(This is the second in a series of articles looking ahead to higher education campus life and academics in the fall.)
When asked about the one element that her college has missed the most during the past year, Anna Gonzalez didn’t hesitate.
“It’s our students, and I know our faculty and staff would say that, too,” said Gonzalez, the Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif. “They unite all of us. We’ve missed that in-person engagement with them. There’s a sadness, even for the schools that brought back students, and you see Plexiglass and masks. I’ve been to a couple of campuses where they were able to bring back a number of their students, and it’s just empty spaces, white tents that looked like hospital tents.”
Like most colleges and universities, Harvey Mudd is expecting to fill those empty chairs and regain many of those missing elements in its return to a more traditional atmosphere in the fall. COVID-19 vaccines are the linchpin to help make it happen. Harvey Mudd is one of the 200-plus institutions nationwide that have mandated vaccinations for students, as well as for faculty and staff, though it is allowing the latter group to opt out for medical, religious and philosophical reasons.
“The students were very much in favor of the vaccination policy,” she says. “It’s been pretty smooth, no complaints. They’ve been super receptive. I truly believe that our students really do believe in science, and that they believe in the vaccine. I would say 90 to 95%, even higher, will be vaccinated.”
When students return to Claremont en masse this fall, Gonzalez says the university likely will be at the point where activities, residence halls and even classrooms will be far more vibrant. Though Harvey Mudd has plans to include some hybrid learning, its classes will be open fully in person.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean a complete return to pre-pandemic times for Harvey Mudd or any other institution.
“We will continue to be cautious,” Gonzalez said. “We’re still going to have quarantine and isolation rooms for our residents. We need to we need to learn from what happened. We need to be more careful in general. The practices of washing hands and masking if you’re sick, I hope that we will keep that. Families are worried about, variant and infections. Those everyday worries are there.”
Vaccines, adherence and guidance
Harvey Mudd is one of the top national liberal arts colleges in the nation, ranking No. 25 overall, No. 6 for most innovative schools, and No. 2 in undergraduate engineering programs in the annual U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges. It boasts just under 900 students.
Because of better COVID numbers throughout California and in Los Angeles County and because of student receptiveness to getting vaccinated, Gonzalez says the college is allowing 120 to 140 of those students to reside on campus this summer.
“We have quite a bit of students around our area, and they’ve been great in adhering to guidelines,” Gonzalez says. “They’re excited to come back. Young people are seeing this as their own vaccine passport. This opportunity, if they can have a sense of normalcy, they’ll take it.”
Unlike most colleges and universities offering specific reopenings, Harvey Mudd is taking a more guarded strategy, allowing its campus to reopen gradually.
“Some campuses are just giving a date and saying everyone is coming back. We’re just telling our staff, we’re coming back. Students are going to be here in the fall,” Gonzalez says. “Each area vice president is determining when they’re going to phase in their staff. Because of safety issues, some areas might have to take turns being remote. At some point, we’re going to be in person, but there might be some flexibility in terms of, one day remote and four days on campus.”
More from UB: State-by-state, colleges mandating vaccination
More from UB: Eyes on the Fall Part 1/Cedar Crest College
While the majority of students arriving on campus are expected to be vaccinated, the college has plans for those who aren’t.
“We will be testing students twice a week for those who are not vaccinated. That also includes faculty staff who are not vaccinated,” she says. “We’re following LA County guidelines and CDC guidelines. One of the things L.A. County notes, if you’ve been vaccinated and you come into contact with someone who has COVID-19, you don’t have to quarantine. So, we’re adhering to that. But those who have not been vaccinated would have to quarantine.”
Classrooms: 3 feet or 6 feet?
Gonzalez says there might be other restrictions, but much will depend on vaccinations and that county guidance.
“The mask mandate might still be on,” she says. “But in terms of student gathering, in their own residence hall, if everyone in that group is vaccinated, they can have their masks off, for example. I think we can have more people in the dining room. We’re adhering to L.A. guidance on restaurants. We may still have the tents, one or two, because if it’s not 100%, we will need another place for people to eat and study.”
The biggest question marks remain around academics and how those halls and classroom spaces will look in September.
“It would be great to be back to even 3 feet of distancing because 6 feet inside the classroom limits the number of students who can get classes,” Gonzalez says. “Whether you’re a big school or small school, we need as many seats as possible for students. People go to school for different reasons, but one of the reasons why you go to a small school is that you know you can get into a class. You’re not competing with thousands of people. We’re hoping that the county will allow schools who have most of their population vaccinated some flexibility.”
It’s likely, too, that despite the lean to in-person learning that Harvey Mudd and others will keep some form of hybrid in play.
“We’re liking technology and looking at some co-curricular options,” says Gonzalez, referencing a cooking class that was done for students who were trying to replicate meals during a virtual session in their apartments and pods. “I think the big question mark for colleges is for international students. It’s hard to get visas because countries are still closed. What happens to those students through no fault of their own, if they can’t come here, but they’re enrolled? We will have to see about accommodations for that. And then, if someone does get sick not just because of COVID, can colleges and universities start using technology so students don’t miss class?”
In addition, students across the nation have expressed a desire to have the flexibility of being able to work remotely from time to time.
“Students are liking being virtual,” Gonzalez says. “What are we going to keep that worked really well? Are people willing to have that discussion in higher education? Some were really productive working from home, and I think it’s going to be a shock to their system coming back.”
Whatever strategies they employ in the coming months, Gonzalez and her team will be leaning on a couple of pieces that worked well over the past year.
“Having an advisory board of mostly students really helped me think about how they’re thinking,” Gonzalez said. “I could say, this is how student gatherings are going to look like and they’re looking at me like, no it isn’t. We know our peers and they are not going to follow that rule.”
The other important element is strong communication.
“Colleges, and universities have unique governance systems in many ways where almost everyone has a say, or feel like they should have a say,” she says. “The top-down model doesn’t work for higher education. You have to work collaboratively with different groups. In order to do that well, you have to constantly communicate. We are engaged with different members of our community, from students and their families, but separately to faculty and staff all the time.”