Shepherd University Adapts Campus Life
Shepherd University is moving forward with virtual and in-person instruction starting August 24, with an accelerated semester that reclaims Labor Day and Fall Break as instructional days and ends just before Thanksgiving.
Even under the best of circumstances, it’s usually still a whirlwind behind the scenes on Shepherd’s administrative side to organize university operations, maintain the facilities and plan for the changing needs and expectations of students. Last spring, the university was also working through a strategic review. The complexity of dealing with health guidelines for the pandemic on top of the normal operations and this planning activity was, in some ways familiar. It was the all-encompassing intensity of rethinking everything at the same time with no pre-established guidelines that became the core challenge.
Holly Morgan Frye, a long-time employee of Shepherd, recently accepted the position of Vice President of Student Affairs and Director of Community Relations. “Way back in January we created the Campus Health Task Force,” explained Frye. “At the time, we didn’t realize that this would all turn into a full-blown worldwide pandemic. We are very grateful for that group that came together, because I am very confident in the work we’ve done not only in projecting the impacts that this is going to have, but being able to lead the institution in March to going completely online. Once we got there, we then had to flip back into a very different summer while figuring out what the fall would look like!” continued Frye.
A Pause, Then Online
Shepherd extended its Spring Break to allow the administration time to make an informed decision about going completely online, which happened at the end of March. Following this decision, Shepherd announced in early April that all summer classes would be going online as well. One-by-one, every tradition that normally filled Shepherd’s campus with life had to be postponed or cancelled completely — sporting events, concerts, Relay for Life, the Contemporary Arts Theater Festival. Even the graduation ceremony for the 2020 senior class was cancelled. Continuing into the summer, reduced submission of ACT/SAT scores due to decreased exam accessibility has even altered the admissions criteria of Shepherd.
As Shepherd navigated decisions surrounding the need to support the health and well-being of its students, employees, and community members, the University moved quickly to face a new challenge. Tucked into all of the corners of the campus are offices of employees who have built a career on providing in-person opportunities for student development, engagement, and support. The services and resources provided by these employees are largely predicated on shared physical space to give support and build community. While receiving guidance and instruction from the upper administration, each office had to create an entirely new plan to stay supportive, accessible, and relevant in a time of distance learning.
Frye explains, “Nobody thought that we could have 45 students on Zoom for Student Government meetings, but it worked. The fraternities and sororities got extremely creative. Our Student Activities and Leadership Office had to create opportunities to stay engaged remotely. One of our graduate assistants, Shelby Maly, worked hard to maintain an active social media presence, and eventually suggested the idea for our new campaign for the fall semester — ‘Get Ram Ready.’ No matter what happens this fall, Shepherd University is committed to delivering high level quality instruction, support, and engagement to our students, and we want our students to have the information they need every step of the way.”
Focus on the Possible
Dr. Scott Beard serves as the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Shepherd, where he has been hard at work ensuring guidelines for quality remote instruction. “We have been meeting since January to discuss different plans, and we have tried to be as transparent as possible with how we think things will happen,” Beard said. “Over the summer, 100 percent of our full-time faculty have completed training and certification to teach online in preparation for the Fall Semester. We feel that it is important to offer some type of in-person experience when possible, made some changes and consulted with faculty about which classes could be fully online.” Some of Shepherd’s professional programs with requirements from accrediting organizations — such as social work, teacher education, and nursing — have experiential requirements for certification which necessitated additional consideration when adjusting instruction methods.
“Kudos to the faculty because they arose to the occasion and pivoted very quickly,” added Beard. “Many of these classes offer unique challenges with remote instruction. Some of the natural sciences labs for example can be conducted at home, but for more complex labs, faculty have elected to record themselves conducting the labs and require their students to identify which steps their professor did wrong. About 23 percent of our classes will be fully online in the fall, with many classes being some level of hybrid based upon the needs of the course. For the instruction that does happen in-person, we have made many steps to prepare our campus community with additional precautions.”
Many institutions of higher education are making sweeping changes to their physical campus spaces to address the changing need for social distancing. While Shepherd’s large commuter population reduces the demand on some in-person services, there were still plenty of changes that had to be made on campus. Jack Shaw, Shepherd’s Vice President for Campus Services, shared just a few of the strategies that Shepherd will be implementing this fall. “Residential students this fall will be mostly within single rooms, though there is a pathway where students can request to live together after signing a waiver,” Shaw said. “Overall this has decreased our number of available beds on campus from 1100 down to around 600 beds, and we will review other options as needed.”
Shaw continued, “We had one point of dining service in the spring up until the end of the semester in hopes to encourage students to support the restaurants downtown, but the fall is going to look a lot different than previous years. We have gone from 240 seats down to 80 seats, and we’re hoping to develop outdoor seating availability on the Midway. The serving areas will be grab-and-go, and with the need to maintain cleanliness, we’ve also made the tough decision to switch to disposables for this semester.”
Beard noted that, in addition to deployment of directional signage and social distancing reminders, the administration is also making several efforts designed to de-densify the campus based upon calculations for social distancing capacity. This has included staggering hours of employees, modifying class schedules, adding more class sections, and removing and rearranging furniture so that most classrooms will be around 40% of their normal capacity. “It’s a big jigsaw puzzle,” added Beard, who also explained that they have built-in set times during the day and overnight for deep cleaning.
Students seem to be anxious to return to campus, but even with the increased number of student deposits this fall Shaw cautioned that changes to residence life and dining situations, as well as capacity restrictions at the Wellness Center, may likely reduce overall revenue for the University in the short-term. Nonetheless, Shaw is optimistic about the coming semester. “We have an opportunity to serve some students that we might not have had otherwise, and so are doing our best to make people feel really good about Shepherd,”
Wear a Mask!
Shepherd students, faculty, staff, and visitors will also be required to wear face coverings at all times, inside or outside, with the few exceptions of being alone in a private vehicle, personal office space, or in a student’s personal residence hall room. “Every student is issued two masks and CDC-grade sanitizer,” explained Beard. “Faculty and employees will also be able to receive masks, and we will have mask dispensers around campus. Employees will also be required to complete a screen form every day and complete a temperature check. Everybody has been working very hard through all of this, and we are excited for the students to come back, but it has to be under conditions that everyone feels safe,” said Beard.
Relying on Evidence & Expertise
“The biggest challenge in leading our group is that everything changes daily,” said Frye. “It’s a novel virus, and we’re learning. The beauty about Shepherd University is who our president is — Dr. Hendrix is a scientist. She is leading the university based on fact, not fiction. She leads based upon her scientific expertise and her contacts within the scientific and medical world. That gives us an incredible advantage in our ability to make good decisions for our campus.” Frye added, “We also have the advantage of being in concert in our thinking with our town’s Mayor, who we meet with twice each week as a part of our Campus Health Task Force. Shepherdstown was the first municipality in West Virginia to officially promote the use of masks.”
The Student Perspective
These changes will have a huge effect on Shepherd students, though some have grown to accept the necessity of these actions. Tyler Izydore will be a senior sociology student at Shepherd this fall and he holds the unique perspective of being the Lead Resident Assistant for Shaw and Thacher Halls as well as the Vice President of the Student Government Association. “It’s a different process, but that doesn’t make it a bad one,” said Izydore. “As an RA, I will be focusing much more on passive programs and checking in virtually to let students know that we’re still there, despite not seeing us as much. As a student, I’ve just accepted that it is what it is. There’s no doubt in my mind that everybody here is doing everything that they can to make Shepherd as safe as possible. I trust the people above me making those decisions. I’m really proud of my institution – I’m proud to be a Shepherd Ram.”
Holly Frye echoed that sentiment, addressing her comment to all students: “Get Ram Ready, because we are committed to open for Fall 2020, and we’re going to help you be successful. Trust us, and please call us with concerns. Sometimes we need a lot of clarity and specificity, but the difficulty that we all face together is that things change on a weekly or daily basis. Though our plans might change, our message that remains consistent is that the safety of our students comes first, and we hope to have a great semester this fall here at Shepherd University.”By Rich Goodman