Analysis: One semester down, a tougher semester ahead

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the next year, Idaho Education News will provide in-depth, ongoing coverage of the challenges facing higher education during the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s our latest installment in this project.)

Boise State University stayed open for fall classes, but “it wasn’t always pretty,” Chief of Staff Alicia Estey said this week.

Alicia Estey

Administrators had some “candid discussions” about closing face-to-face classes, Estey said. But the university managed to stick with its plan, maintaining a mix of in-person and online learning through Nov. 20, the Friday before Thanksgiving. By Nov. 20, Boise State also reported 866 coronavirus cases for the semester, including a peak of 121 cases during that final week of classroom instruction.

One semester down. A tougher semester ahead.

With so much on the line. Can colleges and universities maintain the in-person learning environment students and parents demand — and expect, when they pay their semester bill? Can the colleges and universities provide a safe, supportive environment for students trying to weather tumultuous times?

Student mental health and public health policy are intertwined, maybe now more than ever.

On Tuesday, more than 20 college and university administrators met at Boise State — via Zoom, of course — to discuss the social-emotional challenges facing today’s students. The timing was significant. Fall semester resumed this week at Boise State, with students wrapping up their work online, and generally remotely. Meanwhile, a bleak pandemic winter continued to develop in Idaho and across the nation — with cases, hospitalizations and deaths climbing, in a triumvirate of tragedy.

Still, administrators took some time at Tuesday’s summit to look back on the fall, praising the students who helped make the semester work.

Stony Brook University counted only 90 cases for fall semester, a rate far lower than the surrounding Long Island, N.Y., suburbs. Even though only a quarter of the university’s classes were face-to-face, students rallied behind the cause of staying open. “They were very supportive of each other and they really owned our messaging,” President Maurie McInnis said.

Some days, University of Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman used the carrot to encourage her students, handing out gift cards to students who followed campus safety guidelines. Some days, the university had to use the stick. But by and large, she said, students were grateful to be on campus — especially first-year students who didn’t know anyone, but pulled on their facemasks and settled in.

“I was so inspired by their courage,” she said.

Anyone who has ever arrived on campus as an 18- to 22-year-old — and had the luxury of making the move in “normal” times — can readily relate.

Tuesday’s “Project Launchpad” virtual summit focused not only on the students who did show this year, but those who didn’t. Their plight has become a priority for Boise State President Marlene Tromp. Citing some grim national statistics — that show today’s young adults are far more susceptible to anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide — Tromp believes all too many would-be students are frozen, unable to begin their college careers.

As administrators pointed out repeatedly Tuesday, the fears of the moment aren’t limited to the pandemic. Young adults are trying to cope with economic stress. Students of color are wrestling with issues of social justice and racial equality. University of Minnesota President Joan T.A. Gabel called it an “aura of uncertainty” — resonating on so many levels on her campus, which sits near the street where George Floyd died on May 25, while in police custody.

The University of Minnesota remained open through fall semester. And when schools remain open, Gabel said, they can continue to provide for at-risk students. Food pantries and mental health counseling remain open. Students could still engage in their campus community — at least to the extent that the pandemic allows it.

All of this underscores the push to reopen, and stay open, for spring.

In Idaho and beyond, administrators are looking to 2021 with no small amount of apprehension. And no wonder. If the medical forecasts prove to be correct, the start of spring semester will coincide with a spike in the pandemic. All the while, campus administrators will have managed not only the virus, but COVID fatigue.

“Many of us are out of gas,” said Jeremiah Shinn, vice president for student affairs at Louisiana State University. “I think about that a lot as a leader.”

Estey is all too familiar with COVID fatigue. As Boise State’s vice president for compliance, legal, audit and public health, Estey has emerged as the university’s enforcement voice — penning stern emails to the campus community on the need to follow coronavirus policies.

People are tired of being isolated, she said during a panel Tuesday, and they’re tired of being scolded about masks. Help could come in the spring, in the form of vaccines, but Estey is well aware of Idaho’s political reality. A readily available vaccine “doesn’t equate to our population’s willingness to get the vaccine.”

But on Tuesday, administrators seemed to rally behind one point. Students and parents want face-to-face learning and fully functioning campuses.

In Washington, D.C., Howard University remains virtual. The experience has debunked one notion that had more currency pre-pandemic: the idea of online college as a viable substitute. Socialization is very important to everything in higher education, President Wayne Frederick said.

At Boise State, reopening the campus doesn’t just mean striking a public health balance. It will mean finding, and maintaining, a balance between what works in a virtual setting and what needs to happen face-to-face. “Our students really crave human interaction,” Estey said.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday. 

More in-depth higher education coverage

Aug. 6: A pandemic makes old problems worse for Idaho higher education

Aug. 12: Idaho campuses prepare to reopen, but will students show up?

Aug. 24: Across the state, campuses open for an uncertain new year

Sept. 24: The feds’ coronavirus aid fills some gaps, but only some

Oct. 8: Boise State faces a financial reckoning

Nov. 3: New Boise State program seeks to guide students through gap year

Nov. 12: In a pandemic, colleges struggle even more to attract Idaho graduates

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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