Bit by bit, Utah college and university campuses are reclaiming normalcy after COVID-19 forced instruction online and many cherished college experiences were either put on hold or altered to meet public health requirements last academic year.
With growing numbers of people vaccinated, there is growing optimism that students will largely return to in-person learning and cherished traditions will resume with perhaps an even greater appreciation for the college experience.
Early indications are more students are applying to college and there is a backlog of students who want to live on campus, said Dan Reed, the University of Utah’s senior vice president of academic affairs.
“It’s too early to tell what will happen but we’re certainly seeing a lot of enthusiasm from parents and prospective students about wanting to get back with an in-person education,” he said.
Applications are up 20% from a year ago and the university has received a large number of deposits from first-year students. Not everyone who expresses interest shows up at the start of fall term but all are positive signs, he said.
Students can expect a return to more typical college experiences such as fall football games after most athletic conferences suspended or postponed their seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The University of Utah welcomes a return to Pac-12 play in a newly expanded Rice-Eccles Stadium, which will now seat 51,444 people, said Paul Kirk, associate athletics director for strategic communications. The U.’s football season opens on Sept. 2, with a game against Weber State University, the defending Big Sky Conference champions.
Westminster’s holistic support of students
Westminster College President Beth Dobkin said the college is launching a new program to support new students by pairing them with faculty, staff and peers to help guide them through their college experience starting when they register for classes.
Last fall, some students held off enrolling in college due the uncertainty of the pandemic or a reluctance to enroll in online programs after finishing their senior year of high school via remote learning.
“That kind of holistic support is going to be critical for some of these students, particularly the ones who have had to miss class or ones who are kind of sitting on the sidelines. What they don’t realize is, by delaying the start of their college education, they’re really delaying the start of a career and their lifetime progression through those careers,” Dobkin said.
Westminster, a private liberal arts college, plans to offer the vast majority of its undergraduate courses in person this fall, Dobkin said.
“We will continue to have about 10% of those courses online because learning in an online environment should be part of any well-rounded education, I believe. It shouldn’t be the primary (mode) for most students. Some students are fine with it but not for the kind who want to be at Westminster. At Westminster, that combination of primarily in-person with the attainment of online learning skills is the perfect combination for our students,” she said.
To keep the campus community healthy and learning together, Westminster College has joined the White House’s College COVID-19 Vaccine Challenge.
The challenge asks participating institutions to take specific steps to help get their campus communities vaccinated. Westminster has already met many of the requirements.
Once the Food and Drug Administration grants full approval of one or more COVID-19 vaccines, Westminster plans to require faculty, staff and students who learn and work on campus to be immunized against coronavirus, although legally required exemptions will be honored.
A recent survey of Westminster students, faculty and employees indicated 92% of respondents are fully vaccinated. The survey had a 37% response rate.
USU’s Luminary lights the way
Fall term at Utah State University is expected to be a “more traditional Aggie experience,” USU President Noelle E. Cockett said in a statement.
That means offering at least 80% of classes in person, a regular academic schedule and giving students the option of eight course delivery formats, which include all in person, all online and an array of hybrid options, said Amanda DeRito, associate vice president for strategic communications.
“We’ve found that a lot of students really liked that so we’re really looking at how do we accommodate all of these different preferences. Some students really want to be in person. Some really want a mix of both to accommodate other things they want to do in their life like working and being with family, so we’re working to accommodate a lot of different preferences right now,” she said.
One cherished tradition expected to return to its full grandeur is USU’s Luminary, now in its seventh year.
The night of Aug. 27, incoming students enrolled in the university’s Connections course will join in a procession from the Spectrum arena to the USU Quad carrying lanterns shaped like the tower of Old Main, the first building built on campus.
When students graduate, they process from the Quad to the arena for commencement, so the welcoming event serves as “kind of a bookend of their graduation,” said Harrison Kleiner, associate vice provost for general education, who oversees USU students’ first-year experience.
Some 3,000 students will carry lit lanterns across the campus to the Quad where they will pose for a class photo while joined in the shape of a block letter A.
Cockett will welcome them and explain the meaning behind “lighting the A blue” on Old Main Tower, which can signify a victory or honor bestowed on the university or its students. She will then turn the “A” on the Old Main tower from white to blue to honor the incoming class.
Last year, students were required to wear masks and observe social distancing. This year, masks will be encouraged and “we’ll build in a little social distancing in the Spectrum,” said Kleiner.
“Otherwise, I think it’s going to feel a lot like 2019, and we’re really excited about that,” he said.
Kleiner said the campus is pivoting from “risk management mode” to encouraging students to exercise personal responsibility to keep themselves and others safe and healthy.
Under state law, masks are no longer required on public college and university campuses cannot require COVID-19 vaccinations but both are encouraged, he said.
“So the personal responsibility side is, ‘Hey, get vaccinated. We can’t require that of you but the science says that you can keep yourself really safe if you go get vaccinated,’” Kleiner said.
This year, the luminary event will take place simultaneously on all three of USU’s residential campuses, which include USU Eastern in Price and the USU Blanding campus.
“We think the residential experience is a really important part of the student experience at those three campuses. So we’re trying to safely get back to as much of that face-to-face, in person, residential student experience as we can,” Kleiner said.
Green Skousen, a recent graduate of USU who worked through much of the pandemic as a resident assistant, said COVID-19 protocols presented challenges for staff who labored to connect with and support residents.
There was “a lot of trial and error” during the 2020-21 academic year as staff attempted to develop activities for students while also ensuring they abided masking and social distancing requirements.
They hosted virtual game nights which “had decent attendance, but when everybody’s already online for everything else, the last thing they want to do is join another Zoom meeting with people they barely even know,” Skousen said.
Perhaps more challenging was that resident assistant staff were tasked with making sure students wore their masks “so we kind of became viewed as mask police instead of people who are trying to encourage communities and create experiences.”
Once the mask mandate lifted, so did tensions between residents and staff, said Skousen, who is now an office administrator in USU Housing Services.
“It does feel better, from my perspective, for sure,” Skousen said.
Weber State’s listening ear
Weber State University President Brad Mortensen said the university is looking forward to “a really vibrant, in-person fall semester that capitalizes on some of the virtual capabilities that we’ve built up over the last 14 months.”
The university plans to offer more hybrid classes and improve online classes. Seventy-five percent of the classes taught in person in 2019 will be taught in person again in 2021, meeting the benchmark spelled out in SB107 passed during the Utah Legislature’s 2021 general session.
Mortensen urges people who have put off college due to Utah’s strong economy or other reasons to reconsider. People with college degrees earn more money over a lifetime, and they are less likely to lose their job during economic downturns.
“There has never been more federal money flowing to support students to get a higher education than there is right now,” Mortensen said in a statement. “So if you’ve ever dreamed of getting a college degree, you should do it now.”
The campus will kick off the academic year with its Block Party on Sept. 3. The daylong event on the Ogden campus starts at 8 a.m. with Mortensen and other administrators serving purple pancakes.
The university has hosted the event for more than a decade, but “this year might be the most important one ever as we reconnect students to the many opportunities and events easily available to them as Wildcats,” said Tara Peris, Weber State’s Student Association advisor and event director.
The U’.s Reed said he is approaching the upcoming academic year with “cautious optimism in the sense there are many unknowns.”
The pandemic presented challenges for the university community “because we had to, essentially, reinvent the entire process with relatively little notice,” he said.
But it also presented opportunities to rethink the U.’s practices and policies such as telework, which would enable some employees to work part of the week from home depending on their roles and responsibilities, he said.
In the event another shift to digital instruction and learning is needed, the faculty has the know-how and the university has appropriate technology. Most students are well adept at accessing and navigating online platforms.
“In the spirit of ‘Don’t waste a crisis,’ how do we learn from it? I think everyone is taking a deep breath and looking forward to returning to a new version of the things that we think are the really the defining attributes of a great college experience,” Reed said.