‘Our students live here:’ The challenges, and successes, of reopening campuses in the pandemic

During the pandemic, colleges and universities have struggled to provide their students with basic necessities — from broadband to mental health counseling.

But students have lost something else to the coronavirus: a sense of campus community. In a time of virtual classes and Zoom conferences, students are still craving a place to learn and a place to belong.

“Our students live here,” said Chicora Martin, vice president for student affairs at Mills College, a private women’s college in Oakland, Calif. “I don’t think we get to say, ‘Sorry, we’re closed.’”

Martin was one of more than 20 college administrators who met Tuesday at Boise State — virtually, at least — for a half-day summit focused on student needs during the pandemic. The event brought together administrators from across the nation and across the higher education spectrum: from public and private colleges, from land-grant universities to a community college.

Boise State University President Marlene Tromp

“This is a time for universities to collaborate, not compete,” Boise State President Marlene Tromp said at the outset of the summit.

For much of the day, administrators talked about their shared challenges — and steps that have made a difference for their students:

  • As many students struggled to keep up with their online studies, campuses set up parking lot hotspots where students could upload and download assignments, and hurried to get devices into the hands of students who were trying to do classwork on smartphones. Amarillo College, a two-year school on the Texas panhandle, set up a fix-it shop where students could get their computers repaired. The shop will stay even after the pandemic recedes, President Russell Lowery-Hart said Tuesday.
  • On Long Island, N.Y., Stony Brook University ran with an idea from students. They requested opening up Zoom class sessions 30 minutes early and leaving sessions open for 30 minutes after class. Professors didn’t need to be there, President Maurie McInnis said. The students just wanted time to connect with each other.
  • The University of Minnesota quickly shifted all spring classes to a pass-fail grading format.
  • As colleges and universities set up isolation dorm rooms for students with coronavirus, they also have looked for ways to keep students connected and engaged. At Boise State, that can be as simple as providing art supplies to students in isolation. When classes resume in the spring, the University of Tennessee will continue looking for services for isolated students, Chancellor Donde Plowman said. “When you’re 20 years old and you’re told you have to stay away from your friends for 14 days, that’s tough.”

Administrators said they hoped the traumatic events of 2020 would destigmatize student mental health services. But they saw their campus communities seeking help in different forms.

At Amarillo, students who might not have been comfortable in a face-to-face session seem to take to online counseling, Lowery-Hart said. At Mills, students need the help, but they cannot face the prospect of one more Zoom meeting, Martin said. At Boise State, free group therapy sessions are growing, and now open to staff and faculty, because people yearned for the chance to meet in groups, Tromp said.

Tuesday’s summit kicked off an effort Boise State calls “Project Launchpad” — centered on building a national online clearinghouse for academic research on student well-being. The name is a nod to the star-crossed 1970 Apollo 13 space mission. While NASA scientists scrubbed the mission’s lunar landing, they were able to navigate a crippled spacecraft and its three astronauts back to Earth safely.

Tromp has urged college and university officials to bring the same sense of urgency to the pandemic. Citing research on the pressing mental health issues facing young adults, Tromp has said colleges and universities need to do more to serve students in crisis.

“As a nation, we have been attentive to investing in business and healthcare, both important areas for our well-being and future,” Tromp wrote in a recent guest opinion for Education Dive. “We need to be just as deliberate about supporting our students.”

Yet, for many students, it just comes back to basics, wiped out by the virus.

Tromp is teaching a class this fall, focused on learning and leading during the pandemic. Her students have told her they would gladly take all of their classes online if they could just attend one football game — and not because they are apathetic about academics.

“For them. it was about this community experience,” she said.

Check back Thursday for additional coverage from the summit.

Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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