Back in the spring, college campuses around Minnesota went into shutdown mode in response to the worldwide COVID pandemic. Students were sent packing; residence halls were closed and faculty — after extended spring breaks — began offering all of their courses online.
Most everyone understood that colleges couldn’t survive if the shutdown continued: Small liberal arts schools that base their educational model on a residential, community-focused experience wouldn’t survive if students’ only option was to go to school on a laptop in their childhood bedrooms.
This reality, combined with Minnesota Department of Health research concluding that, with significant changes, colleges could safely bring students back, meant that the vast majority of the state’s colleges and universities made the decision to welcome their students back in the fall.
Each school faced unique challenges, depending on their location and the makeup of their student body. Smaller colleges in Greater Minnesota had the advantage of being outside of population centers, but also the possible disadvantage of being farther from large hospitals or health care providers.
At Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, the school brought together 12 teams of 125 faculty, staff and students tasked with the job of planning and preparing for students’ safe return to campus. This diverse group was led by Barb Larson Taylor, associate vice president for marketing and communication and coordinator of the college’s COVID-19 Response Team.
Larson Taylor, who has no medical background, explained she was selected for the position because of her long history at the college and her experience managing a number of key institution-wide initiatives.
While there are many days she said she feels “overwhelmed and exhausted” by her responsibilities, Larson Taylor said she is heartened by the attitude that members of the campus community are bringing to the new reality of life in the age of COVID.
“In general the spirit has been one of cooperation and togetherness that lends itself to a ‘Let’s work together to do this,’” she said, “as opposed to a, ‘We are going to fight restrictions. We’re not going to believe in it and not buy into it’ attitude.”
Recently Larson Taylor and I talked about Gustavus’ decision to welcome students back, college-wide strategies for isolating and quarantining students, and how COVID has drastically changed life on campus.
MinnPost: How did you make the decision to bring students back to campus this fall?
Barb Larson Taylor: The first question we had to ask ourselves was, “Do we think we can bring our students back safely and what would that look like?” Like the other colleges in Minnesota, we have a great relationship with the Minnesota Department of Health. We’re continuing to follow their guidance about what it could look like to bring students back in a safe way. The second question we had to ask ourselves was, “Do students want to be back? Would they prefer to be online and away instead of being back on campus?” We offered students the option to do classes online. Overwhelmingly, students said, “We want to be back on campus.”
Once we determined we had a high desire from our students wanting to be on campus, we had to try to figure out how our faculty wanted to teach their classes. Do they want to teach them all online? Do they want to be face-to-face? Right now we have about one-third of classes offered fully online. One-third are hybrid and one-third are 100 percent in person.
MP: Did you bring students back to campus all at once, or more gradually?
BLT: For the first three and a half weeks we only had our first-year students and some other support students back. Most of our students are now back on campus. We put them two to a room, but we are limiting the number of guests that can come over. They can’t bring other off-campus people into their residence hall. It’s more limited access, but it’s not completely into lockdown, either.
MP: What is life like on campus in the age of COVID?
BLT: Life on campus is now really built around being 6 feet apart from other people. To let that ripple through a college campus is a big deal. For colleges, the experience is largely about building connection and community and being close with each other. So much of college is being close to one another. That has had to change.
In the dining hall, we went from having six people per table to two, one on each side. A lot of students take their food to go and eat in their rooms or elsewhere on campus. In athletics, they are grouped together within a pod of people. Within that pod, they are still trying to be 6 feet apart from each other. They are doing drills, not scrimmages, even basketball and soccer. They’re not playing the way you would normally play. With music, all of our wind instrument players are wearing a mask with a hole cut in the mask and they are sitting 6 to 10 feet apart from the next player.
Our students have been great about wearing masks. We haven’t had issues with that by and large. Staying 6 feet apart is harder for people.
MP: You’ve had some COVD cases on campus this year. What is your protocol for handling cases and isolating students?
BLT: What we’re finding is like what’s happening around the state of Minnesota. The most common places for spread on campus are among small groups of people hanging out with each other. Limiting that can be really hard on a young person’s mental health. We’ve encouraged people to have few close contacts but we understand why close contacts are important. Encouraging people to have their little bubble of people so they’re not feeling isolated is a very good thing for people’s mental health.
When one person tests positive, what we’re finding is there is a little circle of friends we’ve identified. So far we’ve been fortunate that students are understanding, “I’m going to keep my circle close.” Even though there is a positive case within that circle and sometimes it becomes several positive cases within that circle, it is contained within that group, because everything else on campus is distant.
MP: What is the experience like for students who have been placed in isolation or quarantine?
BLT: We have places on campus that we’ve designated for COVID cases. We have three distinct areas. One is for people who have been exposed and are not showing symptoms. One is for people who are symptomatic. And one is for people who are positive.
We have one small residence hall set aside for this purpose. We have enough students that deferred or chose to be online and away from campus this semester that we could shuffle people around to use that one little residence hall entirely for isolation and quarantine. We also have guest houses on campus for campus visitors and retreats. We’re using those spaces for quarantine and isolation, too.
Students in those facilities have access to a kitchen and, in most cases, laundry. Usually they can have their own room unless they request to stay with someone. We are able to accommodate students on campus, but students also have the option to leave campus. Probably at least 50 percent of students with COVID choose to leave campus. They are going home to be with their family or sometimes they are going to a family cabin or somewhere else away from other people.
Life in quarantine or isolation is lonely. And sadly it is lonely by design. In some ways they are needing to be away from people. If they are positive they can hang out with other people who are positive. If they have exposure, they really shouldn’t hang out around other people to limit spread. That can be for up to two weeks. During that time, students can go outside — we encourage them to go outside for a masked walk, as long as they aren’t going through the main part of campus. We encourage students to stay connected with other people. We try to make the accommodations as good as they can be. They can order food from dining services. It gets delivered to their rooms. We have a bunch of snacks available for them. We have a little team of students that help deliver the food. On Halloween, they made little Halloween bags for all of the students in isolation. They also try to send virtual messages to all the students in isolation.
MP: How do Gustavus’ case numbers compare to those of other colleges around Minnesota?
BLT: The total number of COVID cases since August among employees and students is 110. The number is updated twice a week on our campus COVID dashboard. At the end of October and beginning of November we started to see a steep rise in cases that I would attribute to COVID fatigue.
MP: Thanksgiving is around the corner. Public health officials are concerned that sending a bunch of students home for a long family weekend and then welcoming them back to campus could spread COVID cases around the community. How is Gustavus responding to that risk?
BLT: We do have classes after Thanksgiving, but all of those classes will be delivered online. Students have the option to stay at home and take classes online from there or come back to campus after the Thanksgiving break and take their classes online. Students will now be strongly encouraged to decide if they go home for Thanksgiving to stay home for the rest of the semester or stay on campus over the break.
The college is now really looking at doing a “lay low before you go home for Thanksgiving” campaign and really trying to make our restrictions stronger so students going home for Thanksgiving aren’t going to be spreading COVID to their communities.
Right now the plan is at the start of our January term and spring semester, we have developed a two-week “dial-back” period, where tighter COVID restrictions will be implemented. During the dial-back period, in the residence halls students will only be able to have themselves and their roommate in the room. There will be no in-person meetings, no in-person events, no athletic practices or fine arts practices. It all has to go virtual. We’re really limiting the contact people have during that period.
MP: You have a lot of responsibility resting on your shoulders. Does it feel depleting?
BLT: It is completely exhausting because the end point is not clear. But life is exhausting for the world, for all of us. We’re all thinking, “How long do we have to do this?” Here we are at the beginning of November and cases in Minnesota and across the country are surging. We think, “We’re here? Really?” COVID fatigue is very real. On a college campus it’s no different. People are trying to do the right thing for the college and our students and it’s exhausting because there’s not always a clear answer of what’s the right thing.
MP: Do you feel like the college made the right decision to bring students back to campus this fall?
BLT: The Minnesota Department of Health has said repeatedly that the safest place for college students may be on a college campus because colleges have done such good work to create safe environments and to limit spread. We have had a lot of good influence around educating this key population of young adults.
MP: You are nearing the end of your first semester. Can you realistically imagine on-campus school continuing after the holiday break?
BLT: Before school started in the fall, we couldn’t say with confidence how our students and our community would respond to all the new restrictions. Now we’re at November and by and large our students and our employees would say this has gone better than we all imagined it would.
Every day you have to be vigilant. Every weekend you have to be vigilant because COVID is relentless. It is not going away. It will find any opening it can. We have made it this far. We can see a path to get us to Thanksgiving and then I think we can now see a path of how we can bring students back in J Term and spring semester. We feel like this can happen, even if there is a surge. We are prepared to do it. Other schools have managed that. But we all are crossing our fingers and waiting for the day when a vaccine will be available.