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North Hills Monthly

Back on Campus? How Colleges and Universities are Navigating COVID-19

Jul 29, 2020 06:02PM ● By North Hills Monthly magazine

La Roche University Zappala Campus Center. Photo by Jim Judkis

By Terri Marshall

Remember when starting college or going back to campus after your summer break meant shopping for new clothes and dorm room décor? We looked forward to meeting new people and reconnecting with friends without our parents looking over our shoulders. Well, COVID-19 changed all of that. 

Sure, college still exists, but the rules have changed. And no matter how many cute outfits you buy or how fabulous your dorm room looks—your greatest accessory will be a face mask. 

If it makes you feel better, college kids, your parents will suffer under the new COVID regime, too. They genuinely want you to go back to school. They’re planning to turn your bedroom into a yoga studio or maybe they think it’ll rekindle their romance. (I’m sorry, I know you didn’t want to hear that.)  Bottom line: we all want things to return to normal. Unfortunately, COVID has other plans, and this has presented school administrators with extraordinary obstacles.

“There are numerous challenges to making preparations in a rapidly changing landscape,” said Gina Vance, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Westminster College. “We know that the virus is in control, and remaining aware of this reminds us to be nimble, creative, and flexible.”

Timing is Everything

So what’s happening with local colleges and universities?

One of the things that’s changing is the timing of the school year. La Roche University, Point Park University and Thiel College confirmed that their school years will begin earlier with students returning to classes on Aug. 17, and concluding classes on Nov. 24. Fall break will be suspended. By foregoing fall break, student travel will be limited, which reduces the risk of spreading the virus. Additionally, should there be a coronavirus surge in late autumn, students will already have the majority of the semester’s studies conquered. Semester exams will likely be online. La Roche University’s are set for Dec. 2.

Virtual Options

Concerns remain for students with high-risk family members, which requires the option of offering virtual studies in addition to in-class opportunities. 

“All of our classes are being designed in a way that they can be offered in-person and also virtually, which allows students to continue to make progress even if quarantined,” said Mike McKinney, vice president of student life and dean of students at Thiel College.

Westminster College has implemented a similar strategy. “We will have in-person classes, but will be augmenting them with virtual experiences,” said Vance. “We intend to deliver education to students who cannot attend in person or who may fall ill during the semester. Our faculty is preparing for multiple modalities to ensure our students get the quality education they expect.”

On Campus Protocol

Social distancing remains a top priority on campus, as does testing. 

“Our safety plan is guided by four main mitigation strategies: physical distancing, face coverings, good hygiene and sanitation, and screening," said McKinney. "This currently includes daily temperature checks and system monitoring at screening stations. If a student has a temperature, they will be isolated and instructed to consult health services for the next steps.”

Before returning to campus this fall, all Point Park students, faculty and staff are requested to self-quarantine for 14 days. Every person must pay particular attention to their daily activities for at least two weeks and adhere to public health guidelines by limiting travel, wearing a face mask, practicing social distancing, using good hygiene and taking a temperature reading daily.

All schools require students and faculty to wear masks. Additionally, classrooms, dining halls and lounges are being prepared to support social distancing. 

Dorms Have Never Been Cleaner

Dorm capacities will change in this new protocol, with most universities limiting occupation to 70 percent. And you’ll never see dorms or other campus buildings as clean as they are now—all buildings have been disinfected and sanitized. Prior to the start of the fall semester, every building area will be sanitized and disinfected again. At Point Park, elevators have been sanitized and equipped with antimicrobial brass tools to use for pressing buttons.

Following completion of Point Park’s cleaning and disinfecting process, an independent contractor will evaluate the efficacy of the process through visual inspection and a white-glove test of work areas. The university will also implement post-cleaning verification by collecting multiple surface swab samples for field analysis.

Challenges for Athletics

Will teams be practicing and playing a fall season? According to McKinney, a separate sub-committee is working on Thiel’s planning for athletics, guided by its conference and the NCAA, along with the CDC and the health department. 

Special plans for student athletes include an isolation period and practicing in small groups with the intention of gradually easing into more team members practicing together.  

Everything Remains Subject to Change

While administrators strive to provide a concrete set of guidelines for students and parents, the constantly changing COVID-19 environment makes that goal difficult at best. 

“Early in the process, we established a set of principles to guide our decision-making, which was so important because we’ve had to turn on a dime in response to federal and state policies and guidelines,” said Vance. “So often in planning, we create the vision and the goals. In a pandemic, we don’t have a guiding star, per se. We have to stay grounded in what is important and be ready for the next new thing.”

To learn more, visit La Roche University at https://www.laroche.edu; Point Park University at https://www.pointpark.edu; Thiel College at https://www.thiel.edu and Westminster College at www.westminster.edu.

New Startup WorldlyXP Launches Revolutionary Virtual Gap Year for Students

While education remains the most important component, the fringe benefits of the college experience include social opportunities, extracurricular activities and Saturday afternoon football games. With the uncertainty of in-person education in the wake of COVID-19, prospective college students—especially first-year students—are questioning whether the tuition prices are worth it for a limited and possibly interrupted college year. 

Polls show that up to 16 percent of students consider this a good time for a gap year. Of course, gap years typically include international and domestic travel—another victim of the coronavirus. These continuing limitations make expanding one’s horizons difficult, so as an alternative, Jeff Ritter, former professor of Communication, Media and Technology at La Roche University, developed WorldlyXP. 

Aimed at recent high school graduates deferring college enrollment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, WorldlyXP’s affordable virtual gap year programming includes opportunities for self-discovery, marketable skill building and career exploration. 

Poised to begin in September 2020, Ritter’s new program combines high quality online learning experiences with digital technologies to offer a one-of-a-kind educational experience in a mostly untapped market. His teaching methods—using online material, engaging and creative questions and student-centered projects—served as the inspiration for this program. 

“I’ve developed these techniques over many years and realized they are translatable to online, self-directed learning,” said Ritter.

Core components of the program include Immersive Learning, Portfolio Creation, Team Building and Collaboration, and Entrepreneurship. An international endeavor, the WorldlyXP team currently consists of a group of educators, entrepreneurs and visionaries from the United States, Brazil, India, New Zealand and Colombia. With these global influences, Ritter believes the service will be an educational asset for youth uncertain about their study path to a future career. The program also presents alternatives to higher education such as training certifications and apprenticeships aimed at students who remain unsure about or unprepared for the college experience. 

Ritter’s former student, Jeff Saporito, is a partner in WorldlyXP. Saporito spent his years since graduating from La Roche University working for web-based companies and running major e-commerce websites. 

“Jeff is the best work partner ever,” Ritter said. “Our communication is almost telepathic, and he works incredibly hard.” 

Affordable enrollment prices range from free to $99 a month for premium services. 

“I hope that students at any level who want to figure out who they are and where they want to go will take advantage of WorldlyXP,” said Ritter.

To find out more, visit https://worldlyxp.com.