Managing the safety mandate
Strategically located in downtown Portland, not many urban campuses offer the appeal of Portland State University (PSU). Long a staple of the downtown dynamic, Portland State’s vibe fits right into a city known for its parks, bridges and bicycle paths, microbreweries and coffeehouses. Defined by a thriving art, theater and music scene, its campus life practically markets itself.
That was until the pandemic hit. Like universities everywhere, PSU moved to restricted access, which means students, staff and faculty only. It’s the first time the student union was restricted in such a way. In addition, PSU made COVID-19 testing available to all students and staff.
The chain of unfortunate events makes Randy Mishler a little sad. As PSU’s Marketing and Communications Coordinator of Campus Events & Student Union activities, Mishler longs for the days where campus dwellers aren’t required to wear appropriate face coverings, employ safe social distancing measures, and are constantly reminded of handwashing and limited capacity notices.
All told, that’s a big hit for a public research university with 26,000 students and 200-plus degree programs. “Most students understand why we’re implementing these measures,” Mishler says. “Because the campus experience is so different, some say they appreciate having student union staff on campus to provide what resources we can. We wish we could do more.”
Since the pandemic hit, Portland State moved all classes online during the spring and has been operating the majority of fall classes online. While the campus was restricted to critical staff only during the spring and summer, a number of departments, including the Campus Events & Student Union office, have been on campus in the fall.
“We know the focus must be that higher ed is about student success and where a college experience can take you.”
— Randy Mishler, Marketing and Communications Coordinator, Campus Events & Student Union, Portland State University
“Some classes have in-person sessions or gatherings, but very few,” Mishler says. “Classrooms practice reduced capacity and proper physical distancing. Several buildings have been closed, while others like the Smith Memorial Student Union are open to students and staff. Many students who live in campus housing and the Portland area make use of the student union from time to time, but it seems like a small number since March. Nobody feels we’re ‘returning to campus’ in the traditional sense any time soon.”
Mishler says the overall attitude seems to be that the campus and student union will return to normal when the outbreak is tamed. And while many students aren’t thrilled with online courses, the most common sentiment is that it’s harder to juggle a full schedule of online courses. “We know the focus must be that higher ed is about student success and where a college experience can take you,” Mishler says.
In the end, quality faculty, courses that mix deep thought with real-life lessons, and staff support that offer the best education for the cost are the goals—in-person or online. “We’ve always been known for a great education at a good price. Some might pick nits about that statement, but our staff is trying even harder to show our value.”
Working with what you have
In March, as the pandemic worsened, Western Illinois University shifted all instruction to an all-online format for the rest of the spring. Essential personnel only were permitted on campus. In addition, the school formed a committee to develop a work-from-home plan, along with university-specific policies and procedures. The “Return to Work Plan,” which closely mimicked the Governor’s “Restore Illinois” plan, featured a multi-stage approach for employees to safely return to campus, and outlined protocols and practices required of all personnel upon their return.
“Faculty, staff and administrators play a huge role in the safety factor. We have to lead by example, which means following the guidelines and being the first to show our students that this is a serious issue.”
— Joseph Roselieb, Executive Director of Auxiliary Services & Risk Management Student Services, Western Illinois University
As the pandemic stretched into the fall, the university enacted several committees to review things like campus safety, academics, events, athletics, and other facets of school life. The plan, called “Protect the ‘Necks,” featured every campus protocol, as well as an online training module and pledge for everyone to review and acknowledge.
“Faculty, staff and administrators play a huge role in the safety factor,” says Joseph Roselieb, Executive Director of Auxiliary Services & Risk Management Student Services. “We have to lead by example, which means following the guidelines and being the first to show our students that this is a serious issue.”
One of the biggest ways to do this is through Western Illinois’ testing protocols and consistent messaging, which includes providing consistent updates on changes to policies, important dates, and other imperative information. “It definitely has changed how students view their education,” Roselieb says. “It’s a double edged sword. In one vein, we really want students to come to campus for an in-person experience, but on the other, we don’t want the online portion to not be effective, so I think we’ll start seeing a combination of how classes are delivered in a much wider variety.”
Heading into 2021, higher education leaders expect to see a lot of the same things in regards to protocols and measures. But as vaccinations ramp up, so will the outlook for some sense of normalcy. “I predict more online or hybrid based instruction will be offered,” Roselieb says. “I anticipate a larger selection of online programs as schools discover and find the effectiveness of some of their programs and how they can be offered remotely.”