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Class project: Distanced classrooms bring OSU closer to finishing semester in-person

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Casey Shell

Casey Shell, who works in OSU's university planning department, had to transform rooms like Gallagher-Iba Arena's O Club into socially distanced classrooms.

The likelihood of maintaining in-person classes at Oklahoma State University during a pandemic sounded like a pipe dream in August.

“I believe classes will move online in a short matter of time,” OSU professor Jim Puckette told his class on the first day of school.

When dealing with the highly contagious coronavirus, 25,000 students returning to Stillwater and many schools across the country making the switch to full online courses, Puckette’s claim may have seemed reasonable.

Except OSU went all in on in-person classes.

Now six weeks into the semester and with $500,000 spent on classroom preparations alone, university officials aren’t expecting anything to change. 

“We remain confident we will be able to finish the semester with in-person classes,” OSU President Burns Hargis told The O’Colly

A large part of OSU’s confidence stems from the university planning department ––  a two-man crew that took charge of every socially-distanced classroom on campus.

“Our planning team has done an outstanding job preparing the campus and providing the technology and flexibility to navigate through the pandemic,” Hargis said. “In addition, our on-campus health staff has provided incredible support.”

The planning team consists of Eddy Crosby and Casey Shell, who’s entire summer centered around COVID-19 preparedness.

“After the students went home for spring break and didn’t come back last spring, we knew right then the university desired to have as many classes in person as possible,” Shell said. “Knowing we were going to have to socially distance the classrooms in order to do that… We looked at the existing classrooms we had and socially distance those.”

Shell and Crosby used their connections to transform venues like Gallagher-Iba Arena, the Seretean Center and Boone Pickens Stadium into classrooms, featuring proper learning environments with adequate safety precautions.

“The Seretean Center seats about 800 people in that theater, but when you socially distance it, it leaves you with 131 seats,” Shell said. “That 131-seat room is now the largest classroom on campus.”

Once the locations were picked, the classroom assembly started. 

Shell and Crosby, with the help of various technology departments across campus, set up desks, wifi routers, computers, screens and booming sound systems to make these places feel like normal.

“We all recognize that we all don’t know how this is going to pan out, but we’re going to put every effort possible to protect the students, faculty through the social distancing and provide spaces through those large classes,” Shell said.

What could cause a switch to full online learning?

Before the semester began, The O’Colly obtained an official university document stating that the switch to online classes "will be determined by the rate of increase of number of infections per day, number of hospitalizations per day, rate of decrease in availability of hospital beds, ICU beds."

While active case numbers are improving, Stillwater Medical Center reached capacity in its regular and COVID intensive care units on Monday. 

Still, Hargis remains both optimistic and thankful for this semester.

“Throughout our planning and current operations, we are following the guidance of local and state health officials in our decision making,” Hargis said. “All things considered, the semester has gone well. We appreciate everyone's understanding, patience and efforts to make it work.”

The way the university planning department acted helped ease Hargis’ concerns for the semester. To date, no known cases of COVID-19 have been linked to a classroom environment –– a fact that Shell is proud of.

“That was our goal,” Shell said. “Have the students in class, but also to make sure they stay healthy and I think certainly it’s helped. If we were hosting classes in the original environment where everyone was cramped in their existing classrooms, there would certainly be a difference. I think it did make a difference and that makes me very proud.”