SBU, Siena College Set for Fall Semester

Stephen Mangione Around the Province

When classes begin at Siena College and St. Bonaventure University this month, students and faculty will experience a reconstructed paradigm in academics – a new blueprint in the age of COVID-19 that will touch every aspect of campus life. Models will be in place that no one could have imagined a year ago.

Modifications to the 2020-21 calendar – including an earlier start to the fall semester and a number of significant physical changes, from new dining hall protocols to classroom transformations – are designed to provide the student population with the best prospects of completing the entire academic session with in-person instruction – and to prevent an outbreak of COVID-19 on their campuses. Some obvious measures, such as COVID-19 testing, social-distancing, and wearing face coverings, will be the new normal into the foreseeable future at the two Province-sponsored institutions.

Arrival dates were pushed earlier across the board for Siena and SBU students, starting with international students, followed by first-year, then returning students, all within a staggered move-in schedule. The first day of class at both institutions was moved up to Aug. 24, which accelerates the completion of the semester and final exams – for Siena, by the Thanksgiving holiday, so that students won’t have to return until the start of the spring semester. The fall semester at St. Bonaventure will end with 10 days of online-only instruction and online final exams after the Thanksgiving break so SBU students, like Siena’s, won’t need to return until the second semester.

Siena President Christopher Gibson. (Photo courtesy of Siena College)

At Siena, located in Loudonville, New York, just outside of Albany, plexiglass barriers have been installed around campus – in places like science labs and high-traffic areas of the student union; aerobic rooms at the fitness center and other large spaces have been transformed into classrooms to enable social distancing and to create more lecture space since classrooms will be limited to 50 percent of occupancy capacity; a color-coded system will let students know that a table has been disinfected in the dining hall before they sit, and intervals between classes will be expanded to 20 minutes to eliminate congestion in hallways and so that students and faculty have ample time to use sanitizing kits, supplied in every classroom, to disinfect desks, tables, podiums, and common surfaces.

“Our commitment to the safety and well-being of our entire community is our most important promise. We will make every effort to keep our community [of students, faculty, and staff] safe – but that requires all of us to do things a bit differently,” said Siena President Christopher Gibson, who took office last month as the college’s 12th president, and the first non-friar to fill that position.

Extraordinary Times, Extraordinary Measures
Things will be much the same for students at St. Bonaventure University in Western New York, where students’ starter kits will include a washable face covering, a supply of disposable face coverings, and hand sanitizer. They, too, will walk into reconfigured classrooms. A number of larger areas on campus – the arts center, event space, meeting rooms – will be used for classes as well to reduce population density in academic buildings. Also, course times have been adjusted to minimize crowding. A majority of its teaching spaces are equipped with cameras and other technology for virtual/distance-learning capability. All buildings are outfitted with sanitation stations and floor markers to safely direct the flow of foot traffic through stairways, corridors, and other public spaces. The housekeeping department will be implementing a robust cleaning and disinfection program.

SBU President Dennis DePerro at the 2019 commencement exercises. (Photo courtesy of SBU)

“We recognize that these limits aren’t desirable, but these extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures, and protecting the health of the entire campus community is our top priority,” said Dennis DePerro, president of St. Bonaventure University. “Our ultimate goal is to have on-campus classes [through the conclusion of this fall semester], but that will only be possible if all of us – students, faculty, and staff – are committed to acting selflessly and abiding by health and safety protocols.”

The new normal at both institutions includes health protocols consisting of a combination of self-screening by students – including a daily temperature check and symptoms monitoring through a mobile application – and a surveillance testing program under which students will be randomly selected to participate. Students who test positive for COVID-19 would be sent home to recover, while students with extenuating circumstances – such as those who come from other countries – would be placed in quarters designated exclusively for quarantine, either on or off-campus, and monitored by health services personnel. They would also be required, as per state and local health department requirements, to participate in contact tracing.

Both Siena and SBU are requiring students to be tested for COVID-19 before arriving on campus. Students from foreign countries, including Canada, and from states in the U.S. with high rates of infection must quarantine for 14 days, whether or not they test positive, in compliance with a mandate issued by the governor of New York State. Through an online “return to New York” survey, SBU officials are working with students on a self-quarantine plan for those arriving from states with a high COVID rate.

Traditional and Alternative Learning Structures in Place
Students can also expect the implementation of a combination of course delivery methods. While most classes will meet face-to-face in a traditional classroom environment, conforming to social-distancing guidelines of six feet of space between students, there will also be a number of alternative learning structures, including a certain percentage of classes being delivered completely online or remotely.

Siena College. (Photo courtesy of Siena College)

Both Siena and SBU have the technology in place required for the delivery of the highest level live-streaming of classes – which will also enable students to participate remotely in classes that are taking place in real-time in classrooms abiding by the 50 percent occupancy mandate. There also could be online synchronous classes that meet only online but with a live component for the participation of all students at the same time. Also in play as another possibility are hybrid classes, a combination of in-person lectures with the entire class at one location, but with an online work component, as well, to minimize the number of times students have to gather as a large group.

Siena’s Office of Student Life has developed a re-orientation packet for all returning students that explains the new protocols and guidelines. A COVID handbook is posted on the college’s website and students, faculty, and staff members each will receive two facemasks. At their food service areas, the college has installed protective shielding and will be implementing new health and safety measures. They have hired additional staff in facilities maintenance to increase the frequency in sanitizing common space and surfaces across the campus and to do a deep-clean of classrooms every morning before classes begin. Most student club activities will be conducted remotely or held in open outdoor spaces, and a virtual family weekend has been planned for Oct. 2 to 4. Siena’s community living staff is also planning new ways to build community through virtual and small-scale social events

At SBU, events such as family weekend and a weekend of celebration for the class of 2020 — to make up for the canceled commencement ceremony last spring — have been postponed to avoid large-group gatherings on campus. The university also eliminated the mid-term break when it had to amend its academic calendar for the fall semester in order to complete in-person instruction by Thanksgiving.

Residence hall capacity at SBU is being limited to two students per room, eliminating triples and quads – and common areas have been reconfigured. Revised capacity limits in common bathrooms and laundry rooms ensure appropriate distancing – and wipes are available to clean knobs, buttons, and handles before and after use. Classroom capacity restrictions are in place and student activities will be conducted remotely at St. Bonaventure.

Changes Driven by State, CDC Regulations
Other than some student-specific programming that can take place with appropriate social distancing and safety regulations, none of the traditional events that normally take place, including those at the Quick Center for the Arts, will be held in the fall semester.

“It’s an unfortunate byproduct of the pandemic, losing so many events that attract people from all over the region, but our priority is the health and safety of our students and employees,” DePerro said.

“With significant social distancing and crowd-gathering restrictions still in place, and strict limits we have put in place prohibiting almost all visitors to campus, our hands are tied,” said Thomas Missel, SBU’s chief communications officer, who said family weekend could potentially be rescheduled for the spring if conditions warrant.

The chapel at St. Bonaventure University. (Photo courtesy of SBU)

All of these thoughtfully conceived adjustments, modifications, and new regulations are driven by compliance with New York State Phase IV guidance and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines – including a strict requirement on both campuses that students, faculty and staff wear face coverings at all times in all public space, including all classes and in dining halls unless seated and eating.

Other highly visible efforts at both institutions include wall-mounted hand sanitizer stations at building entrances, office spaces, classrooms, and shared equipment spaces, and signs with safety protocols posted throughout the campus. In addition, the colleges have stepped up efforts to increase the volume of fresh air that their central ventilation systems circulate in academic spaces

Gibson said there is nothing that the administration looks forward to more than welcoming students back to campus – safely. In a recorded video message to the Siena community, he said, “We promise a distinct academic advantage sharpened by our person-centered, hands-on approach rooted in our Franciscan tradition. The Siena advantage is amplified when we are together on campus. The classroom and community experiences are especially impactful.

“At the same time,” he continued, “we face a danger that is hiding in plain sight – COVID-19. [So,] we are going to wear masks because it’s the right thing to do. We are going to screen regularly, maintain our physical distancing, adjust our schedules, and enhance our cleaning procedures because this is what it will take to get it done right.”

Noting that all Siena students and employees will be required to sign a pledge of safety and accountability, he added, “Following these procedures will put our classmates and community ahead of ourselves. For a while, it will look and feel a bit different around campus, but together we are going to look out for each other and we will deliver on the education for a lifetime.”

DePerro said the precautions might be inconvenient at times, but they are a small sacrifice and part of the responsibility of a campus community to watch out for each other. “Our Franciscan tradition calls us to take care of those who are most at risk. Following these guidelines is just one way for us to strengthen a community built on our values of compassion, wisdom, and integrity,” he said.

Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.