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Coping with COVID: How one university is managing during a pandemic

Marian's plan has students on campus
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Posted at 12:42 PM, Sep 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-07 18:50:52-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Walk onto the Marian University campus in Indianapolis on a warm September afternoon and, at first glance, it appears all is normal.

Students scurry to class. Instruction is taking place in classrooms. But take a closer look. Those students and professors are all wearing masks and they are not sitting close together. Everywhere, there are hand sanitizer dispensers. Signs remind students to wear a face covering and practice social distancing.

This is life at Marian in the third week of the fall semester during a global pandemic. Senior Marketing Major Hannah Robinson from Westfield calls it the "new normal." "I walk by somebody I know and they are like 'who are you' and I'm Hannah, because they can't recognize people with masks, it's definitely different."

Campus life is definitely different at Marian and at schools across the country that have reopened for the fall semester after closing in March over COVID-19 concerns.

"It was kind of like a shock to me," said senior Marcus Taylor, a business analytics major who also played on Marian's football team. "You know, what's going on? You know you hear about the whole COVID thing, you talk about it with your friends. It's not that serious, it's being blown out of proportion. And then things start shutting down and schools all over the country are shutting down, and then you're at home."

At the end of spring semester, Marian held an online commencement. Then it was time for administrators to figure out over the summer how to make their school a safe place for its 3,500 students. COVID-19 wasn't going away.

In some respects, Marian was well prepared for the new normal. Dan Elsener, who has been the university's president since 2001, said there was already a "disaster plan" in place. "We invested money the last two budget years for training faculty how to plan every course they teach in person and online, for the growth of the university and responding to crisis, responding to a terrible sickness an individual student might have," he said. And online learning has been part of Marian's offerings for many years.

Elsener, said the university used $1.5 million to get the campus ready for the new semester. "So then you go to manufactures and start having plexiglass at dining tables and classrooms and you move chairs and then you start matching class rosters to the right room," he said.

And during the final weeks of the spring semester, the school had to keep track of its students who were no longer on campus. "We called them on the phone," said Elsener. "Every student got a phone call at regular intervals. How are the classes going? If a faculty member saw they were not checking in, we intervened. So it was online, but it was high touch."

Elsener said about 20 students have been placed in quarantine during the early weeks of the fall semester. Staff and students have a health self-assessment app on their phones they must interact with each day. The mask mandate is being followed after some initial apprehension.

"The younger generation, our demographics, we're not going to get it, we'll be fine," said Taylor. "So I was expecting to see a lot of people without masks on. Well, that wasn't the case. I showed up and everybody had a mask on."

"There are hand sanitizer things everywhere and doing the self-assessment every time before I get to class, and social distancing, obviously. So it's different, but I'm really getting used to it," said Robinson, who went on to describe what going to class is like. "There's six feet in classes and before we get in there, we have to wipe down the desks and the chair and obviously we have our masks on. And when we leave, we have to wipe everything down."

Robinson said COVID-19 has put a damper on social life. "I definitely am missing a lot more social interaction, but like I said, I'm trying to look at it in a positive way. You know this is keeping me and people I care about healthy, even the people I don't know healthy, so it is worth it."

Marian has canceled many events that would have been open to the public. And the football team, which was NAIA national runner up last season, hopes to play games in the spring.

As is the case at many schools, Marian has tinkered with its schedule. There will be no fall break and when students head home for Thanksgiving, they won't be coming back until mid-January. Final exams and projects will be completed online.

As President Elsener explained, the long break could be a positive for the school. "After Thanksgiving, we know that will be flu season and that will give them a good four, five or six week winter break, and by then, we hope a lot of therapies and new ideas are out and we'll have a great spring semester, with a little less difficulty, but if there is, we are ready."

Adapting to the current reality, Marian is offering five ways to attend class:

  • Classroom
  • Online
  • Remote
  • Hybrid
  • HyFlex

What has life been like for a university president since last March? "I would say there has been just a constant pressure and strain, and I don't need more weight, but about 20 pounds on your shoulders every day, thinking about your options and variables moving forward, because you knew it was the best thing to do, but do it smart, caring and in a safe manner," said Elsener. "We're not declaring victory, but we're heading—for this time of year—the scoreboard looks like we're moving in the right direction."