After a spring semester that had to quickly shift to a remote learning model as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, Meredith College leaders spent the summer of 2020 preparing for an unprecedented fall semester.
The College established community standards and invested in a variety of areas in order to be ready for the new academic year, including campus safety efforts, changes to classrooms and common areas, training and technology to support academics, and more. Meredith also provided approximately $2 million additional dollars in scholarship funding for students since last spring.
Meredith’s Incident Response Team (IRT) and many campus partners worked to define community standards that all students, faculty, staff, and visitors are expected to uphold in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. These standards are posted on the College’s Staying Strong website, included in a guide for returning to campus that was released in August, and are part of a pledge that all community members were encouraged to sign.
One of the most visible examples of the community standards is the collection of signs that have been created and posted around campus to help everyone navigate the campus while abiding by the College’s Community Standards. These signs include visual reminders of the “Three Ws.”
“The ‘Three Ws’, which are to wash hands frequently, wear a face covering, and wait at least six feet apart, are simple actions that every person should take to help stay healthy,” said Health Services Director, Mary Johnson.
Johnson and Meredith’s human resources staff were trained in contact tracing, which is the process used to identify anyone who may have come into contact with a COVID-19 positive person. A team of public health students were also trained to support contact tracing efforts, an opportunity for them to learn important skills for their future professions. Contact tracing generally involves interviewing people with COVID-19 to identify everyone they had close contact with during the time they may have been infectious, notifying contacts of their potential exposure, and referring contacts for testing, monitoring contacts for COVID-19 symptoms, and connecting contacts with services they might need during the self-quarantine period.
Campus Safety Investments
Meredith’s Facilities Services department, which includes housekeeping, maintenance, and grounds, was closely involved in many of the campus safety improvements, with support from other campus departments. Facilities procured plexiglass shields for front-facing offices, reception areas, and in customer service areas. Another priority has been increased cleaning and disinfection practices to keep all areas of campus, particularly high-traffic areas, clean. Housekeeping coordinated the addition of sanitizing stations in classroom buildings and other spaces to allow for self-service cleaning, and added stations at strategic areas that provide no-touch hand sanitizer dispensers.
In addition, a subcommittee of the IRT, including housekeeping and facilities representatives, coordinated a system through which employees can request cleaning supplies that can be used to clean offices/work spaces between the routine cleanings that the housekeeping staff provides.
Another subcommittee rearranged classroom spaces and other public areas, including Belk Dining Hall, to help ensure appropriate distancing.
Leveraging Technology to Enhance Hybrid Classes
As the new semester approached, faculty and staff worked hard to prepare both online and face-to-face options for learning. Faculty were able to choose the format in which they wanted to teach this fall, and students were able to opt for remote or on-campus coursework.
“In circumstances when returning to in-person teaching is not possible, we know there are many ways to achieve the same goals, relying on innovative teaching methods and interactive technology like Zoom boards,” said Sarah Roth, Meredith’s dean of Arts and Humanities.
Faculty are using Zoom boards to instruct students virtually and in the classroom at the same time, providing the familiar in-class interactions that are well known at Meredith. And because of their experience last spring, faculty have gained an understanding of how to use technology to connect with students on a personal level, even when they are interacting remotely.
“Personal attention and connection are just as important in a virtual environment as they are in an actual physical classroom,” says Roth. “And these goals are just as achievable, thanks to the technology we’ve invested in.”
More than 40 classrooms at Meredith are equipped with Zoom boards, which are 55-72″ monitors that double as smart boards. Other hybrid learning enhancements include microphones that pick up audio in all parts of the classroom, as well as video cameras to help with the visual aspect of learning. This technology not only allows remote students to receive real-time instruction, it also allows them to interact and hold discussions with students who are in the classroom physically.
Faculty Show Commitment to Providing Best Experience Possible for Students
Professor of Education Julie Schrock believes that learn-from-home students benefit greatly from this well-designed, engaging online instruction.
“Many Meredith faculty were already skilled online instructors and thanks to training [last summer], even more are trained now,” Schrock says. “Students definitely benefit from the knowledge and skills that faculty developed through participation in the Professional Development Community (PDC).”
The PDC was a skill-share initiative developed collaboratively by Faculty Development and IDAT (Instructional Design and Academic Technology) to improve online learning efforts around campus.
Schrock says faculty also overwhelmingly took advantage of the sessions offered by Meredith’s Tech Services team, learning how to use technology such as Zoom and TechSmith Relay (now Knomia) to best meet students’ needs.
Provost Matthew Poslusny says the solutions faculty came up with were made possible by everyone having patience, flexibility, and maintaining a positive attitude.
No matter what learning format students are using this fall, Meredith College leaders continue making decisions based on the latest guidance and directives from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the State of North Carolina, which requires the entire community to remain flexible.
“Our primary focus is always on keeping our students and employees safe,” said President Jo Allen. “I appreciate the patience of our community members as we worked out details related to a fall semester like no other in Meredith’s history.”
For the most updated information on Meredith’s COVID-19 prevention efforts, visit meredith.edu/staying-strong.