Feature: Boise State focuses on enhanced safety and wellness measures to welcome students back to fall semester

As coronavirus cases began to surge in spring 2020, students like senior political science major Alee McCormack, scrambled to move out of student housing.

After receiving an email that she had to leave within a week, McCormack struggled to find a storage unit for her belongings, pack everything she had left into her car and drive back to southern California.

Now, McCormack is back living in on-campus student housing for her final year at Boise State hoping to make memories during unprecedented times.

“It’s my senior year and I was wondering, Are we going to go back? Am I not going to have the on-campus experience? But it’s nice to know I will be in Boise now for my last year,” McCormack said. 

One of her main concerns is how many students will listen to the safety protocols put in place and whether they will realize how important it is to follow the rules to keep everyone safe. To mitigate these concerns of students, the university has put precautions in place to have campus buildings accommodate for physical distance practices and offering some classes online or remotely. 

Other universities around the country have similar rules and protocols, but some students are not adhering to guidelines, and hundreds of COVID-19 cases have been linked to fraternities, sororities and parties. Boise State hopes to keep the campus open by requiring masking and physical distancing, offering flexibility in student learning and making improvements to campus facilities where possible. 

Safety protocol and procedures

In a town hall meeting earlier this month, public health officer Maureen Welcker, and other faculty described four pillars to personal protection from COVID-19: facial coverings, physical distancing, increased personal hygiene and staying away from others when feeling ill. Facial coverings are mandated on campus inside and outdoors when physical distancing is difficult.

“As you probably have and will continue to see, our campus communications continue to drive home the point that ‘we’ve got this covered’,” Welcker said, referring to the university’s current safety motto. “Therefore, we need everyone on campus to be covering their nose and their mouth completely. That is going to be the standard for good facial coverings.”

Students living on campus were given two of their own masks with washing instructions and a university-wide pledge has been sent out to students asking them to acknowledge their role in keeping the campus and each other safe.

McCormack signed the pledge but felt that other students might not give it a second thought. 

“I think the pledge is a good outline of what Broncos should be doing and how many feel, but sadly we already see people disregarding the pandemic and going out to party before the school year has even officially started,” McCormack said.

For students, faculty and administration who feel they need to isolate and quarantine, the Public Health Office works under the Community and Environmental Health Department. The office will be available to offer resources and connections to health care teams for students who are experiencing symptoms or have been in contact with someone with COVID-19. 

Welcker announced there will be an opening of a nonprofit 501(c)(3) laboratory dedicated to adding 2,000 COVID-19 tests a day, with a short turnaround time for results to the community. The laboratory will be opened around Sept. 7 and is in partnership with Boise State, St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center and St. Luke’s Hospital.

“This is also a fantastic example of a can-do attitude and innovation of Boise State,” Welcker said. “Timely testing for asymptomatic individuals in the Boise area has been hard to come by recently, and we had to alter our original plans to have everyone test negative to COVID-19 prior to arrival.”

There are 100 beds set aside in the dorms for students who either have the COVID-19 virus or have come in contact with someone who has had it, according to Leslie Webb, vice president of Student Enrollment and Enrollment Management.

Already students living on campus have fully online or remote classes, and Webb is certain the university intends to stay open throughout the semester, even after Thanksgiving break, for students living in the residence halls. The decision could ultimately be affected by local, state and federal mandates and whether students are adhering to the safety protocols put in place.  

Learning During a Global Pandemic

As the fall semester begins, students wait for their professors to find classrooms to fit their capacity or change to a remote environment to better fit classes’ needs. Interim Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Tony Roark noted there are about 51% of classes in-person or a hybrid version of in-person and remote, which has students log on to Zoom at a specified time. 

The other 49% of classes will be delivered either online, meaning students can log on at any time, or the course will be fully remote. 

“Both of those have benefits, both of them have downsides depending on what your preferences are, but we really have a blend of both of those modalities online and remote,” Roark said. 

Every professor has been asked to have a plan to switch their in-person or hybrid classes to fully remote if the university were to shut down again, according to Roark.

Students who are enrolled in online and remote classes should still have access to their instructors, and professors have been asked to work with students who become ill, according to Roark.

Students will have one academic year to complete their coursework, and a contract will be made between the student and faculty member to replace an incomplete grade with a grade that represents the coursework once it is finished. 

According to Roark, after discussing with other deans and faculty, the decision was made to suspend a policy for students that would have required them to have 80% of their coursework or time completed.

“Moving into this fall, that [policy] seemed to me to be inappropriate, and I was convinced especially after talking to faculty leadership, talking to the deans, talking to some of the students that there needed to be more flexibility,” Roark said.

The hope for Roark is to equip students with all the necessary help and planning his department can provide to make the school year as beneficial as possible. 

Campus Usage

Along with adjusting curriculum for students, different departments on campus have worked over the summer to make sure classrooms will allow students to adhere to physical distancing guidelines and other safety protocols.

With the need for physical distance in classrooms, the entire campus will be utilized as meeting space for classes, including athletic facilities and the Student Union Building. Webb feels confident that if the need arises for a class to pivot from in-person to remote, the university and professors will be easily able to do so.  

“We’ve changed our facilities for this coming year prioritizing your ability to continue your education and so what we’re doing is using our entire campus square footage. We’re spreading out across it so there’s no reduced facility usage,” Webb said. “We’re open and we’re modifying.”

The Facilities, Operations and Maintenance team prepared for the possible arrival of students in the fall as soon as summer began and have been continuing their work for enacting safety protocols as students arrive on campus.

“I call this whole spring and summer the lemonade days because we have just decided to make lemonade out of all of these lemons and so these teams have worked incredibly hard,” said Barbara Beagles, the director of Facilities, Operations and Maintenance. “Campus has never been cleaner. We have painted more miles of real estate in the past four and a half months than probably has ever been painted.”

The buildings on campus have been updated with new ventilation systems from the Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Department. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 600 parts recycled air per billion of air from outside and, if bringing that number lower is possible, it is recommended.

“Every building is different. We might be able to be successful at getting some of these buildings down really low, but it hinges on the type of HVAC equipment in the building,” Beagles said. “Some of this is really antiquated equipment. We don’t have as much control as some of these newer buildings, but we’re still in every building regardless if it’s old or new really bringing in as much fresh air as we possibly can.”

The university is in the process of hiring an additional public health specialist to add additional support to Housing and Residence Life. Webb hopes the added help will mitigate the unknown factors and the evolving situation for the fall semester. 

Webb thanked students for the grace and patience they have shown so far.

“We need it, I think we all need it,” Webb said. “We’re going to need to navigate the complexity of what lies ahead and what we will face together as a community.”

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