While you were gone (copy)

A deserted Burleson Quadrangle earlier this month at Baylor University awaits students’ return. University officials are working out a broad range of details with the intention of resuming in-person classes and on-campus living for the fall semester.

A campuswide Baylor University group, the “Project 8.24” team, is planning for a fall semester with more online courses, spacious seating charts and possibly on-campus quarantine space.

Provost Nancy Brickhouse and General Counsel Chris Holmes chair Project 8.24, coordinating with 10 groups overseeing aspects of reopening the campus for the start of fall classes on Aug. 24, including academics, student life, athletics, marketing and communications, human resources, risk management and compliance and technology.

“We are keeping up with a lot of moving parts in this regard,” Brickhouse said.

Baylor regents on Friday approved an operating budget with a $73 million cut, or about 10%, attributed to COVID-19’s expected effects on the broader economy and on fall enrollment. The university shifted all classes to online formats after spring break, as the pandemic took hold. Now, flexibility remains key as officials work out the details of the return to campus.

The team started by asking faculty members who are considered high risk for serious illness from the virus to self-report as such, so they could be accommodated. The task force is moving the largest classes online to free up large lectures halls for smaller classes to meet while leaving 6 feet between students. For classes with multiple sections, at least one section will be offered online to accommodate international students who cannot return to the campus or those who have to quarantine themselves.

“Within these first three steps, we’ve managed to accommodate faculty who have requested online teaching assignments,” Brickhouse said.

Emergency manager George Nunes is working with county health officials and state officials while other Baylor staff members are working with the governor’s office.

As universities look to each other and experts to find creative ways to adapt, they are also bracing for a second wave of infections, or for a seasonal resurgence of the disease in the fall.

“Our planning for instruction in the fall is focused on addressing the current restrictions but offering in-person classes,” Brickhouse said. “We’re also well aware of the need to be flexible, so we’re trying to build a schedule that has that flexibility in mind.”

Brickhouse said faculty members are being asked to plan classes that can be moved online if necessary, and the university is investing in professional development and upgrades in technology to that end.

“There are certain things we can’t control, but we can control the quality of the work that we do,” Brickhouse said.

Blended courses, split between online instruction and in-person meetings, will be key to their strategy.

“The thing that’s really nice about those is that they are so flexible,” Brickhouse said. “If restrictions were to be lifted, you simply bring all of those people back into the classroom. They no longer have to meet remotely. On the other hand, you can also design it so you’re meeting at a much more restricted 6-foot distance.”

Brickhouse said classes will also be scheduled at a wider variety of times throughout the day.

“(Instructors’ days) wouldn’t necessarily be longer. They would just be shifted,” Brickhouse said. “We currently offer a lot of classes between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., and we need to use late afternoon. We need to use some evening classes and perhaps even Saturday classes, and we need to be utilizing all of our space on campus.”

She said some instructors have requested the option to meet outside, and some classes might be moved into unconventional settings, like libraries or possibly nearby churches.

Holmes, whose background includes experience in business continuity planning, said Project 8.24 members are reviewing how to implement social distancing in Baylor’s dorms.

“I will say that ordinarily the university likes to run those at capacity,” Holmes said. “From a missional standpoint, Student Life really sees that having students live on campus, particularly that first year, is very key to ensuring student success.”

Within the next week or so, Division of Student Life officials will give the Homes and Brickhouse a proposal outlining their plan for next year. The proposal will include contingency plans for isolation or quarantine spaces on campus in case a student in the dorms tests positive for COVID-19.

“We’re studying whether or not it’s best to do that on campus, or whether or not we would actually look at having some off-campus, possibly hotel-like facilities that would be available in the event that the institution actually needed to go that route,” Holmes said.

Brickhouse said staff and faculty with ongoing research labs will gradually return to campus over the summer starting June 1. They will start with skeleton crews and ramp up to include student members of their teams in August.

“In prior summers, the summer school offerings have all been face to face, and this summer they’re all being offered online,” Brickhouse said. “The irony is that we’re doing more summer school. In fact, we have almost double the number of student credit hours this summer that we had last summer.”


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