While so much is unsettled and uncertain in our world today, we can cling to the faithfulness of God, who holds us fast and who calls us to keep faith with one another. I am grateful for the creative ways that we have deepened our connections to one another in this last semester in the midst of a global pandemic, and in the coming academic year we will remain faithful to the calling that brings us together.
As we make plans for students and employees to return to campus, we continue to be guided by foundational commitments to (1) the health of our community, (2) the learning experience of our students, and (3) aspiring to deepen community life. While we will all need to make sacrifices and continued adjustments to daily routines in the months ahead, we will not lose sight of our mission and vision.
It is our goal to return to in-person education this fall as quickly as is safe to do so, while ensuring the health and wellbeing of students, faculty, and staff. Over the last several weeks, a task force of administrators and faculty have been diligently assessing the evolving public health situation and making plans accordingly for the coming academic year. I am grateful to this dedicated team and to colleagues across the campus who are working tirelessly every day on our behalf to prepare the campus and the curriculum and to provide for community life in these uncertain circumstances.
Throughout our planning, we have had to consider not only the present conditions, but also the very real possibility that a second wave of the virus may occur sometime in the fall or winter, which may require returning to sheltering in place. These plans consider the need for maximum flexibility to respond to changing conditions, as well as the high priority that we place on learning in residential community.
Planning for Fall 2020: Residential Hybrid Learning
We plan to welcome students back to campus this fall for a residential hybrid model of learning. This means that all students are encouraged to be in residence on campus this fall, with exceptions for students with health considerations and those who are commuting locally. The residential experience will be a blend of digital and face-to-face learning.
The fall semester will begin on September 3, as planned, and students will be encouraged to be in residence on campus from the start of the semester until Thanksgiving break. In order to minimize the amount of travel to and from campus, students should plan to remain on campus once they arrive until Thanksgiving recess. The fall reading week will be observed in October, though students will be encouraged to stay on campus. After Thanksgiving, the last week of the semester and final exam period will be conducted entirely online, allowing students to leave campus and not return until the spring semester begins. For the purpose of safety and health, we will only be offering student housing in campus apartments, and the dormitories will be closed in the fall. We will be prepared to continue social distancing practices next year and want to ensure that residents have personal space for restrooms and kitchens.
Students who wish to waive the residence requirements due to health considerations may apply for an exception by contacting the Dean of Student Life. While we encourage students to be on campus this fall, we know that this will not be possible for every student, and we are committed to working with individuals to promote their health and wellbeing.
All courses will be online at the start of the semester and may pivot to include in-person elements throughout the semester as conditions permit. In order to allow maximum flexibility and adopt best pedagogical practices, faculty are planning to conduct their courses entirely online. As conditions permit, some components of courses, such as precepts, may meet in person or include other face-to-face discussion or activities. Deciding now to offer courses in this way will allow faculty sufficient time to plan digital courses over the summer. These courses will be constructed from the beginning with digital pedagogy in mind, unlike the quick adaptation that was necessary last semester. This will also allow that if a student becomes ill during the semester or cannot come to campus, they will still be able to access course material and make academic progress.
We will share life together with intention and compassion. There is a deep value in the relationships that form across our community through life together, which sparks a kind of learning that cannot be nurtured in the same way online. We believe that even if courses are conducted online, there is an important value to living in residence alongside a diverse group of people. Now more than ever, we need one another, and we will be intentional about fostering spiritual nurture and mutual care among us. As one component of residential life, all students will be connected to a “Quaranteam,” a small group of ten people from across the community that will gather for weekly worship, prayer, and shared meals during the semester. They will not replace the community that organically forms through courses, student groups, and residential life, but will provide a point of connection for every student, given the constraints that the pandemic will present to our normal campus life. More information about this and other initiatives will follow in the coming weeks.
We will make significant changes to our way of learning, living, and working in order to return to campus safely and promote the wellbeing of all. We have a mutual responsibility to one another as part of this community. As one expression of this responsibility and care for each other, we all must adhere to common health and wellness guidelines. Detailed procedures and guidelines will be shared this summer as we prepare to return to campus. They will include wearing masks while on campus, limiting gatherings, and ongoing health screenings. There will be changes to campus dining, reconfigured office spaces, and enhanced cleaning and sanitation protocols. These new practices will require our collective graciousness and commitment in order to steward the health of the community.
There will be limited gatherings and no public events on campus in the fall. In order to prioritize the safe return of students and employees, we will limit external groups and events. All conferences, events, or public lectures in the fall have been cancelled, postponed, or moved to digital formats. The Erdman Center, which is currently being used for housing for healthcare workers and vulnerable residents, will remain closed for guest lodging through December. There will be guidelines for holding in-person meetings and campus events for limited numbers of people. Since we will be welcoming students and their families traveling from across the country to the seminary community, we will begin the semester with conservative guidelines about gathering in groups.
These plans are of course subject to change depending upon public health conditions and local, state, and federal guidelines. We will keep you informed throughout the summer, and you can always refer to the website for up-to-date information. You will be hearing from campus offices regularly in the coming weeks with information about housing, guidelines for returning to campus, and other important matters.
In the meantime, I pray that each of you can find a moment of grace and peace in the midst of this summer of uncertainty and unrest. May we lean on God’s faithfulness and proclaim the gospel witness with boldness and courage in these days.
M. Craig Barnes