University administrators, faculty and staff were put into a steep learning curve on how to educate and keep students safe during a global pandemic when COVID-19 struck a year ago.

Some of the lessons learned are practices that officials from Bloomsburg, Bucknell and Susquehanna universities say they will keep even after the health crisis ends.

During the past year, university officials learned how to train faculty to effectively use online teaching platforms, detect for the coronavirus and became aware of student needs beyond paying for tuition, including food insecurity, technology inequity, mental health and housing issues.

Susquehanna University employed science to address the crisis, said biology professor David Richard, who was tasked with leading the school's COVID-19 mitigation effort.

"Scientists had a voice in the room ... which led us down a number of productive roads," said Richard, who credits SU President Jonathan Green with inviting scientists into the discussion which paved the way for the country's first use of wastewater testing by a university to determine if student residents were infected with the coronavirus and determining how many people could be safely present in the same space as well as the staggering start of the fall and spring semesters.

Their efforts paid off with students returning to campus, as well as no layoffs, cuts in pay or benefits, he said.

Meeting student needs

Learning about student needs beyond paying for their education was a game-changer.

"We need to think about how we ensure that our students have access to such essential services as we move forward," said Robert M. Midkiff, vice president for Strategic Initiatives at Bucknell. "While we have been working for several years to address issues surrounding food insecurity on campus, the pandemic brought those issues to the forefront in very real ways. We have created a food and nutrition task force that is making recommendations for how we provide meal plans and assist students so that they have access to food."

The Bloomsburg Foundation is looking at ways to offer scholarships that go beyond tuition assistance as a result of this awareness, said Provost Diana Rogers-Adkinson.

"There have been some positive opportunities out of this. We're now thinking differently of student needs," she said, highlighting the university's dispersal of computers to students and a student initiative to provide a lending library of textbooks.

With some students still anxious about returning to the classroom, Rogers-Adkinson said she anticipates Bloomsburg will continue to offer remote learning options.

The Columbia County university has set up 50 classrooms for virtual learning with additional cameras and microphones, allowing students attending remotely to interact live with teachers and in-classroom peers.

"The structures and supports will stay and probably be expanded on," she said. "We are meeting those students where they are." 

At Susquehanna, virtual elements for classes have always been available and the university anticipates faculty will continue to use the additional remote-teaching tools they've adopted once fully in-person instruction resumes, said spokeswoman Amanda O'Rourke.

Noting the success of the virtual Martin Luther King Jr. teach-in series last February, the school also expects to continue to offer a virtual and in-person experience in the future.

Adapting to remote learning

Midkiff credited Bucknell faculty, staff and students' ability to work together in the crisis and adapt to remote learning which he also expects will continue for some.

"To go from providing a traditional, residential in-person learning and educational experience to a completely virtual and online education in a matter of days demonstrate our capacity to innovate and problem-solve.  We could not have done so without the cooperation and efforts of many offices and operations on campus such as our library and information technology services, our Teaching and Learning Center, and others," he said.

Staff created physically-distanced classrooms; used outdoor spaces as classrooms with tents and expanded wi-fi capacity; invested in sequential testing of students, faculty and staff to monitor infections on campus and used area hotels for isolation and quarantine.

"As we learned more, we utilized that knowledge to inform what we were doing on campus," Midkiff said. "And these things worked."

Students remained on campus throughout the fall and, while there was an outbreak in February, the semester is continuing in-person for many students and faculty this spring.

Looking forward to the fall, Midkiff said Bucknell will move "cautiously and deliberately."

There will still be extended times between classes to allow for additional cleaning and even into the spring 2021 semester he anticipates outdoor classrooms will be held and enhanced wi-fi capacity will be maintained.

Areas that Midkiff hopes will return to normal are full classrooms and a traditional class calendar.

Keep guard up

With several more weeks of classes and a major drinking holiday — St. Patrick's Day — falling in its midst, Richard said he hopes everyone will keep the health crisis in mind.

"We have to continue what we're doing," he said of student, faculty and staff diligence. 

Once they learned that the virus was an aerosol-spread disease, the university employed ways to keep the campus community safe, including adopting its own testing of students and faculty, with up to 4,500 tests each week, and Richard said it's imperative for everyone to keep their guard up.

"I'm quite optimistic for the fall," he said, urging everyone to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

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