Eastern Mennonite University concluded its fall semester last week. The university completed a large portion of the fall semester with residential students on campus and in-person classes without a major outbreak in the middle of a pandemic. (Photo by Rachel Holderman)

Committed, vigilant campus leads to successful completion of fall semester

As students and faculty wrapped up final exams last week, the Eastern Mennonite University community reflects on the achievement of a major milestone: completing a large portion of the fall semester on campus without a major outbreak in the middle of a pandemic. 

“I am so very proud of our resilient, faithful EMU community,” said President Susan Schultz Huxman. “Our students, faculty and staff all worked courageously, imaginatively and generously this semester so that we could continue to fulfill our educational mission and learn together. This collective, community efforts says so much about who we are: We do indeed ‘Lead Together.’”

EMU held its traditional holiday celebrations early to both celebrate and share gratitude with students before they vacated campus Nov. 25 for the Thanksgiving holiday and winter break. Students finished one week of online classes and reading days before final exams. 

The semester’s culmination in an online format, along with other minor changes to the fall semester academic calendar, was part of plans announced in August in anticipation of the predicted late fall surge in COVID-19.

Sacrifices made for low numbers

A nursing student participates in a clinical with “Floyd,” EMU’s pediatric manikin. Keeping COVID numbers low meant that students in pre-professional programs remained on track to graduate with participation in required clinicals, student-teaching, and practica. (Photo by Randi B. Hagi)

EMU’s COVID numbers were low throughout the semester. For the weeks when students were present on campus, the university recorded 12 cases. From Aug. 1 to the date of publication, the university community had 20 total cases. [See data at EMU’s COVID-19 webpage.]

Exit COVID testing, offered to students before they left, was also an indicator of community health, successful monitoring and mitigation. Of the 94 tests conducted among students, faculty and staff, all were negative.

“Our students took the COVID Commitments seriously and were attentive to following recommended health practices,” said Dean of Students Shannon Dycus. “None of this was easy or light. EMU students made true sacrifices in areas like recreation and relationships for the collective health of our community.”

The university initially delayed the start of the fall semester in August because of four positive tests among student leaders on campus for pre-semester training. This decision proved to be beneficial, allowing administrators and staff to make adjustments to plans in place.

The move-in two weeks later and subsequent in-person classes continued smoothly and without major interruption through the rest of the semester. Read about how EMU faculty took on the challenge of hybrid classes.

All of the fall athletics teams, which will compete during the spring semester according to Old Dominion Athletic Conference plans, were able to continue skills training and conditioning, following strict masking and social distancing protocols, according to Director of Athletics Dave King

The men’s basketball team concluded their season of practices with an inter-squad scrimmage. All of EMU’s athletic teams will compete in the spring semester. (Photo by Jared Oyer)

“I am very proud of the student-athletes and their cooperation with the safety protocols in place during practices this fall,” King said. “This gives me hope for the spring when we will need to be extra vigilant in our safety efforts.”

The teams concluded the semester with inter-team scrimmages. Spring semester will see all of EMU’s teams back in action. [Director of Athletics Dave King hosted his second Fireside Gathering last week to share updates.]

Successful strategies

EMU Health Services director Irene Kniss points to testing and identification of positive cases and aggressive quarantine and isolation measures as solid strategies to keep the case load down.

Additionally, EMU had its own COVID hotline to facilitate efficient and effective response and conducted its own contact tracing. Each member of the campus community was required to fill out a daily symptoms tracker and data was monitored by a COVID Response Team, led by Beth Good. The director of EMU’s cross-cultural programs, Good holds a doctorate in nursing and has years of experience in public health.

“These strategies will continue in the spring semester,” Kniss said.

Many social activities continued this semester, thanks to efforts like this joint art event hosted by EMU’s Art Club and Psychology Club. Many events were held outside. (Photo by Rachel Holderman)

The COVID Response team, which will continue in the spring semester, included 13 employees who took on the care for students in quarantine and isolation. They managed meal delivery, transportation, contact tracing and other health and well-being needs. 

Besides physical care, the EMU community also mobilized around providing ways for students to combat isolation, loneliness and anxiety – all common mental health issues but on the rise especially now. These efforts from Student Life, Residence Life and Health Services, will also continue in the spring, Dycus said, “from quaranteams to spring ‘pause days,’ various activities planned by Campus Activities Council, and different student-led worship opportunities.”

Collaborative effort

EMU’s COVID strategy has been managed by a collaborative team on the Crisis Management Preparedness Team, chaired by Vice President of Finance Tim Stutzman, and by the president and her Executive Leadership Team.

Five tents – the three shown here on the front lawn as well as two near residence halls – were set up this fall for students to use for socializing and studying. Music rehearsals and the occasional class also used the spaces.

These groups as well as subcommittees logged a huge number of hours during the summer and the semester, meeting sometimes daily to address issues. Much of the protocols and processes, developed in accordance with and by requirement of the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia, aided in a strong infrastructure related to public health, student life, athletics and academic plans for a safe return in the fall. These plans are currently being updated for spring semester.

“One of our successes has been the inclusion of a lot of people in their areas of expertise around campus,” Stutzman said. “That includes students, who helped us considerably in the summer with their representation on campus committees and who have shown exemplary leadership, from the Student Government Association to our student leaders in Student Life, and in various clubs and organizations.”

Stutzman and Dycus also noted strong partnerships with city officials, Virginia Department of Health staff, and other local partners. EMU played a role in two local public health campaigns  calling on the community and university students to prioritize public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Communication was a priority from the beginning of the summer. A COVID-19 webpage was launched in March 2020 and updated almost daily. From August to December, the university sent approximately 75 communications. Campus signage related to COVID was a major endeavor.

Looking ahead to spring

When students return in mid-January, many of the campus routines set in fall will continue. There will be some major changes related to testing, driven in part by the availability of testing resources. Additionally, all the athletics teams will be competing, with NCAA protocols for increased testing, as well. 

“The takeaways from this semester are substantial,” said Dycus. “We’ve learned communication practices that keep the EMU community informed. We formed habits in the protocols that keep us healthy and are attentive to the needs of mental health and resilience that will help us maintain wellness. We benefited from our collective commitment this Fall and we are working hard to facilitate the same for our Spring return.” 

The spring semester begins Monday, Jan. 18. That day, the university hosts its annual celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Most events will be virtual. 

“We learned a great deal in the fall semester during what was an intense and serious learning curve,” Stutzman. “We know next semester will present its own unique challenges but the successful completion of fall gives us confidence that we are on the right track with our protocols and procedures, and that all of us, students, faculty and staff, are invested and committed.”

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