all of a sudden it was clear it was going to be doozy”, explains President Foster. CMU extended spring break an extra week, and like other schools used that extra week to take everything online. “We certainly delivered academic content, but not to the quality that we wanted.” A survey of CMU student found that they would much rather be learning in-person.

This coming fall “we plan to be back” says President Foster. They call their fall plan, ‘safe together, strong together’ and it will include classes at 1/2 capacity. “We actually went around and measured every class to make sure you could be 6ft to 6ft to 6ft…one way in, one way out”, explains President Foster. They’ve also invested in thermal imaging cameras to be able to take temperatures, and are looking into COVID-19 testing. They plan to test everyone before they are allowed to return to residence halls. Student athletes will also have to test negative before they can resume sports. To ensure consistent health on the campus, they’ll continue to do 240 randomized tests every week until the virus is contained.

PIKES PEAK COMMUNITY COLLEGE, COLORADO SPRINGS

Pikes Peak Community College has a similar story. Their students and faculty were on spring break when the true threat of the COVID-19 virus became clear. “So we took two weeks of spring break”, says President Dr. Lance Bolton, “That allowed faculty who had not taught online to get tutoring and support and help with moving online”. The community college also worked to get technology and computers to students who needed it, many borrowed laptops. Dr. Bolton was expecting to see a huge number of withdrawals, but was relieved when it was only 6%.

The community college’s summer semester is in full swing, and most of the hands-on classes like nursing, welding, machining, and auto-tech are already back on campus and fully operational.

For the fall they’re planning to return to somewhat normal operations, “except for significant efforts to protect our most vulnerable”, says Dr. Bolton. Vulnerable students and faculty will continue to be able to work and learn from home. They’re also looking at the option of hybrid classes. Classes might be divided into, for example, a blue group and a green group. “Green group might be in on Tuesday to class, blue group might be in on Thursday to class”, explains Dr. Bolton.

COLORADO MOUNTAIN COLLEGE, 12 MOUNTAIN LOCATIONS

Colorado Mountain College is unique. They have 12 locations in 9 different counties, all in mountain resort communities. “We’re very baked in and engaged with these mountain communities,” explains President Dr. Carrie Besnette Hauser. CMC offers everything from ESL (English as a Second Language) classes to Bachelor’s degrees. “When the ski resorts closed March 14, so did the communities,” says Dr. Besnette Hauser, “we were hit really hard, really fast.”

One of the colleges biggest fears was losing droves of students, as many of them work in the resorts or restaurants, relying on tourism for income. So CMC did something truly unique - “we wanted to do anything to keep people in the towns…so anyone who was enrolled at the time the COVID-19 crisis occurred, could come for no cost over the summer”. The plan worked, summer enrollment was up 60%.

For fall, “we’re preparing for every possibility”, says Dr. Besnette Hauser. For now, they’re waiting it out and not jumping into a finite decision. “We anticipate that some courses will remain online, that some course will be face-to-face, all of them will be adaptable in any environment”. With 12 campuses in different cities, CMC has to be nimble to be able to adapt to different levels of health crises in each city.

One of their most careful decisions will be around residence halls. “One outbreak in a residence hall and we have overwhelmed our small rural hospitals”.

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