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.