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Administration doubtful of full return to in-person classes for Fall 2021

By Jared Graf

FSU faculty and administrators expressed uncertainty about a return to full in-person learning for the fall 2021 semester because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the fall semester, there has been a 4% decrease in the number of day-division courses offered either entirely on campus or in a hybrid format – meaning online with some in-person component – according to data provided by Ellen Zimmerman, interim provost and vice president of academic affairs.

This semester, 88% of day-division courses are being held entirely remotely, compared to 84% that were held entirely remotely during the fall 2020 semester, according to Zimmerman.

“About 12% of classes are being taught at least partly on campus [this semester],” Zimmerman said. “So, 72 classes out of 615.”

These classes vary from labs, studios, and regular lectures, with “some being fully face-to-face,” but “more of them” being hybrid, Zimmerman said.

With fewer courses on campus this semester, the total number of resident students has declined more than 21% since the fall 2020 semester. There are 569 resident students on campus this semester, compared to 726 in the fall, according to Glenn Cochran, associate dean of students and student life.

“I think the number [of residents] is a product of our on-campus courses, first and foremost,” Cochran said.

Jeremy Spencer, dean of enrollment management, agreed. “The more classes that you have on campus, then the likelihood is that you’ll have a greater [number] of students living in the residence halls,” he said.

Cochran said the possible cancellation of spring sports impacted the number of resident students as well. “It’s convenient for athletes to be right here on campus and be close by,” he said.

According to Cochran, a decrease in resident population from the fall to spring semesters is common in normal academic years. From the fall 2019 to spring 2020 semester, FSU experienced more than a 7% decline in resident students, with a total of 1,803 residents in the fall and 1,662 in the spring.

While Cochran said the decline in total resident population this school year has “been the same” as it was in previous years, the decline from Fall 2020 to Spring 2021 was 14 percentage points higher than the decline from Fall 2019 to Spring 2020.

“It really comes down to people’s personal situations,” he added, explaining how some students may have health issues making them more at risk, have family members who are at risk, or have a better living situation elsewhere.

“We’ll be closer to quote-unquote ‘normal’ in the fall, but we’re not expecting to be at full occupancy,” Cochran said. “We’re projecting and planning on being between where we are now and at full [occupancy].”

Robert Donohue, faculty union president and psychology professor, said, “I think there’s a really high probability we’re going to have much more significant on-campus presence in the fall.”

However, he said the vaccine rollout will have “an awful lot to do” with how much the University can ease up on in-person restrictions.

“Right now, the plan is to have at least 75% of the classes [with] some face-to-face component – so either hybrid or fully face-to-face,” Donohue said.

This means classroom capacity would be reduced from the 15-square-foot occupancy limit per person there once was, to a 25-square-foot occupancy limit. Mask wearing and social distancing are still expected to be enforced, according to Donohue.

“I think we’re going to have a higher percentage of courses being offered face-to-face, but whether we hit that 75% target – I’m not sure,” he said.

Marc Cote, dean of arts and humanities, said a full return to in-person learning next semester is the current “trajectory.

“We’re really hoping by that time, we’ll have a pretty fully vaccinated campus,” he said. “We’ve been asking faculty and departments to plan for about a 75% return to face-to-face to some capacity.

“We’re doing a good job thinking through possibilities,” he added.

Although Zimmerman does believe more students will be able to return to in-person classes for the fall 2021 semester, she said, “A lot of that is going to depend, of course, on how the vaccine rollout goes.

“I would say it is a hope [to fully return in the fall] ... but is not at all a certainty,” she added.

Lorretta Holloway, vice president for enrollment and student development, called the possibility of a full return to in-person learning for the fall semester “a great dream.

“We’re living in a bizarre time,” she said, comparing COVID-19 and its death toll to a sci-Z movie because of how “unfathomable” the past year has been.

“I’ve never been a betting person, and with the craziness that’s happened just in the last 12 months, I wouldn’t bet on absolutely anything ever again,” Holloway said. “I’m not trying to be evasive at all. I can say what I hope for, but who knows?”

Lindsey Rimella, a freshman health and wellness major, believes there should be more in-person classes next semester, but admitted that a full return would be tough.

“I would love to have more in-person classes because it helps me learn better,” she said. “But we have to keep people safe.”

Isabella Lahey, a sophomore English major, agreed.

“If [opening fully] is done safely, I would prefer it, because I’m not learning well online,” Lahey said.

“I think it’s probably not going to be possible for a full return, just because not everyone is following safety protocols,” she added.

Holloway said that a full return to in-person learning depends on “how people are behaving now,” and whether they’re complying with regular testing, safety guidelines, and the state’s vaccination rollout.

Spencer said he is “optimistic” about some sort of return to in-person classes for the fall semester, but is unsure about the possibility of a full return.

“I certainly don’t believe that we’re going to be at 100% occupancy. ... There will be some restrictions, but I just don’t know [what],” Spencer said.

Spencer explained the decision to fully return to in-person learning is “contingent upon herd immunity, the vaccine, and COVID tracking.”

Student Trustee McKenzie Ward said one concern she has about a full return to in-person learning is the pacing of the state’s vaccine rollout.

“Due to the slow vaccine rollout, by September, many students and faculty still may not be vaccinated – which could cause issues when it comes to in-person learning,” she said.

“As we all know, circumstances and plans are constantly changing due to COVID-19. But I hope that the

University will update us early on and continue to update us often on their plans for a return to in- person classes in the fall,” Ward said.

She credited the University’s current efforts to keep students and faculty safe.

“They have been doing their best to make sure every student who is on campus or has in-person classes is staying healthy by providing weekly testing and allowing faculty to ask for students to show a negative test result,” Ward said.

Donohue said “so far,” the administration has done a good job of trying to accommodate the needs of students, faculty, and librarians.

“We’re hoping that will continue to be the case in the fall,” he said.

Zimmerman confirmed that the ideal goal is for 75% of classes to be held at least partially on campus in the fall, but acknowledged that could change depending on the state’s vaccination rollout.

“We are asking department chairs to schedule fall classes with that goal in mind and are asking faculty to plan to teach at least two of their three fall courses with an on-campus component,” Zimmerman said.

Donohue said the University’s target-goal announcement was “not handled as well as it might have been.

“I wish there had been more conversation before the decision had been made,” he said. “It was initially communicated to department chairs. Then, some conflicting information came out from the department chairs and the policy was developed before there was any kind of discussion with rank-and-file faculty.”

However, Donohue said once the union notified the administration and academic affairs that faculty wanted to speak with them, “they made themselves immediately available for multiple meetings.

“There’s still a lot of questions that need to be answered, but we appreciated their flexibility in meeting with us when we asked them to,” he said.

According to Donohue, professors have mixed opinions about a full return to in-person learning for the fall 2021 semester.

“Some faculty are desperate to get back in the classroom interacting with students,” he said. “Other faculty are really, really concerned about it being healthy – not only for themselves, but everyone there.”

Donohue believes that if faculty and librarians could get vaccinated before the fall, then they would “feel much more comfortable about being present on campus.”

However, he admitted that it’s tough to decide whether the vaccine should be made mandatory for in-person learning.

Zimmerman said, “We can’t really make the vaccine mandatory unless it’s universally available.”

Holloway agreed. She doesn’t “think there’d be enough time” to make the vaccine mandatory for all students by the fall semester due to statewide availability.

“We can’t say you’re required to do something when we’re not offering it,” Holloway said.

Cameron Dolson, a junior computer science major, said he would be fine if the vaccine were made mandatory for students, but understands why others might not be.

“It’s more of a question about whether or not you’re comfortable with it,” he said.

Micah Itkowsky, a senior computer science major, agreed.

“I think [students] should be given the option,” he said. “If they don’t want to get the vaccine for any health reason, they can still take remote [classes] but not come to campus.”

Lucy Couet, a junior studio arts major, said, “It could be dangerous if the school doesn’t start offering vaccinations.

“As of right now, we don’t have herd immunity,” she added.

Holloway considered the possibility of completely opening residence halls and fully returning to in-person learning if every student were vaccinated by the summer, but said even then, “Fall ’21 is not going to be like Fall ’19.”

Holloway explained that with a majority of classes being held remotely this year, new students aren’t experiencing college life and may have a tough time acclimating. To help with this, faculty and staff have been challenged with finding new ways of supporting students.

Cochran agreed, saying the biggest challenge during COVID-19 has been maintaining contact with students.

“Probably all of us are dealing with ... some level of isolation,” he said. “We’re trying to reach out to people who don’t have a roommate to talk to all the time.”

With fewer opportunities for socialization due to restrictions, Cochran said it’s also been difficult for Resident Assistants (RAs) to create relationships with residents on their floor.

“I think we’re all anxious for the time when it can be more social,” he said.

Since last semester, undergraduate degree-seeking enrollment has dropped more than 10%, to a total of 3,026 students, according to data provided by Spencer. By comparison, from Fall 2019 to Spring 2020, undergraduate degree-seeking enrollment dropped by more than 9%, from 3,745 students to 3,382.

Holloway attributed the decline in undergraduate enrollment this semester to students’ financial issues, additional responsibilities, and the fact that some don’t want to take online classes from home.

“I think people looked at this next semester and really thought to themselves, ‘Yeah, I thought I could do it – I can’t do it,’” she said.

According to Holloway, the Office of Development and Alumni Relations raised “up to” $40,000 in emergency student support funding, knowing that it would be needed.

The student support fund is run by Holloway and includes a laptop loaner program and Wi-Fi hot spots available to those who apply. Although these resources are still available, Holloway said she’s surprised not many students have taken advantage of them.

“I’m going to be honest – I have not gotten the kinds of requests that I would have thought I’d gotten,” she said. “In many ways, it’s completely not proportionate to the kinds of requests I’ve gotten for that funding in the past.”

Holloway attributed this to students being overwhelmed and said it’s difficult finding new ways to help students while a majority are attending classes remotely.

“People are hunkering down, and the less they have to contact someone, the better,” she said.

Holloway also explained remote learning makes it even more difficult for faculty to tell if a student is struggling or in need of help. “I [used to] have professors ... referring people to me,” Holloway said.

Now, she believes students are “suffering in silence” due to different pressures or concerns the pandemic has caused.

Despite this, Holloway also said her office has “been able to help more students” with financial aid than they were in previous years.

Spencer said the amount of financial aid money the University can give students has not changed, but fewer new students are submitting FAFSA forms – which is the official form families must use to apply for federal financial aid.

As of Feb. 5, Spencer said the University has received 5,445 FAFSA forms, compared to the 5,982 forms that had been received at the same time last year.

Holloway explained since there are fewer students requesting support, those who do are receiving more financial aid money because the funds are “spread out” equitably among those who request it. Some of this financial aid money came from the CARES Act, which is a federal COVID-19 relief bill.

To assist with student support and other COVID-19-related challenges, FSU created multiple continuity teams – all of which are subgroups of the University Emergency Planning Committee. A total of seven continuity teams began convening regularly in May 2020 to focus on “strategic crisis planning for the fall 2020 semester,” according to FSU’s website.

As head of the Enrollment Management Continuity Team, Spencer said the teams discuss “everything related to COVID.” Leaders of each team meet on a weekly basis to consider future plans for the University and to review any new COVID-19 developments.

Spencer said the continuity teams have been helpful because “all the key players” are involved in making health- and safety-related decisions, allowing for a wide variety of input.

“We’re very cautious as we go forward with making sure the decisions we make don’t have potential deleterious effects,” he said.

Going into the fall 2020 semester, Spencer said FSU had “record numbers of accepts,” with a total of 5,072 between both first-year and transfer students, according to his data.

“Everything was looking really good. Then, COVID hit and things just got turned upside down for students who were questioning whether they wanted to enroll in a remote format [or live on campus],” Spencer said.

Although first-year students accounted for over 90% of fall 2020 acceptances, with a total of 4,577, only 614 matriculated, or actually decided to enroll, according to Spencer. Of the 495 transfer students accepted in the fall 2020 semester, 276 matriculated.

“Spring is always somewhat challenging [in terms of enrollment],” Spencer said, as a majority of first-year and transfer students enroll in the fall when the school year begins.

This spring semester, FSU received 71 first-year student applications and accepted 48 of those students, compared to the 51 applications and 22 accepts in the spring 2020 semester, according to Spencer.

He said this slight increase was “primarily from” students who deferred in the fall 2020 semester. Seventeen first-year students matriculated this semester, compared to 13 in the spring 2020 semester.

The University also accepted 164 transfer students, compared to 196 in the spring 2020 semester, according to Spencer.

“The transfer population itself is dropping,” Spencer said. Since the last spring semester, the University has experienced more than a 26% decrease in the number of transfer students who enrolled – with a total of 94 new transfers for the spring 2020 semester, according to his data.

“The number of enrollments in community colleges is dropping, and that’s primarily where we get our transfer students from,” Spencer said.

He also said that increased remote learning, limited access to residence halls, and the cancellation of fall sports affected the number of first-year and transfer students. “All these things play a part in the [decline in] enrollment,” said Spencer.

“Everything is just different,” he said while explaining how recruiting students has been challenging. “The way that we’re trying to communicate with students is not face-to-face like it has been in the past.”

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, college fairs have become obsolete and tours of the University’s campus have been “very, very limited,” Spencer added.

Holloway said the campus tours currently offered are “small,” and only allow students to view the outside of buildings. On FSU’s website, there’s a virtual tour option that shows 360-degree views inside buildings, she added.

Spencer said the University has “been very cautious” about the decision to limit the number of “outside people” on campus for tours because of the potential risk of bringing COVID-19 to campus.

Administrators do not travel off campus for recruitment as everything is done remotely, which increases the ability to reach students in “non-traditional ways,” Spencer said.

One of these remote recruitment methods is a bi-weekly Zoom call held by Spencer and Holloway for accepted students.

Both Spencer and Holloway said the bi-weekly event allows them to engage with students in a way they normally wouldn’t have the chance to. However, Spencer said the downside to remote events is “Zoom-fatigue” and the fact that many students’ “appetite for engaging in remote events is waning.”

Holloway agreed, and gave credit to those who attend the virtual events. “If I’m a senior in high school and I’ve been in Zoom meetings all day, the last thing I’d want to do is log onto another Zoom meeting,” she said.

In addition to virtual events, the University sends personalized emails and videos to accepted students, and Holloway said they’re “utilizing data analytics” to target people who may have a specific interest in FSU based on their online habits.

Spencer said another strategy being used to try to increase enrollment for the fall 2021 semester is “a very aggressive outreach campaign” for prospective students.

These prospects are high school students who have taken the PSATs and SATs. According to Spencer, there are “over 74,000 prospects” for the fall 2021 semester – a 57% increase from last fall semester.

“We employ a predictive model, so that of that 74,000, we know who’s highly likely to enroll, likely to enroll, neutral, less likely, and least likely [to enroll],” Spencer said. Of the total prospects, about 32,000 are highly likely or likely to enroll, and they’ve been receiving bi-weekly postcards since September, he added.

Spencer said prior to COVID-19, higher education in Massachusetts was already a “highly competitive landscape to begin with.

“Then, you add the COVID eHects,” he said, “and that sense of uncertainty is just creating a lot of volatility in the quote-unquote ‘marketplace’ for higher education.”

With ever-changing government mandates and new COVID-19 developments each day, Spencer said, “We are all navigating this doing the best that we can,” but he admitted that it’s challenging.

“We’re all trying to figure this out,” he said. “It’s just different.”


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