Moving day…COVID-19 style

First-year students come to campus with social distancing in mind

Photo by Deb Gau Assistant men’s basketball coach Nick Smith and head men’s basketball coach Brad Bigler helped new students cart their belongings into Sweetland Hall on Thursday.

MARSHALL — There are going to be some familiar sights on campus at Southwest Minnesota State University this fall. Students are returning, as are most of the university’s faculty and staff, said SMSU President Kumara Jayasuriya.

“The plan is to have every office that serves students be open starting from Monday,” Jayasuriya said this week. But while the university plans to start the year with students on campus and in-person classes, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot of things.

The scene outside the residence halls on Thursday morning was just one example. First year students were arriving to move in, but there seemed to be a lot less hustle and bustle than usual. Cars pulled up to curbside check-in stations on Birch Street at 10-minute intervals, and students and their families were directed to unloading areas spread out around the residence halls. Face masks were everywhere.

The need to take precautions against coronavirus has affected all areas of SMSU this year, from academics to student life and athletics. But Jayasuriya said student feedback showed many felt attending university in person was important.

“We don’t want to be completely online,” he said. “We had students who were very clear if we had it online, they weren’t coming back.”

“A lot of students are excited to be back on campus,” said Jess Bentley, assistant director of residential life at SMSU.

Jayasuriya and Bentley outlined some of the many ways SMSU will be adapting to COVID-19 safety guidance this year. While about half of the university’s courses will be held face-to-face this fall, Jayasuriya said other classes have changed to help allow for social distancing. The big question facing faculty was how best to deliver different courses.

“Some classes, like lab classes, you have to do them face to face,” Jayasuriya said. Certain subjects, like languages, also benefit from having in-person instruction.

Jayasuriya said about a third of classes this fall will include some distance learning. “For some of the big classes we are doing a high-flex (model),” where students switch between attending class in person and participating remotely, he said. Other classes may only meet in person once a week. Both approaches will help cut down on the number of people gathered in one place, and allow students to distance.

Some classes are being offered fully online, but that’s not a change from previous years, Jayasuriya said.

Health and safety precautions have made a big impact on plans for student life this year, Bentley said.

SMSU started announcing COVID-19 prevention measures earlier this summer. People are required to wear face coverings on campus, and all students, staff and visitors now must take a health assessment survey before being allowed in.

In addition, most students living on campus this year are either in single-occupancy rooms or in apartments that have separate bedrooms and bathrooms, Bentley said. Traditional residence halls will be cleaned daily, and bathrooms will be cleaned twice daily.

Campus dining is another service that has had to adapt for COVID-19 safety. Bentley said some tables have been pulled from the dining area to allow for social distancing, and meal times would be staggered during Gold Rush Days to cut down on crowds. During the school year, students will have food items served to them instead of being set out buffet style, “and certain things are individually wrapped,” Bentley said.

Another change meant to cut down on the spread of germs is that campus dining will go cashless this year. Students will pay for their purchases with their student I.D. or a credit card, Bentley said.

Bentley said SMSU has also made plans in case a student tests positive for COVID-19. Students who live on campus will be able to self-quarantine there. Bentley said SMSU has set aside around 45-50 residence hall rooms for quarantine, and around another 25 for isolation.

“We had set it up last spring initially,” she said.

Bentley said students who are quarantining on campus will be checked on daily, and will have food delivered to them through Chartwells, the campus dining service.

There are still a lot of unknowns facing colleges and universities in the year ahead. Jayasuriya said SMSU, like other schools, has had to plan for the possibility of going back to distance learning, if COVID-19 cases rise.

“It’s something our team has been discussing for a long time now,” he said. He said SMSU has a decision matrix for whether to go to distance learning, which is modeled on sources like Gov. Tim Walz’s matrix for re-opening schools.


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