Despite pandemic, Nebraska college pushes for extracurricular activities

Here's why Midland University decided to continue on with extracurriculars for the 2020-21 school year, explains its vice president for enrollment management and marketing, and how safety was addressed.
By: | October 15, 2020
Midland University, NebraskaMidland University, Nebraska

Albert Einstein once said, “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” In early March, 2020, COVID-19 made an unwelcome and abrupt entrance to the campus of Midland University, a relatively small private liberal arts college nestled in the heart of Fremont, Nebraska, and one of the first colleges in the nation to be directly impacted by the virus.

Merritt Nelson, Midland University

Merritt Nelson, Midland University

Late-night meetings and ten-hour workdays on Saturdays and Sundays soon became the norm. The campus needed a plan. Students needed answers. Faculty and staff needed equipping. There was no rest for the weary, because opportunity was knocking.

Fast forward six months, and Midland University announced record enrollment for fall 2020, a 12% increase from a year ago. The largest freshman class ever showed up at the doors of our residence halls, ready to move in and start college. Energy was high; campus was buzzing; students were ready to do college and for things to be normal. Things weren’t normal—but we had a plan. It was coined Operation Unite. Operation Unite was an extensive plan detailing how we were going to unite as a campus community as safely as possible during this web of complex uncertainty—and still do college.

As part of Operation Unite, all students and employees are required to perform a daily health self-assessment. Through the #CampusClear app, students and employees must be cleared in order to attend class, be at work, attend practice and move freely about campus.

Early on, Midland committed to work with local health professionals and health departments to ensure a collaborative approach to the development and execution of Operation Unite. Face coverings are required for all students, faculty, staff and visitors, social distancing standards are in place, and an active and aggressive campus-wide cleanliness plan was launched. An extensive contact tracing system has also been implemented to help mitigate the potential spread and COVID-19 testing is now available on campus.

A Quarantine/Isolation Support Team, composed of faculty and staff, provides comfort and support to students who are quarantined as a result of a positive test or being in close contact with a person who tested positive.

Like many other campuses across the nation, extracurricular activities have taken on a new look at Midland in 2020. What was once done in person, often has to be done virtually—but that hasn’t come without challenges. As we continue to work to integrate our athletes back into their daily routines, our staff spends countless hours making sure they will not only be successful, but more importantly, safe. Students are screened each day before they are allowed to practice or compete in a game. Facilities have specific entry and exit points, limited occupancy and required masks for parents and other spectators attending our events.

Our coaches have been diligent and consistent in stressing the importance of following all rules and protocols for our student-athletes both while they are on the field and court as well as when they are off. They realize that for Operation Unite to be successful, and for them to continue to be allowed to participate, everyone must take their role seriously. In turn, our athletes have taken ownership of this responsibility and are taking the necessary steps to ensure their ability to remain involved.

Our performing arts students quickly learned how to have their voices heard through virtual performances. They have returned to the stage this fall, but are doing so in a cautious manner. Students are not allowed to practice or perform unless they have been cleared through the #CampusClear app and they are required to enter/exit through designated doors. Seating capacity has been limited, but virtual performances have opened the door for others to witness what these dynamic individuals are doing on stage. Our cheer and dance teams are still showing their school support at athletic events, but doing so with masks on and while physically distanced.

We understand the responsibility we have to provide a sense of normalcy for our students during this uncertain time.

Student organizations maintained a presence on campus in the spring by pivoting to virtual gatherings. Participation has remained high, even though groups were meeting in new ways. As students have returned to campus this fall, the doors have opened for them to gather once again, albeit in a safe manner.

Navigating the pandemic has been a difficult task for universities across the nation. There are many “new norms” we all must work through every day. We applaud the efforts of everyone who has persevered through these difficult times and remained focused on student success. We are at our best when we are in-person and in the community.

Midland University has embraced and welcomed the opportunity provided to us through an unwelcome crisis. We understand the responsibility we have to provide a sense of normalcy for our students during this uncertain time. We understand the importance of the full “Midland experience” and will continue to be diligent in offering our students the opportunities they so richly deserve. We will persevere through these challenging times and remain Warrior Strong!

Merritt Nelson serves as the vice president for enrollment management and marketing at Midland University. In his eighth year at Midland, Nelson also served as vice president for student affairs. A Fremont native, Nelson has spent nearly 25 years in education and has always prioritized student success in his career.