GFU tackling COVID crisis head-on
Students are back on the campus of George Fox University, but this school year looks like no other in the university's history.
COVID-19 remains a primary concern of institutions throughout the state and country, and universities all over the nation are figuring out ways to keep students, faculty and the surrounding community safe.
Rob Felton, director of executive communication at GFU, acknowledged the unprecedented nature of the current situation.
"I've been an employee or student at George Fox for nearly 30 years, and I've never seen anything like this," he said. "It has affected pretty much every aspect of the university. It's a challenge that involved nearly every employee working together to problem solve and build solutions in every corner of the institution."
The good news: GFU has zero confirmed cases as of Sept. 1. There are protocols in place should a student test positive and require isolation, and testing is available on-campus for students who experience symptoms.
The semester started Aug. 24, a week earlier than originally planned, and the semester will be shortened, with final exams held mostly online during the week after Thanksgiving. The goal is to minimize students' time on campus and allow them to return home for Thanksgiving break through the holiday season, until the spring semester starts up in January.
Getting school restarted in the first place was a monumental challenge for university staff, given all the factors at play.
"We have a COVID operations team that has worked to implement strategies and policies focused on the resumption of activities at the university," Felton said. "It has been a challenge due to the often-changing guidance from the state, evolving scientific understanding of the virus, and politicization of what should and should not be done to help slow the viral spread and keep people safe."
One of the first steps taken was to create George Fox Digital, an online learning experience with the goal of setting up first-year students for fully remote learning. The program puts some undergraduate students on a pathway of receiving their degree with the first year online and the remaining three in-person, assuming the pandemic will be under control by fall 2021. Returning students also can participate in the program.
"In addition, we've added online, remote and hybrid options for more than 270 of our face-to-face classes," Felton said. "We also are offering additional classes through Acadeum and other external networks. All classes except for some hands-on health science labs will have six feet of spacing between students."
There are plenty of students and staff members traversing the campus, but no outsiders are allowed in to avoid potential spread of the virus. Every instructional space has been evaluated to meet state requirements and some classes have been either moved outside or into large spaces to accommodate spacing requirements.
GFU estimates a more than 50% reduction of the capacity in its instructional spaces to maintain six feet of distance between students in an in-person classroom setting.
Face coverings are mandated inside all buildings, including classrooms, and on-campus housing capacity has been reduced by 20% to accommodate isolation beds and quarantine supplies should a student test positive for the virus. Students were asked to voluntarily quarantine for seven to 14 days prior to arriving on campus, and health screenings were given to students prior to moving into campus housing.
"We've also implemented the Campus Clear App for all in our community to log their health status daily to help encourage people to stay home when ill to prevent the spread of all illness, especially COVID-19," Felton said. "Additionally, we added three large tents to campus to provide places for our students to eat and gather since the state effectively reduced the seating capacity in our dining hall by 80%."
All campus activities have changed in some way due to the pandemic. Fall sports are postponed to the spring, going along with the other programs in the NCAA Division III Northwest Conference. The faith-based university is even changing how it conducts chapel in order to protect worshippers from the virus. So far, the measures have been successful and Felton said he hopes GFU can carry that success into the future with all the changes it has implemented.
"Chapel is different, health services are different, activities, clubs, the honors program, practicum, clinicals, internships, student teaching, labs, music, art, theater, admissions, grad program orientations, Welcome Weekend, the library, IT, custodial (trash removal will increase exponentially because all food in the commons is take out) are all different," Felton said.
"We've written multiple new policies, created videos, sent informational emails to employees, faculty, undergraduate students and parents, put up more than 1,000 signs on our campuses reminding people to stay home when sick, to wear their masks, to stay six feet apart, and to wash their hands."
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