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‘Put students first’: Snow College president Bradley Cook on higher ed during the COVID-19 pandemic

The historic Noyes Building, home of Snow College’s administrative offices, is pictured in Ephraim, Utah.
Snow College

Higher education institutions across the country are facing difficult decisions about how best to reopen (or close) their campuses for the fall semester. As president of Snow College, and like many of my colleagues in the state, we have not been immune to that.

As higher education administrators continue to navigate COVID-19, I urge them to adopt a student-first approach and develop policies that put student health, needs and safety above everything else. Whether classes are fully online, in-person, or some combination of the two — students are going to be entering this academic semester with more personal and emotional challenges to learning than ever before. For Utah’s students of color or low socioeconomic status, they’re likely going to have an even more difficult time focusing on their studies given the national dialogue on race that is occurring right now.

As most Utahns know, Snow is based in the small farming town of Ephraim. We’re home to more than 5,000 college students, but the remaining community skews far older. Most of our students are not from Ephraim or neighboring communities, but hail from the Wasatch Front. Because of that, navigating COVID-19 this past semester was a challenge for not only the college but our larger community.

However, alongside our community and fellow Snow College leaders, we were able to navigate this challenge and finish the spring semester by transitioning to remote learning and online courses. In doing so, we ended the semester with no confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the student population, and less than a dozen cases in Ephraim.

As Snow plans to reopen in-person classes for the upcoming semester, via a hybrid model of both online and in-person courses and services, I’m hoping to continue the success of our spring semester by practicing these student-first initiatives:

Bring safety to the forefront of student’s minds: Because Snow’s infection rate was so low, COVID-19 was often seen as “someone else’s disease.” Many students didn’t personally know or hear of anyone close to them getting the coronavirus, and so it was easy for them to view it as a problem for other people in Salt Lake City or outside of the state.

Along with other leaders in Ephraim, Snow administrators made it a priority to communicate the need for enhanced safety and wellness practices regularly with students and local residents to remind them of the pervasive nature of the virus and the needed protocols for staying safe. In doing so, we saw the overwhelming majority of students and faculty wear masks and practice proper social distancing. I strongly believe that Snow’s unique community and support for one another motivated behavioral change, even as “pandemic fatigue” increased.

Work together as a larger community: As safety guidelines change almost daily, we found the most effective way to keep students and residents informed was partnering with local leaders. In March, I helped form an emergency operations committee of key stakeholders, including Snow College administrators, the local police force, student representatives, faculty, housing administrators, city managers and other government officials, to meet on a weekly (or more) basis.

At that same time, we began hosting regular virtual town hall meetings that were open for anyone to join. These town hall discussions proved invaluable because they provided a forum for our community members to ask questions and helped us reduce misinformation. Students and community members felt heard, and we were able to adapt policies as needed. As a new semester approaches, Ephraim and Snow’s leaders will continue to prioritize communication and information-sharing as we support the well-being and safety of our community.

Unfortunately, Ephraim is no longer free of COVID-19 cases and we’re seeing numbers surge across Utah. Like the rest of the nation, we’re looking for a guiding principle to ensure we keep our students and our community safe. I encourage educators and school administrators at all levels (K-12 and higher education) to listen, work with local leaders and put students first.

Bradley J. Cook is the president of Snow College in Ephraim, Utah.