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OSU hosts Q&A about spring semester

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The Oklahoma State University campus and surrounding areas are experiencing a temporary population dip due to students leaving amid COVID-19 break.

With the spring semester starting soon, some students are curious about the intricacies of the semester plans.

In a recent podcast, OStateTV’s Meghan Robinson met with Jeanette Mendez, Vice Provost of Academic Affairs and Doug Hallenback, Vice President of Student Affairs, with questions about what 2021 might look like for OSU students.

Q: How would you assess the fall semester overall in general?

Doug Hallenbeck: I think our students would tell you they’re glad to be back. Being at home, March until August was long enough, and they’re ready to come back and kind of get into at least some semblance of what college really is about. We still have students that are fearful and scared, students that have been sick, you know, not just positive and asymptomatic, but we’ve had many that have been positive and had symptoms and some that have been fairly ill and have recovered. There’s all that, that goes in, but I think overwhelmingly it’s been positive, and people have appreciated all the efforts that we’ve put in, but more importantly that they’ve all put in, their peers have put in and everybody to help keep us here.

Jeanette Mendez: You know, I think we’re really happy with where we’ve been for the fall. We did a lot of planning from March—until the semester started in August. I think we had hours and hours upon hours of really just trying to think through the best strategy possible. I think we provided a lot of flexibility and options for students. I think we communicated as well as we could across faculty and students, and again we were concerned with student’s safety and the spreading of the virus and I think we did really well there. I think overall when we look at the faculty and how students are doing, we’re pleased with where we are, but we know there are some concerns, we know not all students are happy and we are trying to address those, I think when we take a very holistic look, I think we’re pleased with where we were, especially when we look at other universities and some of their higher numbers and things like that.

Q: You mentioned some of the students not being super happy with this semester and how things have gone. What is some of the feedback you’ve received, positive and negative from both students and faculty about this fall semester?

JM: The one thing I keep hearing from students in terms of positive is that they really did like the flexibility of the classes. So, they like this ability to be able to watch it live streamed or go face-to-face, but incidentally when you talk to faculty that’s what they like the least about this semester. There is nothing like being a faculty member and showing up to your class and having a quarter of your class show up that day, or not being really prepared for who would show up and how you can teach that day. So, we needed that flexibility. On the flip side I think faculty—the negative was, they just how to adjust more than they’re used to in a semester and adjust their learning, and so I think they just struggled with trying to find the optimum way—knowing any given day you didn’t really know who was there and what that makeup would be.

Q: Students have gone home for the remainder of the calendar year, but what can they expect when they return in January 2021 for the spring semester?

DH: I think the biggest thing that they can expect is, it’s going to be awfully similar to the way fall of 2020 was is that we’re still going to require masks, we’re still going to be social distancing the classroom experience in terms of our in-person classes, we’re still going to be in rooms where people are spread out that allow for social distancing. So, a lot of that is going to be very similar. Those that live in the residence hall and fraternity houses will do testing again, we’re going to ask everyone to get tested before they come back if they don’t live in one of those areas, just to kind of make sure as we start off we can limit the spread as much as possible, but our hope is that our numbers, not only here but in the state and in the country will be going down. Then we may be starting to opening up and having more in-person activities and events.

Q: And you mentioned the in-person classrooms here are socially distanced, is it going to be the same this semester, where students have the option of attending in-person or virtually or will there be a push to come more to in-person classes?

DH: The goal would be for more students to be in the classroom, in that setting. That’s how the faculty for the most part have designed classes that are supposed to be in person. That’s where the best learning happens.

JM: We still do not want students coming to class if they test positive for CoVid-19, if they are sick, if they have any symptoms, we want those students to stay home and the faculty have been told they do need to accommodate those students, but the accommodation we cannot guarantee if it’ll be a livestream like it was this semester. That will be up to the instructor, and I think some instructors will approach it very similarly to how we did it this semester, but we’re giving the instructor really more flexibility in how they structure the class and their learning outcomes and what’s best for their students and still encouraging students to come, engage face-to-face or in an online class, keep up that same level of engagement, and again accommodate when students are sick. So, if you’re assuming that you can enroll in that face-to-face class and you can just livestream it from your apartment or from your dorm, you need to check with that faculty member first. So, I think we do need to put out that message and also the message that attendance will count and so that flexibility is going to feel a little less flexible.

Q: And that’s again, just to confirm 100% that is a class by class basis. So, students check with your professor, it’s not a departmental thing, it’s not an individual college thing, it’s each professor can choose whether it’s in-person or virtual or hybrid depending on what is best for them and their curriculum.

JM: Yes, and same with attendance. So, we had, once we put that announcement out to faculty, then the provost told a story that a faculty member asked “Do we have to take attendance?” No, you don’t have to take attendance, but you can. We didn’t want you to in the fall, but you can, if attendance or engagement or participation is important in how you approach your class then you can do that. 

Q: One of the big topics from you know the spring until now was grading and pass/fail, what is the approach that the school is taking when it comes to grading in the spring semester?

JM: We’re staying with the grading and policy that we had in the fall, unless there is something that would change how we had to respond to the pandemic such as what we did last spring. So, this fall we had our traditional grades. We did encourage students if they needed to take an incomplete that—that is something that they could do. We had retroactive withdrawals, we were willing to be more lenient if students needed to drop a course or take an incomplete and so that’s what we would consider as well, but we will have the traditional grading scale that we had this fall.




Q: What resources are available here on campus for both students and faculty who might be having a tough time with this isolation and this distance learning and not having this sense of community here?

DH: I think a lot of times people look to our faculty and staff and say “you’re supposed to have everything all together and you don’t.” So, I appreciate you pointing that out. From a faculty and staff standpoint, through our human resources we have an EAP psychologist on staff that they can meet with as well, to just kind of help them figure out and balance from an emotional and mental health standpoint. On the student side we have, through our mental health areas, through wellness as well as our counseling services and health services, we have a wide variety of resources, whether it’s in-person counseling or group counseling. We also a 24-hour evasive crisis line, Call SAM, where students can call in.

JM: There is misinformation going on around our mental health resources. There is not months long wait to get in for mental health resources. In fact, on any given day there is always walk-in hours. So, you can be seen that day, in a walk-in setting. Now, if you want to make a permanent appointment. That might take a week or two, but that does not mean you wouldn’t be seen that same day that you walk in and if you were in a crisis, all bets are off, we are getting you in, not only the same day, but we will continue to work with you, there will not be not be any sort of wait time.

Q: One of the big concerns that I’ve heard from people around campus is canceling Spring Break, what that could do to some people here, both faculty, staff and students. So, why was that decision made to cancel Spring Break and just come back and start the semester a week later?

DH: Well again… It goes back to, we don’t know what COVID is going to look like in the spring and we know that short period of time, so one week, if people go all across the country and they go out and interact like we all do during spring break, you’re out and about, you like meeting with people or even if it’s small groups at home, then you all come back, everybody comes back in a relatively short period of time, it really could create a health concern in terms of COVID and really increase the spread, which may have meant that we had to cancel classes—in person classes and send everybody home again, which we don’t think is the right thing to do and so, it felt like it was best case scenario, to ensure as much in person instruction as we can that we needed to not have a spring break and just push that out. So, that gives us from Thanksgiving, it gives us two months so people can go home, but they can also have a two-week period, prior to coming back in the Spring, where they can limit interactions with others, they can get tested, if they’re sick they can get quarantined.

JM: We were on a call yesterday with about 10 individuals, trying to figure out, is there some way we can create a kind of mini-festival approach to the spring semester. Maybe, take a couple of days, what would that look like? How can we do it safely, with the right numbers of people? Can we work through certain ways that maybe there’s a day or two there that there wouldn’t be classes or someone was throwing in an idea of turning off email for a day, what would that look like? So, I mean and of course my fear is that if you turn off my email one day, then that means the next day I get double the amount of emails. So, really, what could we do that would be positive, but without some unintended consequences? So, I think we’re in the planning phase, but I think we will try to find ways that we can give faculty, students and staff some mental breaks throughout the spring semester to account for that length of time.