It has been almost three months since St. John’s University closed its campuses in accordance with stay-at-home orders to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. As states across the nation are gradually opening up, higher education institutions are planning and preparing for a return to campus in the fall semester.
On May 1, 2020, I announced the appointment of the cross-functional Return to Campus Task Force (RCTF) to develop a comprehensive plan for the safe and gradual return to campus of our students and employees in the coming academic year. The task force, co-chaired by General Counsel Joseph Oliva and Provost Simon Møller, is comprised of administrators and faculty from various units. Guided by local, state and federal public health guidelines, the RCTF has focused on developing social distancing strategies, health and safety measures, outbreak responses, communication plans and mental health counseling initiatives. As always, the health and safety of students, faculty, administrators, and staff will remain our highest priority in developing plans for reopening the campus in the fall semester.
As presented during the virtual meeting attended by members of the President’s Advisory Council (PAC), Academic and Administrative Assembly (AAA), and invited campus leaders on May 22, 2020, below is a summary of the University’s current plans pertaining to the delivery of academic programs, health and safety measures to protect students and employees, and preliminary timeline of activities to prepare for campus reopening in the fall semester.
Delivery of Academic Programs
The delivery of academic programs is a critical component in our campus reopening plans. Following social distancing guidelines, a flexible instructional format is being planned to provide students with a hybrid of face-to-face instruction and online instruction. Students on campus will be able to avail of both in-class instruction and remote synchronous/asynchronous instruction through various technology tools.
As part of the scenario planning for the delivery of academic programs, the Office of the Provost is working with deans, department chairs and program directors to determine which fall classes are best suited for face-to-face instruction or for online instruction. Three possible scenarios are being envisioned for class offerings which will be refined based on public health guidelines as the summer progresses:
Based on recommended health and safety measures, a preliminary assessment of the seating capacity for all classrooms in Queens, Manhattan, Hauppauge, and Staten Island campuses has been conducted. Using the six feet social distancing guideline, the existing seating capacity for each campus ranges from 34 percent, 49 percent, 53 percent, to 39 percent, respectively. To expand the face-to-face instructional seating capacity, the feasibility of repurposing non-classroom venues (such as Taffner Field House and DAC multi-purpose rooms) for instructional purposes is being explored. The option of adding other temporary classroom facilities is also being considered.
Since we started implementation of our strategic priority to enhance the teaching and learning environment, more than 85 percent of University classrooms have already been updated with technology tools that facilitate face-to-face, synchronous, and asynchronous instruction. These technology tools, including lecture capture and livestreaming, are being installed in additional classrooms this summer to provide more flexibility in the hybrid delivery of academic programs. Classes already being offered online in previous years will continue to be offered online in the fall. In addition, classes that transitioned successfully to an online format this spring semester and are anticipated to be offered in the fall will be considered to continue in an online format.
To enhance the delivery of academic programs using technology tools, Canvas, a learning management system (LMS), will be available for use starting this fall semester. Canvas is the leading LMS in higher education today. In order to teach hybrid and online classes, the Online Teaching Essentials (OTE) certification program will be offered during the summer. Faculty who are not OTE certified are encouraged to avail themselves of this professional development program by informing their department chair who will coordinate with the Office of Online Learning and Services. The Office of Online Learning and Services has also developed two self-paced foundational modules. The first module (3 hours) deals with Canvas, WebEx, and accessibility and inclusion, and the second module (6 hours) focuses on the fundamentals of online pedagogy. Faculty who are not planning on becoming OTE certified over the summer are encouraged to complete the two self-paced foundational modules.
In early March, when the campus was considering the possibility of transitioning to remote learning due to the spread of COVID-19, Provost Møller formed the Academic Task Force composed of faculty and administrators from various academic units and offices. The Academic Task Force has been working closely with the Provost, deans, chairs, and faculty in:
In planning the delivery of academic programs, there are additional questions being considered:
The Academic Task Force will take the lead in exploring these questions and will submit their recommendations to the President’s Advisory Council and Provost Deans’ Council. The deans will discuss these recommendations with their department chairs and faculty. Input and suggestions from the campus community are welcome and can be sent to Associate Provost Linda Shannon ([email protected]), Academic Task Force chair.
Employee Work Environment
A risk mitigation strategy for employees such as rolling occupancy is being developed, including flexible on-campus and remote working schedules and office spaces. Steps are being undertaken to ensure appropriate physical distancing in all work areas to reduce office density. Installation of protective equipment (e.g., Plexiglass barriers/shields) in high volume areas on campus has already started. Offices are being mapped out to identify critical high-traffic areas or potential hot spots so that the appropriate risk mitigation strategies can be designed. Employees who are concerned about returning to campus due to pre-existing health conditions are encouraged to contact the Office of Human Resources.
Health and Safety Measures
As part of the RCTF plan, adequate supplies of face masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) for students, faculty, administrators, staff, and visitors to St. John’s campuses are being secured. All members of the campus community will be encouraged to wear face masks. Face shields will also be produced using the University’s 3-D printers as additional PPE. Plans are being developed to provide a sufficient supply of hand sanitizer, soap, and individual hand sanitizer dispensing stations throughout the campus. Enhanced cleaning protocols will be implemented so that all physical space on campus is sanitized and disinfected daily, and high-volume areas will be sanitized and disinfected throughout the day.
Mapping the room configuration of residence halls has also been initiated to determine the appropriate density plan for occupancy. Based on public health guidelines, preliminary estimates show that the occupancy of residence hall rooms may have to be reduced to a range of 59 percent to 75 percent of pre-COVID-19 capacity. Similar mapping initiatives are being explored for cafeterias and other open spaces. Distance signage will be designed and placed in many key locations on campus to remind community members to practice social distancing whenever possible.
A plan is being developed to implement comprehensive testing, tracing, and monitoring protocols in collaboration with a local healthcare system and public health officials. Voluntary temperature checks will also be considered as another precautionary tool. Due to the possibility that individual community members living on campus might test positive or be exposed to COVID-19, a temporary quarantine facility is planned to be designated on the Queens campus for those living on campus and who do not need to be hospitalized. Decision processes for shutdown plans and emergency communications regarding building closures, dorm closures, and/or University-wide closures will also be developed in the event that there is a surge in COVID-19 cases. In addition, plans will be developed to expand mental health counseling resources for students and employees, including teletherapy.
Preliminary Timeline of Activities
Contingent upon the release of and adherence to New York State (NYS) guidelines on campus reopening for colleges and universities, a preliminary timeline of activities has been drafted in accordance with the recommendations provided to the Governor’s office by the Council of Independent Colleges and Universities Restart Task Force. This includes a gradual restart (May 2020 – August 2020) in which there will be no in-person classes with limited exceptions, and opening of residence halls to prepare for fall semester move-in with full operations to start in August. During the next three months, the preliminary timeline of activities and plan of work are as follows:
As we continue planning throughout the summer, we will provide the campus community with regular updates and relevant information regarding reopening plans for the fall 2020 semester. I pray and hope that we can welcome all members of the St. John’s University community, most especially our incoming and returning students, to campus in the fall semester.
Best wishes for a safe and pleasant summer.
Conrado "Bobby" Gempesaw, Ph.D., President