WHAT IS A UNIVERSITY?
Is it a place? Is it a collection of students and the staff that supports them? Is it the research and academic work that is completed? Is it a feeling of pride?
When put to the test, like Millersville University was during the spring 2020 semester, it is easy to see that it is all of these things and more.
The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, dominated and changed the trajectory of life for all members of local, national and international communities this spring. The Millersville community was no exception.
“The health and safety of our students, faculty and staff was our immediate concern,” says Dr. Daniel Wubah, president of Millersville. “While no decision was easy to make, we knew the University needed to act quickly in order to protect our community. I am proud of the way we were able to think on our feet—transitioning all of our classes to online learning, and the majority of our staff to remote work.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, COVID-19 is a new disease that had not previously been seen in humans. It appears that it surfaced in Wuhan, China, and quickly spread to nearly every country in the world, with the World Health Organization (WHO) classifying it as a global pandemic. In order to slow the spread of the virus, many countries around the world, and states within the United States, instituted a variety of restrictions, including stay-athome orders, social distancing guidelines and mask requirements for public settings.
While Millersville’s response to the pandemic came in waves as more information was released by Governor Wolf, changes happened very quickly.
On February 28, Dr. Wubah issued his first communication to campus detailing how the Incident Response Team (IRT) had been formed to track the course of the pandemic. In the coming weeks, MU students who were studying abroad were called home, and by March 9, a decision to remote-learning modalities for a short period of time after spring break had been made. On March 16, with consideration of the directives coming out of the governor’s office, the Department of Health and Office of the Chancellor, it was officially decided that all face-toface instruction would be suspended through the remainder of the spring 2020 semester.
“This is a challenge that Millersville University has never faced before. The prospect of transitioning classes and revising syllabi in the middle of the semester is no easy task, but I knew our faculty members were capable of making that change. Our biggest priority was ensuring the continuity of academic support for our students, making sure they could meet the requirements of their courses, and for those set to graduate, that they would be able to do that on time,” explains Dr. Vilas Prabhu, provost and vice president for Academic Affairs.
Meteorology professor Dr. Alex DeCaria says there was some trial and error in figuring out what worked best for him and his students. As he describes, “I am not a PowerPoint professor…I rely on writing and drawing goofy pictures on the chalkboard.”
DeCaria worked with Matthew Fox from Online Programs to set up his iPad so he could use it as a whiteboard that he could share with his students over Zoom.
“I had a first thought about prerecording my lectures, and then using synchronous class time for questions and answers. I quickly found that students weren’t asking questions during the synchronous meetings, and I ended up teaching the same class twice—once pre-recorded and once live,” he explains. “So, I abandoned that approach during the first week and simply taught all four of my courses synchronously, just as if we were in the classroom. It gave them a sense of schedule and normalcy, and the opportunity to ask questions live.”
“Although I am not anxious to repeat the experience, I’m ready for it should we have to continue online,” he says.
Offices and departments across campus were also challenged to move their services online as all nonessential workers were asked to work remotely for the foreseeable future. This presented specific challenges for each office as employees familiarized themselves with new technologies and remote work expectations. For departments that deal directly in face-to-face student support—including Housing & Residential Programs, Counseling and Human Development, Learning Services, Academic Advisement & Student Development and others— the need to transition quickly and efficiently during this fluid situation was even greater.
“Moving to online disability accommodations was very time consuming initially,” says Dr. Sherlynn Bessick, director of Learning Services. “Our most challenging tasks were to get all students registered with Kurzweil 3000, which helps students read, download documents from faculty, use speech-to-text features, translate from other languages to English for our international students, note-take and other features.”
“Once services were fully online, issues with students were very minimal and often a quick fix,” she continues. “It’s refreshing to know how our office and students were able to adapt so well.”
While Zoom meetings and online technologies were able to fill the gaps for many task-oriented services with ease, the in-person connection that enhances many interactions proved to be more difficult to translate.
Dr. David Henriques, chair of Academic Advisement & Student Development, says Zoom meetings, Jabber, Calendly and email have been successful in helping their office advise students from afar, but nothing replaces in-person conversations.
“Academic advisement is a collegial process and often requires reading body language, facial cues and other nonverbals,” he explains. “While this can be observed through an online video chat, it is not as authentic or robust.”
Dr. Kelsey Backels of Counseling and Human Development identified similar challenges with seeing students over video chats or phone calls, but also with the distance from her colleagues.
“It has been very important that we are there to support our students during this time,” says Backels. “Some students are opting for Zoom calls, and some prefer speaking over the phone, but it’s just not the same. Human interaction is so important in counseling. [Our staff ] is a really close-knit group. We work so effectively off of each other. When one of us has a tough session, we can support each other.”
Helping students process all of the change this semester, including the virtual move to online learning but also the physical move off campus for most students, has been the primary focus for Backels and her team.
“Initially there was a lot of chaos and panic about how they were going to do this, but by the end of the semester, there was a lot more general angst about being stuck in the house,” she says. “It’s a general stress a lot of people are feeling during this time.”
Part of that stress was attributed to moving out of the residence halls and either going home or finding alternate living arrangements for the remainder of the semester. While some students applied to stay on campus through Housing & Residential Programs, the vast majority left campus. The housing staff worked hard to communicate with students and create a plan for them to fully move their belongings out of their rooms, which began on May 18 and continued into June.
Despite the quick changes this spring, communication between the University, its faculty, staff and students remained strong, and provided critical support during a tumultuous time. At the end of the semester, the Student Affairs and Enrollment Management division issued a survey to Millersville students that yielded positive results.
Of 6,065 students surveyed, 81% of those responding agreed or strongly agreed that the University provided effective communications regarding COVID-19, and 80% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they were able to access the technology they needed. More than 65% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that they had access to University resources, that administration and staff showed concern for their needs, and that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the University’s response.
“This great University rose to the challenge presented by the coronavirus pandemic. While not everything went as we hoped, including the need to postpone commencement and celebrate our impressive graduates in person when it is safe to do so, I am incredibly proud of the hard work all members of our community put forth to ensure our students were able to succeed,” says Wubah.
“Millersville University is more than just a campus or a place,” says Brian Hazlett, vice president for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at Millersville. “We are a community, and this experience really proved that.”
Millersville University announced that academic instruction will be provided in a hybrid modality, including in-person, online and multi-modal instruction, for the fall 2020 semester. Classes will run straight through from Aug. 24-Nov. 24 with no fall break. Thanksgiving recess will run from Nov. 21-29, and classes will resume remotely on Nov. 30 for the remainder of the semester.