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Union University’s scramble to reopen

Most Christian colleges can’t afford to stay closed in the fall

Union University’s scramble to reopen

(Kristi McMurry Woody/Genesis)

On Thursday, March 12, junior Grace Ingram was eating dinner with friends in the cafeteria at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., a small city between Nashville and Memphis. Partway through her meal, the background chatter shifted. The zoology student looked up to see students checking their phones. Some cheered and danced. Others looked upset. A few walked out. 

When Ingram checked her own phone, she found an email from administrators announcing Union was going online beginning Monday. “We hope to resume face to face instruction on Monday, April 13 … no need for any residential student to move belongings out of your apartment if/when you leave.” 

When school couldn’t reopen in April, a few dozen students couldn’t get back to collect their belongings. Union staff members had to empty refrigerators, throwing away frozen meat and leftovers and making video calls to students who left possessions in common areas: Is this your microwave? Your clothes in the dryer? Your dirty dish? 

The spring shutdown of colleges and universities was chaotic, but even with months of planning, the fall semester may not go smoothly. While some state universities and prestigious private ones can afford to postpone in-person classes for at least a semester, many small Christian colleges can’t. If they don’t open, students might leave, taking their tuition and room and board dollars with them. Besides, what sets Christian colleges apart is their community life. Take that away and what remains is a husk of the education schools promise—and students and faculty sign up for.

Kristi McMurry Woody/Genesis

(Kristi McMurry Woody/Genesis)

UNION UNIVERSITY ADMINISTRATORS agreed to let me peek behind the scenes to see how the school planned to reopen in person, what planning looks like amid so much uncertainty, and how schoolwide policy decisions translate to student life in the dorms, classrooms, common spaces, and events. Union spent $1.6 million on partial room and board refunds last spring. Federal CARES Act funding and a temporary hiring freeze kept Union solvent, but it can’t afford to keep students remote this fall. 

Changes start with move-in on Aug. 14. This year, families won’t pack Union’s gym, and 600 volunteers from local banks and churches won’t surround arriving cars to unload students’ belongings. Instead, Union planned a drive-thru check-in system with five lanes and online paperwork, with only mask-wearing college volunteers unloading cars.

Once students reach their dorms, they will be in their own rooms, four rooms to a unit, each unit with its own bathroom and kitchen. The school set aside 30 apartments in case one student in a pod tests positive for COVID-19 and must move to quarantine, where cafeteria meals will be delivered.  

When students leave their apartments and head to class in the mornings, they’ll notice more changes. In early May, Union divided 36 faculty and staff members into task teams, each assigned a problem to solve. Particular disciplines didn’t matter all that much. For example, theology Associate Dean Jacob Shatzer joined the space and de-densification task force—“Space Force” for short—with its mission of telling the school how many socially distanced students could fit in each classroom.

The Space Force gathered in a classroom at separate desks to read Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and research papers. If everyone wore masks, one study said, the risk at 3 feet apart was no greater than at 6. Union split the difference and required 4.5 feet between people in classrooms. At first, Shatzer figured he could divide the typical maximum occupancy of each room in half. But real rooms, with different-sized desks, doors, and aisles, needed individual consideration.

Space Force members canvassed dozens of classrooms. Shatzer carried a clipboard and his tape measure from home. When it stuck, he measured his stride and paced out the classrooms. With Susan Hopper from the registrar’s office, Shatzer dragged desks and chairs, considered sight lines, and diagrammed each room’s new maximum capacity. One room across the hall from Shatzer’s office went from 46 to 26 students, allowed in every other seat. Another stayed at 25, desks rearranged to use previously wasted space. Hopper rewrote the class schedule for the new occupancies.

Students may find themselves in unusual classrooms like the theater or an event space off the dining hall. They’ll sit in assigned seats to make contact tracing easier. Professors will teach wearing clear face shields—a decision Shatzer likes, though he worries he’ll have to wipe off spit mid-lecture. And in the 10 minutes between periods, while students swap classes, cleaning crews wearing backpack sprayers are supposed to mist classrooms to sanitize desks and chairs. 

Kristi McMurry Woody/Genesis

(Kristi McMurry Woody/Genesis)

COMPLEXITIES INCREASE once students leave classrooms and gather to study and relax in campus common areas. Union’s Bowld Commons building has TV rooms, pingpong tables, and dozens of couches, love seats, tables, and chairs. It’s potentially a 30,000-square-foot COVID-19 minefield. Will students distance on their own, or should couches be covered and TV rooms blocked off? How long will it take for the orange-and-teal CDC posters to blend in and be forgotten? 

The resident assistant on duty at the welcome desk can remind students to wear masks and stay apart, but what happens if a student refuses? Spray bottles are scattered throughout the building so students can disinfect tables and chairs—but will they? The RA on duty is supposed to make hourly rounds to sanitize common surfaces like doorknobs, vending machines, and public computers. The school hired more housekeeping staffers to deploy for extra cleaning.

A short walk from Bowld, the campus gym is operating at half capacity this semester. Temperature checks at the entrance are supposed to keep out anyone with a fever over 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Half the treadmills are off-limits and weightlifting benches are in storage so other equipment can be spread out. Students may use rags and spray bottles with bleach water to wipe down equipment after using it. Those working out don’t have to wear masks: Many professors during the summer wore masks, but few students did. Basketball, soccer, flag football, and ultimate Frisbee are out. Tennis, beach volleyball, spike ball, and e-sports are in. 

Then there’s the campus coffee shop, Barefoots Joe, which normally seats about 60 at tables and couches. Baristas are to wear masks, take orders from behind a plexiglass shield, wash their hands after handling cash and credit cards, and hand out sugar packets and straws. But will they be responsible for enforcing social distancing in an atmosphere designed to encourage gathering? 

The plan is to continue hosting coffee shop concerts, perhaps with spaced seating instead of the usual crush of students crowding the stage. 

Even outdoor activities won’t be the same. The Union Cup is a yearlong competition between residence halls that kicks off about a week after move-in. Students run a half-K race through clouds of colored powder and the spray of Jackson’s fire department hoses, then compete in relays, crawling through mud and chugging milk. Usually, hundreds of students swarm the lawn outside Bowld sporting hand-decorated team shirts and cheering. This year the race may be run in 20-person shifts—but does COVID-19-proofing the race destroy the crowd energy that makes it fun?

Even if Union and its students do everything right, the school can’t control its surroundings. Jackson is home to the general hospital that serves most of West Tennessee. In July, the hospital had 77 ICU beds to serve 440,000 people. Union administrators wondered: If COVID-19 cases spike, would Union have to delay starting or go back online?

Kristi McMurry Woody/Genesis

(Kristi McMurry Woody/Genesis)

GRACE INGRAM, now a rising senior, has already tasted campus life under COVID-19. Last spring, she stayed near campus to continue her research. The cafeteria’s self-serve salad bar, toast station, and buffets disappeared, replaced by masked-and-gloved workers dishing chicken, pizza, and hamburgers onto plastic foam plates from behind plexiglass shields. She ate outside, competing for limited picnic tables. 

Still, she’s excited to return on-campus this fall. Seats may be assigned, but she can still walk between classes with friends. Ingram played three intramural sports last year, all canceled this year, so she looks forward to joining whatever campus activities remain. She hopes the annual progressive snacking event won’t replace its homemade brownies and spicy popcorn with store-bought snacks. She hopes her clubs can still share meals and take field trips. Mostly, she hopes all the rules will be enough to salvage her senior year and keep school on-campus.


 

Charlie Neibergall/AP

Hand sanitizer sits on a cart as a custodian cleans a classroom. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Campus contingencies 

Graphic design student Ortencia Garcia doesn’t want her friends back at school. A rising senior at Appalachian State University, Garcia signed a public letter asking the school’s almost 6,000 residential students to stay away from its campus in Boone, N.C.

Garcia understands the need for some in-person classes—she’s taking papermaking and yoga this fall. It’s the time outside the classroom that worries her. Last year she spent most evenings doing homework with friends in the school’s art building. If it closes after class this year, will they pack into someone’s apartment instead? Will she carry COVID-19 from careless students to her high-risk co-workers at a downtown pottery gallery?

Only a fifth of the nation’s colleges and universities plan to hold most fall classes in person, according to Davidson College research. But about 97 percent intend to bring at least a few students back to campus. To prepare, they’ve installed plexiglass shields, rearranged furniture, and written elaborate safety plans. Details differ by campus wealth and culture, but all plans cover the basics: social distancing, masks, symptom tracking, and extra cleaning. 

Some schools have hired extra custodial staff, while others require students and faculty to pitch in. Covenant College in Georgia plans to leave caddies of cleaning supplies in classrooms so students can wipe down desks before class. 

If students want to avoid in-person classes altogether, they can opt for online courses at the University of Pennsylvania and others. At schools including Regent University, they can request accommodation, but it’s not guaranteed.

The plans at Purdue and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology rely on aggressive testing to limit outbreaks. In Washington, Whitman College said the difficulty of getting quick test results contributed to its July decision to move online. Other plans rely on symptom checks: At the University of Pennsylvania, students must answer symptom questions in an app before entering academic buildings each day. Northwestern University tells infected students to email the school their positive test results and any recent contacts. Liberty University will track location data from school ID cards to identify and contact exposed students.

Even the most expensive and tech-savvy plans only work if students cooperate. Many schools require students to sign behavior agreements, and Patrick Henry College asks faculty, staff, and resident assistants to enforce the guidelines. Few schools explain how to react if students rebel. An exception: The King’s College in New York wrote COVID-19 rules into its standing behavior agreement, so the school can follow its usual protocol for rule-breaking. Liberty University will repeat a tactic it used in the spring, posting campus police near dining hall lines to keep students 6 feet apart. Several schools including Eastern University said defiant students could be kicked out of campus housing. 

But schools can’t supervise constantly, so they plead with students to self-enforce. The University of South Carolina launched a hashtag, #IPledgeColumbia, tying COVID-19 safety to protecting the school’s town. Yale University set up a hotline for reporting violations anonymously, while Patrick Henry College asked students to confront each other instead of “snitching.” 

For her part, Garcia won’t confront other students. She thinks students will wear masks if campus culture declares it the moral move. A July College Reaction survey found 95 percent of students say they already wear masks when they can’t social distance. In the same poll, about three-quarters of students said they would avoid sporting events and pre-COVID-style parties this fall. 

But it only takes a few to start an outbreak, and eight of the Princeton Review’s Top 20 party schools still planned to reopen in person as of Aug. 3. In July, UC Berkeley moved online after fraternity parties caused outbreaks. Even if students follow guidelines, local case counts and overloaded ICUs could force schools online. Wheaton College and Dartmouth College told students to pack light in case of a quick move. Cornell University required students to bring only what they could fit in a backpack and two suitcases. 

Students may not know when a change is coming, since very few schools have shared the specific triggers that would force them back online. Liberty University is one exception: Among other measures, it will go online if more than 5 percent of the campus population tests positive or has COVID-19 symptoms. But unless the school keeps a public tally, students won’t know how close they are to that benchmark. 

Meanwhile, a growing number of schools—Clemson, Mars Hill University, Southern Mississippi, and others—have moved the first few weeks of class online. If COVID-19 cases climb, a few weeks may become a semester. Garcia doesn’t look forward to homework alone in her room, but she says masks and social distancing are worth it to keep Boone’s 20,000 residents safe. She hopes other students agree. —E.E.

Esther Eaton

Esther Eaton