When students return to the Simpson College campus this fall, it may seem like a different world.
A world in which Labor Day isn’t a holiday, fall break doesn’t exist, and everyone has to complete a daily online health assessment before going to work or class.
All of those steps are the price for holding classes in-person, mostly face to face, said Heidi Levine, vice president for student development and planning at the college, and chair of the school’s crisis management team.
The college sent most students, faculty and staff home and moved to online courses when the pandemic hit in March. Now Levine is leading the effort to bring them back to campus for the fall.
“The students who have chosen to be at a place like Simpson, the experience we offer them is very much based on a face-to-face community experience,” said Levine recently. “We were able to do what we needed to do to get through the spring semester, and there’s no question it was the right thing to do, but that’s not who we are.”
Levine said that the college has developed a four-phase system — red — with everyone learning and working from home; orange, with people maintaining social distancing, wearing masks and group gatherings limited to 10 outside of the classroom; yellow, with social distancing and masks still required, but larger group gatherings allowed and classrooms operating at 100 percent. The final stage, green, will come either when a vaccine is available or reliable testing is accessible, makes mask use optional, but otherwise, denotes a campus that is back to normal.
“Red is what we have been living with,” said Levine. “But we’re moving to the orange phase.”
That’s where campus will sit when classes start Aug. 24, a week earlier than usual. Move-in will begin on Friday and Saturday, with move in times spread out. Football players likely will come even earlier, said athletic director Bob Nutgrass, since the NCAA is now allowing fall sports practices to begin Aug. 10.
Students own't be the only ones heading back, added Levine. "As we are returning to face-to-face learning, we also going to face-to-face work," she said, although students and faculty and staff with complicating conditions will be able to request accommodations, she said.
Once on campus, everyone will live within strict guidelines for two weeks, said Levine. Students will only be able to enter the residence hall where they live while building services will be cleaning communal spaces more often. Everyone will be required to wear a mask outside of their dorm rooms and every member of the faculty, staff and students will complete a health assessment daily before heading to class or work. The assessment isn’t asking if people have been diagnosed with the virus, said Levine.
“This is if you have a cough, you’re not to go to class,” she said. “If you have a constellation of symptoms, we recommend you talk to a health professional.”
The health assessments will be handled through the Warren County public health department, which would work with people with on diagnoses, treatment and contract tracing, just as they would for any other county resident, Levine said. There could be consequences for those who fail to do that daily check in, don’t wear masks or violate housing unit visitation policies, she said.
After 14 days — the generally accepted incubation period of the virus — assuming there are no widespread outbreaks, the school could move into the yellow phase, with larger gatherings allowed. If cases start to creep up, tighter restrictions would be implemented, she said. If the number of cases fall, they can be relaxed.
The main goal, said Levine, is to get started, and get done before any second wave begins in the late fall. To that end, classes will be held on Labor Day and fall break is cancelled, said Levine. Students won’t head home until Thanksgiving. Once they go, they’ll stay there and take their finals online before returning for the spring semester in January.
“One of the main driving forces behind revising the calendar is we want to minimize as much as we can mass coming and going from campus,” Levine said. “Every time our students scatter and come back, we need to go back to living with those really restrictive guidelines to ensure we are not setting the stage for an outbreak on campus.”
But as much as officials hope there are no cases, Levine said that realistically, Simpson likely will have cases.
“We are planning as if we will have cases,” said Levine. “Part of our planning involves having spaces where we can isolate someone who is ill or exposed.”
That will include college apartments or rental homes with kitchens, she explained. If there was an exponential level of spread, she added, the college would be prepared to return to remote learning and working.
Students leaders will be expected to lead the way, she added, encouraging their fellow students to follow mask protocols and maintain social distancing.
In the midst of all the restrictions, they will try to maintain many of the aspects that students enjoy. There will be lectures, although fewer people may be able to attend in person. Some performances or presentations may be live streamed so people can share the experience without being in the same room. Music and theatre faculty are looking at the guidelines for their disciplines and what they can do safely.
The football team will be asked to isolate themselves at home for two weeks beginning July 24. They’ll report to campus and begin practices around Aug. 10, followed by athletes from other sports. A 10-game football season is slated to kick off Sept. 5, said Nutgrass, although colleges in the American Rivers Conference will be allowed to drop a game from their schedules due to COVID concerns without losing eligibility for post season play.
The athletic department is still ironing out details on how many spectators will be allowed for various sports, he said, with facilities already only half full for soccer and other sports. A bigger concern is that when you play, you can’t social distance, he said.
“We have talked about soccer players on the bench being 6 feet apart,” he said. “But it is a concern. You can’t social distance when you’re blocking somebody.”
Another concern is working with the college’s transportation partner — Windstar —to keep players, coaches and drivers safe when traveling to away games. They also are looking at how to feed all students, not just athletes, safely — perhaps shifting to grab and go meals rather than sit down meals in a dining hall, said Nutgrass.
“There’s so many tentacles involved,” he said. “The biggest thing is the unknown, just not knowing for sure.”
Levine said there are questions remaining. One parent at a town hall meeting asked about study abroad plans for 2021, an issue that hasn’t risen to the top of the priority list yet, she said.
The biggest factor, she said, is everyone recognizing that safety procedures such as wearing a mask or social distancing isn’t just about protecting the individual, or even friends.
“It’s about me protecting my floor, my faculty members,” she said. Even more, “It’s protecting our ability to be here.”