Students relax outside in between classes on Tuesday, Sept. 1.
On Tuesday, September 1, Calvin University classes were back in session, and in-person for the first time since Thursday, March 12, 2020, when the university pivoted to online classes for the remainder of the spring semester.
Residential students moved onto campus during the week of August 24, many receiving their COVID-19 screening test on the day of move-in. As of August 31, the university had conducted 3,809 tests for students, faculty, and staff through a partnership with Helix Diagnostics that the university secured back in May. A number of other screening and diagnostic tests have also been conducted through other sources.
The result? Just 12 student and employee cases have been reported as positive to the university since August 1. Only four cases are currently active within the Calvin community, all of which are off-campus and in isolation.
“As they have arrived, our students have communicated joy, gratitude, and exhibited tremendous adaptability. It is clear they want nothing to interfere with their academic goals for the year. And, I believe, these results demonstrate their commitment to their own health and wellbeing and to the health and wellbeing of their new neighbors here on campus,” said Michael Le Roy, president of Calvin University. “And our faculty and staff’s commitment to our students is undeniable, and they are doing everything they can to make sure the students return to campus well and are able to continue in-person learning throughout the fall semester.”
Months in the making
Planning for the university’s safe return to campus began months ago, and plans were built on solid structures and foundations the university has had in place for years.
“While we didn’t expect something to have such a profound impact on the city, the state, the country, and the world like COVID-19 has,” said Laura Champion, director of health services at Calvin, “our years of planning for other potential viral outbreaks gave us a solid foundation to build upon as we organized to meet this unique challenge.”
Champion is a medical doctor with 25 years of experience in the Grand Rapids medical community and she leads a team of health services professionals at Calvin, which for nine years running the Princeton Review has named one of higher education’s top 20 Health Services in the nation. Sarah Visser, vice president for student life, is co-chair of the university’s cross-divisional Safe Return Team. She says Champion’s health services team’s experience and connection to local, state, and national health officials has been invaluable and key to the university’s safe return.
“There is tremendous value in having a medical doctor and a team of health professionals on our staff,” said Visser. “And, in moments like these, months like these, we saw that value demonstrated over and over again. There was not a decision made without a member of our Health Maintenance team, many times multiple people, speaking into the decision with the best medical and public health advice. This set us up for success.”
Champion and Visser were among those at Calvin University on the initial Coronavirus Response Team of more than 100 faculty, staff, and administrators that was formed in early March—the team that ultimately helped the university pivot to online learning for the remainder of the spring semester and that successfully continued to make decisions that ensured the safety and wellbeing of those residential students who needed to live on campus for the remainder of the spring semester, nearly 300 in total. The team consisted of 14 smaller working groups that were involved in daily communication and problem solving for the many aspects of university life.
“We were able to pilot what it looked like to care for a few hundred students living on campus in the midst of a pandemic,” said Visser. “We were successful in mitigation efforts then, and we learned a lot during that time that guided us as we planned for fall 2020.”
In April, the broader Calvin community stepped up in many ways, alums banded together to sew hundreds of face masks for those students and staff who were living or working on campus in the spring and summer, faculty created a series of courses helping participants understand how to be a “Christian witness in a COVID-shaped world,” a group of students created PPE for a local company as part of their senior project and another student started a business that directly benefits those most vulnerable to COVID-19, and the university opened its Prince Conference Center to provide free housing for first responders.
By early May, Calvin University had established a partnership with Helix Diagnostics—the first of its kind at the time in Michigan, and perhaps in the entire country. The partnership guaranteed Calvin access to 5,000 tests, ensuring all faculty, staff, and students would be tested and screened for COVID-19 as they returned to campus. This would ensure that anyone who tests positive would receive proper care before integrating with smaller groups on campus. (The university has an additional 1,000 tests or so it will use throughout the fall semester as needed.)
Now, four months later, Le Roy says as he’s seen some institutions open without baseline testing and needing to soon move online, he is grateful that Calvin secured testing early.
“Institutions that have had to reverse course certainly have my sympathy. But, it is understandable that the spread of the virus would accelerate as students gathered, and this would also be true for us if we had not known about our few active cases and allowed them to move into the residence halls and attend classes as usual,” said Le Roy. “This is a great start for us, and yet we know that we must continue to be vigilant and work together to maintain a healthy and safe learning environment. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
In late May, the university pivoted more fully into planning for the university’s safe return in the fall. The Safe Return Team was soon formed with four working groups: Instruction, and the Classroom, Lab, and Studio; Health Maintenance; the Employee Experience; and the Campus Experience, Alumni and External Communities. The four groups were tasked with prioritizing the work that needs to be done to put the university in the best position possible to welcome students, faculty, and staff to campus for in-person learning experiences, and to do so following the best advice from health officials.
And university leaders were not only looking out for Calvin’s safe return but helping their peers in higher education to do the same. Le Roy, in his role as chair of Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities (MICU), led a group of educators, public health professionals, and physicians in developing the “Playbook for COVID-19 Response and Re-Opening.” The playbook was used as a resource for MICU institutions and helped those in government to understand the opportunities and resources at colleges and universities of Calvin’s size.
The summer season at Calvin was all about preparing for fall 2020, everything from training faculty to be ready for online-only courses by learning the best pedagogical practices, to outfitting classroom spaces with the proper technology and safety measures to ensure an optimal learning environment for all learners, to figuring out how to deliver dining services to the community. Staff also worked on a phased move-in schedule, reimagined orientation programming, and established spaces on campus for isolation and quarantine (when needed). The university also stocked up on personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, began daily symptom monitoring early in the summer, and, in early August, decided on the use of the #CampusClear App as the daily health check for all students and employees for the fall semester.
“The amount of work that happened over this summer is incredible. We are in many ways like a small city as a residential campus, and so we are held to some of the highest public health standards,” said Visser. “Our community worked tirelessly to make sure that all of the details were accounted for and that multiple contingency plans were in place so we could adapt quickly and effectively with as little disruption as possible.”
As a new chapter begins, the planning continues, and leaders reflect back with gratitude on the past few months even as they remain vigilant for the task ahead working together to keep the campus safe and well throughout fall semester.
“We believe we have prepared well for everything we can think of, and we remain humble about what we will still need to learn,” said Le Roy. “We are dedicated as a community to caring for each other’s health and wellbeing, and this is a commitment we are renewing daily. I find myself often repeating a verse from Psalm 28:7, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him.”
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