BROOKINGS – “How do we operate this university following the practices that are recommended to us by the Centers for Disease Control and the South Dakota Department of Health and have a successful year? That’s what we’re working on day and night.”
With D-Day set for Aug. 19 for the reopening of campus and the return of students, that was the challenge addressed by South Dakota State University President Barry H. Dunn in a recent telephone interview with The Brookings Register.
At the helm in the already well-underway phases of a reopening that might be akin to a military operation, he noted: “Lots and lots of people are working on the adjustments we need to make to be able to do that in consideration of COVID-19: from academics to student life to housing to food service to athletics, museums, McCrory Gardens, the Dairy Bar, every part of facilities and services.”
The university’s JacksRBack Task Force members are meeting daily – sometimes on Saturdays – keeping up-to-date on what other universities are doing, the latest thinking on sports, and keeping up-to-date with guidance from the CDC and the South Dakota Department of Health.
A big piece of the action is the housing of students in residence halls. “We’ve adjusted, with more single rooms available than we’ve ever had,” Dunn said, “but we will still have a lot of people in double occupancy in the dorms.”
On-campus housing capacity is about 4,400 students.
He’s also confident that on-campus living can better meet the safety demands generated by the pandemic “than the way students living off-campus are going to be in.”
Residence halls, hallways and bathrooms will be cleaned three times a day.
“We’ve got more control over social distancing and large group gatherings within the dorms,” Dunn added.”
The university is recruiting and hiring 30 additional custodians.
“The majority of those (employees) will be in the dorms. But even in the academic and administrative buildings, there will be increased cleaning. We’re planning for that.”
The president anticipated that this year’s enrollment numbers would be down; they are, but only by about 100 students, which can be attributed to a smaller freshman class last year.
“That class has to work its way through the system,” he explained. “We were concerned that we’d be down, but our freshman enrollment looks pretty good; our freshman and sophomore retention looks pretty good.”
The president did voice some concerns about international students’ enrollment, but a worst-case scenario isn’t playing out: “We certainly did not see the dramatic drop that was predicted in April. We’re looking pretty good for fall enrollment.”
Once the students are on campus, job No. 1 is ensuring their safety as they pursue their education in classrooms, lecture halls, and laboratories – both in-person and online.
On July 22, the South Dakota Board of Regents announced that South Dakota’s six public universities will all require face coverings to be worn in public indoor spaces for at least a month after classes start, and then the requirement will be reviewed.
Dunn added that a lot of work has been done to ensure social distancing in all classroom settings: “We’ve put plexi-glass up in literally 100-plus classrooms. We’ve gone in with our registrar, and course by course, section by section, we’ve got the classes in the best rooms we can to provide social distancing.”
Dunn noted that lecture halls in such places as Rotunda D prove a challenge and numbers of students to be accommodated will be lessened, “because we can’t move the (fixed) seating around in the room. We feel pretty good about our ability to respond.”
Additionally, as an above-and-beyond assist to students, the president noted that “every section of every class, every day” is being video recorded. “If a student doesn’t feel comfortable going to class or has to isolate for any reason, they can keep up with the lecture through our D2L classroom management system (courses online).”
Dunn also noted that some courses that could not be adapted to social distancing because of too large class size would be given online.
‘Adamant about opening’
The president said he’d had queries from parents concerned about the safety of their children if they attend the university this fall.
“We do the best job we can to assure them that we’re working at it.
“We have to be honest and say that most likely with 10,000 to 11,000 students on campus and several thousand people working here, we most likely will have cases of COVID-19, that we are following the CDC for congregate life in higher education and doing everything we can to keep the university open.”
The president sees it important for people to understand “why we would be so adamant about opening.”
“If you’re a rising senior in nursing or in education or in any field, but especially those critical fields, we want to get nurses through their fourth year, so they can go to work in the healthcare system,” he explained. “We want to get pharmacists through their sixth year, so they can get into the healthcare system and help us out right now. And that’s true for medical and science pre-professional students who want to go to medical school.”
“It would be heartbreaking,” he said, “if you or I had completed our junior year of college and couldn’t finish our senior year and had to wait another whole year. There would be a loss of continuity of learning, so there would be some remedial work that would have to get done.
“And many, many of our courses and programs cannot be completed online, like pharmacy, nursing, engineering. There’s just no way to complete those online.”
He called “student success” the “major driver” behind all the campus re-opening efforts, “so they can get good jobs where we really need them right now – as scientists and in the nursing and health care fields.
“We have a large group of people just paying a large amount of attention to every part of this that we possibly can.”
Some help from the feds
Addressing the budget, the president said the university had “received some federal funding to help mitigate the challenge we had on suspending classes and going online in March. We actually ended the year in a very good financial position; so we entered the year in a good financial position.”
However, financially for the university and for the community of Brookings, if a major outbreak would bring a shutdown, “it would be a dramatically negative impact on the university and on the community,” Dunn explained.
“I think we would lose some trust with our parents and our students,” he said. “Some students might be looking to go to places that have stricter regulations than we do to finish their college degree. That’s my concern.
“I’m very, very concerned about people’s health, too. We absolutely don’t want anybody to get sick or to perish from this. So it’s really serious business.”
Sports in limbo
“There’s a lot of uncertainty about fall sports,” the president said, in addressing what has been a key topic nationwide. “We hope to know more in two weeks. We’ve got to know very soon. It’s not very clear yet.”
Dunn said he had recently spoken with the commissioner of the Missouri Valley Football Conference and learned that “there is a kind of trickle-down effect from the NCAA to the major five conferences and then to the mid-majors and on down to Division II and III.”
Presently, many teams are looking to play only conference games. He added that for SDSU, the season opener Sept. 19 against Nebraska in Lincoln is “lost.”
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]