Doubling down on its determination to host in-person classes, the JMU Board of Visitors discussed Tuesday how life as a Duke on campus will change this fall in addition to its unanimous decision to rename three buildings honoring Confederate leaders.
President Alger said the university submitted its plan for resuming on-campus operations to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) on Monday. SCHEV required JMU to respond to 32 section topics in its proposal, including how the university will enforce physical distancing and hygiene practices in different campus environments. Alger said developing the plans and protocols was a “herculean task” because of constantly shifting information regarding COVID-19.
“These are extraordinary times for our world and our university,” Alger said. “... [Reopening] is an enormous and ongoing task involving personnel from every aspect of the university.”
Adaptations in the classroom and transportation
Heather Coltman, the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said over 20,000 students registered for 4,025 fall classes. She said a “heap” of eligible returning students hadn’t enrolled yet — potentially because of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Coltman said the provost’s staff individually contacted those students, and nearly half have registered since.
Coltman said she anticipates that up to 40% of classes in the fall will be online or a hybrid of online and in-person instruction, although some deans are only reporting a need for 10% online. JMU is making “case-by-case decisions” on which classes will be transformed into an online format based on syllabuses, learning objectives, class sizes and the preference of the professor teaching the course.
Over 600 anxious faculty members emailed Coltman questions before the faculty senate meeting in June. Some said they aren’t “trusting of students’ behaviors,” while others said they’ll refuse to teach in-person classes. Coltman said the university is taking into account that some staff members fall into the at-risk category for the coronavirus when deciding which classes to move online.
Charles King, the senior vice president for administration and finance, said JMU has spent $400,000 this summer to enhance online instruction capability. Each classroom is outfitted with live streaming and recording capability. King said the JMU IT department is testing a proctoring tool to equip professors with a means to better monitor tests this fall — a concern King said many professors voiced.
“This school will do more with technology as far as providing online instruction than we’ve ever done before,” King said.
JMU Libraries enrolled 264 JMU faculty members in an intensive summer workshop to improve their ability to instruct remotely. Coltman said this is a "radical expansion” of the program, which previously was attended by an estimated 10 to 15 participants.
In the classroom, students will be required to wear a mask or they “will not be allowed to stay in that classroom,” King said. Each classroom will be equipped with hand sanitizers, spare masks and cleaning wipes. A plexiglass barrier will separate students from their professors. JMU will also employ large ballrooms and auditoriums that haven’t previously been utilized for class instruction. Additionally, seating in classrooms will be reduced to encourage social distancing.
Students will also be asked to complete a health screening every day before class on the LiveSafe app. The survey will ask if the student has experienced any COVID-19 related symptoms. Through geofencing — in which a pre-programmed action is triggered when a phone enters a virtual boundary set up around a geographical location using GPS, RFID, Wi-Fi or cellular data — the app will remind students to complete the questionnaire before they attend class.
Because classrooms will be cleaned three times daily — twice during cleaning blocks between classes and once at night — cleaning staff will only clean staff offices twice each week. King said JMU “doesn’t have the manpower” to sustain their former daily cleaning regimen in staff office spaces. Residence halls will be cleaned twice each day.
Buses will also undergo sanitation during the two daily cleaning blocks. While Harrisonburg transit buses normally shuttle approximately 40 passengers, this fall a max of 18 students will be permitted to board. Additional bus routes will compensate for the rider cut. Passengers must enter the bus from the rear entrance and exit at the nose of the bus. Commuters will be required to wear masks onboard and hand sanitizers will be available.
Facility adjustments to prevent the spread of COVID-19
In high-traffic areas like the Student Success Center, staff has posted signage directing people through the space in efficient channels — similar to how grocery stores route shoppers down aisles in one direction. Students will also be encouraged to take the stairs instead of filing into elevators like canned sardines.
Andrew Guertler, the medical director of the JMU University Health Center (UHC), said JMU has completely revamped its health center. It introduced telehealth options to minimize the need for students to physically visit the health center. The UHC also established a separate wing to accommodate patients exhibiting respiratory symptoms to isolate individuals who may be carriers of COVID-19.
Testing is limited, so Guertler said the health center will prioritize testing those with underlying medical conditions. The health center will also engage in basic tracing techniques alongside the Virginia Department of Health to track the virus’ trail and determine strategic quarantining methods.
Guertler said health services staff will follow up daily with students transported to the hospital due to the coronavirus.
In terms of quarantining sick students, Guertler said he recommends that students go home if they can to make informed medical decisions with their families. If that’s not possible, the Treehouse dorms Oak and Willow Halls along Newman Lake have 50 vacant beds. Once those fill up, JMU plans to provide quarantining space at local hotels.
Three new dining facilities will open this fall — one in the College of Business building, one in the Atlantic Union Bank Center and one in the reopened Phillips Hall. Seating will be reduced in all dining facilities to encourage social distancing. To accommodate the seating deficit, dining hours will be extended and D-Hall will operate continuously throughout the day without midday breaks. Dining services will also be running promotional deals to encourage students to use the mobile ordering app.
Robots will also revolutionize JMU’s on-campus dining experience this fall. A fleet of coolers on wheels will cart food from dining services to dorms for contactless delivery. Multiple colleges across the country have deployed delivery robots — including George Mason University (GMU). JMU tested a small squadron of robots in the spring and summer and has decided to contract the same company as GMU for this academic year.
JMU has hired a third party maintenance company to evaluate the university’s HVAC system for ventilation efficiency. King said the current HVAC systems on campus are introducing outside air to their max capacity, which can reduce the spread of viruses indoors according to a report published by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.
The future of athletics is uncertain
Questions surrounding the viability of fall sports are still unanswered. Director of Athletics Jeff Bourne said he’s in weekly contact with athletic directors at other Virginia universities striving to formulate a game plan.
“To call this a challenge is an understatement,” Bourne said.
Bourne said student athletes will be brought back to school in waves. The players will then be broken into smaller “pods” to keep the rate for potential infection down. The first wave of athletes — 85 football players — touched down on campus Monday, and 79 players and staff were tested for COVID-19. The athletes are currently quarantining on campus until they receive their test results in an estimated six days. The men and women’s basketball teams are the next heat, scheduled to arrive on July 20. The soccer teams, volleyball team and field hockey team will roll into campus throughout August.
When asked by a board member about the plausibility of moving all fall sports to the spring, Bourne said simultaneously balancing the fall and spring programs would be challenging. He said the revenue the university receives from the football and basketball programs is a financial incentive to continue the seasons as planned.
The 2020 freshman experience
Move-in day is typically trademarked by hundreds of bustling volunteers carting new Dukes’ belongings into their dorm rooms. This year, however, Vice President for Student Affairs Tim Miller announced to the board that there’ll be no student volunteers to assist with move-in. Additionally, freshmen hauling their luggage into their dorms will only be allowed to bring two helpers from home to cut down on the number of people in the residence halls.
Another notable change from previous years is that move-in will transpire in 12 time blocks over the course of four days, as opposed to the traditional two-day move-in period. Freshman orientation will span five days.
Last year, over 8,000 students crammed into the convocation center for Student Org Night. With social distancing measures like Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) Executive Order 67 ban on gatherings of more than 250 people, events like this won’t be possible in the same fashion.
Miller said most events — including Student Org Night, fraternity and sorority recruitment events, UREC Fest and Block Party in the Burg — will most likely be transitioned to an online or hybrid online and in-person format.
This fall, residence hall occupants won’t be permitted to host guests. Additionally, JMU won’t transform double rooms into triple rooms as they’ve done in the past for large freshman classes.
Miller said all of these adjustments are an effort to control the spread of the virus while students are on campus, but the success of this plan is going to rely almost entirely on student’s choices off campus.
“My biggest area of concern is off-campus activities … They’re the highest likelihood of spreading the virus,” Miller said. “Our students hold the fate of the semester in their hands.”
Contact Brice Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.