By Soren Colstrup
The University will aim for 80% of courses to be held in person and for residence halls to be filled close to capacity during the fall 2021 semester.
In a March 26 email, students received notice from FSU President F. Javier Cevallos of the University’s plans for the return of on-campus courses and activities during the fall.
FSU is also planning for a return to in-person events, activities, and campus life, while maintaining safety standards that have kept the positive COVID-19 test rate well below 1% – even during the height of the pandemic.
The University’s plan includes an anticipated full athletic schedule, in-person arts and humanities performances, and fully operating student organizations.
While most courses will be face-to-face, there will also be some offered remotely. This will allow FSU to provide increased flexibility to students who may not be able to return to campus, or are balancing work with their academic schedules.
“We meet with the nine state universities every Monday and we consult with schools like Bridgewater, Salem, Worcester, West<eld, and Fitchburg State universities – we are all aiming for at least 80% of classes to be in person,” said Cevallos. “Most of our classes this summer are going to still be virtual. In the summer, those courses are mostly virtual under normal circumstances, anyway.
“As the vaccines roll out and as the pandemic changes, we will have to react to whatever the situation is,” said Cevallos. “Hopefully, the vaccines will be working, but we do have to accommodate for students and faculty with health concerns, which may not allow them to be on campus.”
Currently, about 12% of classes at FSU are being held with an in-person component, according to Cevallos.
“In the fall, we would like to have the residence halls be at full capacity, but we are obviously limited to state and CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines,” said Cevallos. “Our occupancy in the residence halls is currently at about 25%.”
Cevallos added FSU was “very understanding” in letting students “opt out” of the residence hall contract during the last year because the ongoing pandemic is not a “normal circumstance.”
According to Cevallos, despite the vaccine rollout, FSU cannot require students to be vaccinated unless Gov. Charlie Baker mandates it.
“We certainly want to encourage everyone to be vaccinated, but unless the state requires the vaccine, I don’t think we can make it mandatory,” said Cevallos. “Because the vaccines are still considered experimental, it does not fall into the same category as the other vaccines that are required before attending FSU.”
Cevallos added he is understanding about professors and students who may be uneasy about a return to campus.
“We have had a few meetings with professors and faculty, about the decision to return to campus,” said Cevallos. “Their reactions are about like you’d expect. Many are anxious to get back to campus to engage with students in the classroom, while others have concerns about the potential health issues. We understand that.
“Overall, I think it has been a positive response. Most of our faculty want to be back on campus,” said Cevallos. “We just have to assure everyone that we take health seriously and we will follow all mandated protocols to make sure that everybody is safe.”
Carolyn Maibor, an English professor, said, “I am hopeful that those plans [to return to campus] can go forward. Assuming everyone is able to be vaccinated and no new vaccine-resistant strains appear, it will be wonderful to have some lively, in-person debates in my classes.
“Discussions are sometimes a bit stilted on Zoom, as sounds from one person can cut out somebody else. It has also made shared experiences like watching <lm selections together feel a little less shared,” added Maibor.
However, there have also been some slight advantages to remote learning, according to Maibor.
“For students who are shy about speaking up in class, the chat function has come in handy,” said Maibor. “I have also relied more on discussion boards, which have allowed me to plan live discussions around themes and questions generated by students, rather than beginning from my own focus.
“These are things I hope to continue to incorporate at some level, even when we are back to full-time, in-person classes,” added Maibor.
Other professors at FSU shared similar thoughts and concerns about the return to campus in the fall.
David Smailes, a political science professor and coordinator and advisor for the master of public administration program, said, “I’m very happy that we will be going back to in-person learning in the fall. It’s a chance for us to begin to reunite, as a learning community, here at FSU.
“I am concerned for students and colleagues who might have ongoing health issues, but I’m sure we can continue to find innovative solutions to address those situations.”
According to Smailes, one of the positive sides of this difficult time has been the expansion of
everyone’s online skills.
“We have all had a crash course in online learning,” said Smailes. “I taught a number of online courses at another institution before coming to FSU, so I found that transition to be an easy one. Making online courses work always requires creativity and rethinking what we do as professors.”
According to Smailes, that “spark of innovation,” which all faculty try to keep alive in their courses, was even more important over the last year.
“I’m looking forward to being back in person,” said Smailes. “There really is no substitute for being able to interact with a class, and since my <eld is political science, I miss coming into class and talking about what was in the headlines that morning. Those discussions always bring so much more to the subject of the class and make learning together a more enriching experience.”
Students at FSU seemed to be nervous and eager to get back in the classroom, while also having concerns about the looming uncertainty of the pandemic.
Kaleb Kinskey, a freshman computer science major, said, “I am so excited for in-person classes next year. I feel like all I currently do is sit on my computer in my room throughout the week. It will be nice to get back to the classroom because I will be able to engage the material more.
“I am also really looking forward to meeting new people in person, instead of through a screen. Being in an actual classroom will allow me to be more social and improve my overall mental health as a result,” added Kinskey.
Angela Tiernan, a freshman criminology major, said, “In the comfort of my own home, it was tough to stay engaged online during the past year. Distractions are so much more accessible when you’re not actually present for the class.
“I’m excited for in-class courses because I’ll be able to get my work done more efficiently. I’m also looking forward to socializing and meeting new faces since that has been difficult to do without being on campus,” she added.
Zach Bettmeng, a junior nutrition major, said, “I am eager to get back to campus in the fall. It’s strange to be a part of the demographic of students who are returning to college campus for classes after being away for over a year.
“I am slightly worried about the need for booster shots next year, and I also worry about some of the new variants that are surfacing throughout the world, but I trust FSU has everyone’s safety in mind,” said Bettmeng. “Thankfully, I am fully vaccinated, so I am more comfortable being back on campus in the fall than I was a few months ago.”
Cevallos also acknowledged the number of students who decided not to come back to FSU during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am hoping that all of our students who decided to sit out for one year because of the pandemic will feel it is safe and come back to study,” said Cevallos. “I worry about a whole cohort of students who may not come back to continue their studies. That would be a shame to lose so many minds and so many professions.”
According to Cevallos, over the next two years there may be some changes in the way that faculty teach, regarding meetings and online learning, but in every challenging situation, there is always a positive side.
“The positive side is that we have found that we can accomplish things through the use of technology that we never thought we could do before,” said Cevallos. “The use of technology will certainly be different. I am sure a lot of meetings will be held virtually. However, this is a teaching institution, and we expect to be teaching in the classroom in the fall of 2021.”