When Fort Lewis College made its decision to bring students back to campus for the fall 2020 semester during the COVID-19 pandemic, a plethora of considerations, new policies, and a reckoning of resources followed, trying to make the campus return as safe and manageable as possible. From the stickers on each and every desk telling students where to sit to maintain physical distancing, to the giant tents serving as outdoor classrooms, to the new student app feature that requires students to complete daily pre-screening before they go to class, one thing is clear: this is no ordinary semester.
From Emergency to Planning Mode
Last spring, when FLC administration first started to see that COVID-19 could impact the then in-progress semester, the college put in place an Incident Command, said Julie Love, FLC associate vice president for student affairs and head of this semester’s campus life planning team.
Decision-makers on campus are trained to use the Incident Command System to respond to all different types of emergencies that might happen on campus, including things like fires. Administrators leaned into the system, which they were already trained in, to help them with the initial response to COVID-19, Love said.
“Then, in about May, we decided that we needed to not necessarily be in the day-to-day management of issues that are coming forward or changing dynamics, but we really needed to be forward thinking and in planning mode,” Love said.
So it began: campus administrators started diligently planning the return of students to campus, drawing from guidance given to FLC from both local and state public health departments, and guidance from the Colorado Department of Higher Education, Love said.
Campus planning was handed to senior leadership officials and split into three different teams that would each be in charge of the planning around different aspects of campus: life, health and learning, Lauren Savage, FLC media relations strategist, said.
Over the summer, each team would meet and discuss how to best manage each topic if classes were to resume and then take recommendations to a larger leadership team, which included the president, provost and other vice presidents, said Jesse Peters, dean of FLC’s School of Arts & Sciences and head of the campus learning team.
The Devil is in the Detail
As campus planning began, challenges did not follow far behind.
The campus life team was faced with challenges around housing. FLC wanted to fulfill every request for a single-occupancy room which led to major capacity issues with on-campus housing.
The solution was to move some of the students from on-campus housing to a hotel in the downtown Durango area in order to fulfill every request, Love said.
“It’s been tricky,” Love said.
Love explained how a big part of her team’s planning was focused around proactively educating students on the expectations around this semester. With that, new policies were added to the college’s conduct system, including penalties to students for not following the school’s new COVID-19-related policies, Love said.
The campus health team was occupied with issues surrounding COVID-19 testing. FLC already had a student health center prior to COVID-19, but the health center’s primary goal is to help students who are already sick. If FLC assigned testing responsibilities to the health center, it risked overwhelming the center’s resources, said Jeffrey Dupont, associate vice president for student affairs at FLC and leader of the campus health team.
In the end, FLC decided to contract a testing company and move testing outside, Dupont said.
To provide testing, FLC is working with COVIDCheck Colorado, a social benefit enterprise of the Gary Community Investment Company, Savage said.
For the campus learning team, achieving physical distancing precautions in classrooms was a challenge, Peters said. Classes were moved around on campus to bigger spaces, like the concert hall, and large tents were added to the outdoor spaces on campus.
The IT department worked to add new technological capacities, like better webcams, to classrooms so that teachers could run hybrid models of their classes, meaning both in-person and online, and students who need to quarantine or isolate can have remote access to the class, Peters said.
\Like in the case of the tents, some obstacles still lie ahead: it is unclear how soon outdoor classes will face weather that will make tent-learning difficult. Right now, the working solution is to move classes inside if available space allows, and if not, move the class to Zoom, Peters said.
Learning on the Go
Some challenges seem to transcend campus health, life and learning. For example, last Spring, one of the reasons for campus closure was the increased COVID-19 risk with students returning from spring break from all over the country. Using the same reasoning this semester, campus leaders decided to move the semester’s schedule around so that students would not return after Thanksgiving Break, Dupont said.
Also, campus leaders need to ensure that they can actively monitor COVID-19 now that the semester is in full swing, Dupont said. Random student testing and the contact-tracing system were two ways that leaders chose to mitigate the chances that the virus could send the semester online, he said.
Random student testing has been a learn-on-the-go experience for leadership, said Dupont.
“We didn't really know how it was going to look and how we were going to manage it until we were a couple of weeks into the semester, but we had always intended on doing it,” Dupont said, in reference to random testing. “I do think that we could have done a better job of communicating that expectation early on, but students are learning, just as we are, that things are changing rapidly with this pandemic.”
COVID-19 information, including FLC’s de-identified testing data, are publicly available and updated daily. It can be found on FLC’s website, under the section called Coronavirus and COVID-19 Information.
The Fate of the Semester
Above all, the fate of the semester lies within the contact-tracing system, Dupont said.
The system relies on the Fort Lewis app, which requires students to complete daily pre-screening before they arrive on campus (or leave their dorms, if they live on campus), Dupont said.
Once a student has reported no symptoms of COVID-19 or recent travel outside of the country, they receive their Health Pass which clears the student to enter campus, Savage said. If they log symptoms, they get a notification to stay home and staff from the Health Center reach out to coordinate care and COVID-19 testing, Savage said.
Students who are cleared are expected to scan QR codes throughout campus that indicate all the places the student has been. The idea is that if a student tests positive for COVID-19, public health officials would be able to trace all the places that the student contacted on campus to get a scope of how big the outbreak could be, and notify people that might have come in contact with the infected person, Savage said.
In the case of an outbreak, the data will ideally assist administrators on the right course of action in terms of campus-closure, Peters said. FLC has no set number on what would constitute another closure, it is more related to how manageable the outbreak is, Peters said.
“You can have, for example, a high number of cases that are traced back to one singular event, like say, 20 people in a field geology class are positive, but they all seem to trace it to this one weekend trip,” Peters said. “That's a little different than having outbreaks in three residence halls, for example, that trace back to several courses.”
So far, students have been doing a good job with the college’s expectations for a safe and healthy semester, Peters said.
“The students ought to be really proud of how they have come together as a community and really embraced trying to work with administration, faculty and staff so that we are as safe as possible,” Peters said. "I just want to see the students wearing masks and staying distanced and you know, telling each other to be distant, even off campus. It's really great to see because it's not true at a lot of other institutions and I think the students have a lot to be proud of."