When Emily Moore returned to Marshall University’s Huntington campus in August to begin her senior year, she thought she was ready for what people are calling “the new normal.” But the reality of a virtual learning environment, intense safety precautions and limited social interaction due to COVID-19 presented more challenges than she expected.
“Usually, the return to Huntington means going out with friends I have not seen all summer and getting ready for football season,” said Moore, a nursing student working on her bachelor’s degree and president of the Student Nurses Association. “Now, my friends and I cannot meet as we normally would have and I am not entirely sure what the football season is going to look like. There are a lot of things in our new normal that I will be sad I did not get to experience in my senior year here at Marshall.”
Moore said COVID-19 has also affected her role as a resident advisor for students in first-year dormitories as a result of mask and social distancing mandates.
“The position of a resident advisor is to be a resource to your residents and to help them facilitate a successful college experience, but this is severely impacted by mask wearing and social distancing,” she said. “I fully support both rules and encourage those around me to follow them, but when you are meeting someone new, it adds another barrier you must break through.”
Moore’s biggest concern, however, is whether her fellow students will comply with the safety precautions and be proactive to prevent the spread of the virus.
“I think that Marshall has done a great job creating a COVID response team,” Moore said. “But, in the end, it’s up to the students to follow through with the guidelines. My main concern is adherence of the guidelines by students who attend in-person classes and live in the residence halls.”
Student Body President Anna Williams, a senior majoring in public communications and English, said that despite the changes and limitations students face this year, most are adapting and supporting the university’s policies and procedures.
“Students seem to be doing the best they can with the rapid changes over the last few months,” she said. “That’s all you really can do right now — be adaptable. Hopefully, as incoming students attended their orientation, they gained a good sense of comfort in knowing that Marshall has worked around the clock this summer to preserve the student experience while keeping safety at the top of the list. It will be a memorable time regardless of what it looks like. Marshall has worked really hard to make sure of it.”
Williams said Marshall’s Student Government Association conducted a COVID-19 student survey this summer, which indicated most students see masks and social distancing as a necessary change to keep one another safe.
“Marshall has worked around the clock this summer to preserve the student experience while keeping safety at the top of the list. It will be a memorable time regardless of what it looks like.
— Student Body President Anna Williams
“There is very little that anyone can control right now, but the one constant is how we react to this situation,” she stated. “We have to make forward-thinking choices. As a student heading into my senior year, I understand the disappointment that a lot of firsts and lasts are not going to be the same. But this pandemic can really put things in perspective for you — mainly that you never know when a moment will be gone. I find myself having a better sense of gratitude for the little things. It is rough for everyone, but better days will come.”
Tracy Smith, director of environmental health and safety, said Marshall launched a campus-wide communication campaign before the semester started to educate students, staff and faculty about plans to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
“We have developed a couple of guidance documents that outline our plan for making this semester as successful as we can, given the current environment,” Smith said. “We have plans in place to control what we can and are asking everyone to comply — from students to faculty, staff and visitors. The key to success is that everyone does their part.”
University administration and faculty have worked diligently for months to address the safety concerns of students, parents, staff and faculty through a robust Return-to-Campus guide, multiple Town Hall meetings and flexible options such as all-virtual course schedules. The policies and procedures are designed to protect everyone while maintaining the high academic standards for which Marshall is known.
“Our goal is to create a culture of health safety,” said Dr. Jaime Taylor, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost. “The biggest concern has been wanting to make sure everyone wears a mask or face shield at all times in the classrooms and buildings. We are requiring all students to sign an agreement that they will wear masks and follow all university safety protocols.”
In May, the university began planning for a return to face-to face learning in the fall. However, as the semester drew closer, adjustments needed to be made to safely accommodate the number of students on campus. That led to the creation of Marshall’s de-densification plan, which limits the campus population to allow for proper social distancing, frequent disinfection of classrooms and common areas, and smaller class sizes with the addition of a live, virtual learning platform.
“The vast majority of students want to have classes where they get to interact with faculty,” Taylor said. “Our de-densification plan allowed for science and engineering labs, studio courses and clinicals to continue in a face-to-face format. We moved the majority of our lectures to a virtual (live or synchronous) mode of delivery as opposed to an e-course format.”
Just under two-thirds of Marshall’s face-to-face courses were converted to a virtual format in the fall, with freshmen, students in professional or pre-professional programs and those requiring experiential learning offered more face-to-face courses.
In the spring when COVID-19 began spreading through the Tri-State region, the university was forced to change course, said Dr. Sherri Smith, associate provost and associate vice president for academic affairs. Instructors had to abruptly shut down all in-person instruction and move to a distance learning format.
“Faculty had to ‘turn on a dime,’ so to speak, and so the expected patterns of teaching and learning were interrupted,” Smith said. “Once we knew virtual classes would again play a role in the fall term, we had time to prepare. Throughout the summer, our Center for Teaching and Learning and our Online Design Center staff worked tirelessly with faculty — individually, in workshops and in small teaching and learning collaboratives that met over a period of weeks to share resources, instructional plans and insights about high-quality virtual learning.”
Dr. Carline Waugh, assistant professor of voice in Marshall’s School of Music, said she and her colleagues had to rethink traditional ways of teaching voice and vocal performance courses.
“Before COVID-19, my students would have individual voice lessons in studios, and these spaces tend to be relatively small,” Waugh said. “With the risk of aerosol emission during singing, we decided it would be safest to shift our applied lessons to virtual meetings. This meant we had to spend most of the summer learning how to use new computer programs and equipment that facilitate music making and collaboration.”
Waugh said the task of transitioning to virtual instruction was overwhelming at first, but the voice community came together and shared research and information to make it easier. She said her students also rose to the challenge when faced with the shift to online learning.
“We have a great group of students in our music program,” she stated. “My colleagues and I knew that despite the challenges of this fall semester, our students would continue not only to strive, but to thrive. Not only did most of our students return to us with zeal, but we also welcomed one of our largest freshman voice classes in recent history. They are all excited to be here, and we are thrilled to have them.”
While students, staff and faculty have adapted well to the changes made so far this year, the university continues to look forward and prepare for any new challenges that may arise.
“Faculty, deans and chairs have been working on a plan to move fully online should that become necessary,” Taylor said. “Our IT department is working to make sure we have the technology for our faculty and students to handle the demand of going fully online.”
A decision to move all courses to a virtual format would be based on a combination of factors, including any statewide stay-at-home orders, the number of positive cases on campus and the number of cases and hospitalizations in the county and region, Smith said.
“Public health is a communal problem, and it takes a communal solution,” according to Smith. “Fortunately, Marshall University staff and faculty have long had a reputation for working together as a family. Our Student Government Association, as well as the Office of Student Affairs, have both played key roles in encouraging a culture shift across campus, where everyone is much more self-aware, considerate and educated about the risks.”
Visit www.marshall.edu/coronavirus for the latest COVID-19 communications from Marshall University, or to view the Return-to-Campus Plan.
About the author: Kimberly Price is a freelance writer living in Huntington, West Virginia.
Photos (From top):
- Creating a culture of health safety has become a priority for all departments. At the forefront of this initiative are Sherri Smith, associate provost and associate vice president for academic affairs; Tracy Smith, director of environmental health and safety; Emily Moore, nursing student and president of the Student Nurses Association; and Jaime Taylor, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost.
- Policies and procedures, outlined in a Return-to-Campus guide, are designed to protect everyone while maintaining high academic standards. All students are required to sign an agreement that they will wear masks and follow all university safety protocols.
- Marshall student Lauren Easter models one of the university’s face masks. This semester students are required to wear masks or face shields when they are inside any building on campus.