By Michael Schroth
Stock markets are in free fall, international and even domestic travel is grinding to a halt, and now schools and universities are taking measures to keep students away as the coronavirus gains traction across the United States and the rest of the world.
The question on everyone’s lips during the 8:30 am Campus Conversation held this morning, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, was what Worcester State University planned to do about the growing threat of COVID-19.
Leading the conversation was University President Barry M. Maloney. He calmly addressed the attendees, a wide swath of faculty, administrators, and students, working his way slowly towards the bombshell news that everyone was waiting for.
“It is very likely today that we will be extending Spring Break by one week,” he said before later adding, “We are likely, very, very likely, to add additional week to Spring Break as our initial step.”
The University officially confirmed this declaration in an email to students and faculty at 4:56 pm. The best source for information is the school’s online bulletin, which they say will be regularly updated. Students can expect daily emails with updates from now on, says Maloney.
As for why Worcester State will be taking this precaution, President Maloney said he was following the suggestions of Gov. Baker.
“We will do this because we will be taking precautions for our campus community, making sure that we recognize that we have a lot of people on our campus, and one of the recommendations from the Governor is that we try not to put ourselves in situations where there are gatherings of a lot of people,” he said. “So, we will take an abundance of precautions… An additional week will also allow us to continue to do some planning, and the planning that I’m really focused on is, ‘What do we do in terms of teaching for the remainder of the semester?’”
Of particular concern is what Maloney calls “specialty courses,” an umbrella term which covered lab courses, visual and performing arts classes, and others that would not be easily transferred to an online format. The president did not offer specific solutions, but simply stressed how it would be necessary to coordinate with faculty to find the best solutions if it becomes necessary to move courses to online-only after the break.
“There’s a good chance that we come back from Spring Break for a modified period, doing some alternative course instruction,” he said. “And to keep it clear here, I am not using solely the term ‘online.’”
Maloney did not elaborate on what specialty classes could look like if such “alternative course instructions” are adopted, saying simply some classes may have to utilize “a number of different options.” The two-week break, he claimed, would provide the administrators, academic deans, and faculty with time to solve this problem.
“We need to make sure that, both from an instructor point of view and from a student point of view, we are getting information out to our students in a consistent manner,” said Maloney. “For some students, they need support, and they do not have the ability to bring that course material in via online.”
One possible solution that Maloney mentioned was so-called “blizzard bags.” These are packages of hard copy materials for students to take home with them to do work remotely. If faculty wanted to adopt this measure, they would need to act before the break, which is now only two academic days away. Taken with the delayed timing of the mass email, faculty have virtually no time to adopt this solution and will probably be looking to make adjustments to courses over the extended Spring Break and implement them in April.
Regarding residence halls, Maloney advised students to take preventative measures.
“We will communicate to the students that they should take stuff home with them, maybe a little bit more stuff than they normally take home for Spring Break,” said Maloney. “Don’t leave your favorite pajamas in the dorm room, because we may come back and make the decision that we’re going to continue to keep people away from the campus.”
In the same vein, the president was very clear about what the role of students should be during the extra week off.
“For students, the message is easy: Stay away. Students need to go away,” he said.
The president did acknowledge the presence of students who, for various reasons, cannot move off campus. For them, Worcester State is their home.
“We will take student housing needs on a case-by-case basis,” Maloney said. “Certainly, we have to make accommodations for these students and others that may have some urgent necessity.”
While President Maloney said that at the end of the governor’s 30-day state of emergency, WSU may very well return to normal, he admitted that there would be some adverse effects of these cautionary measures.
“This will be disruptive,” he said, “but what we’re learning about the coronavirus is that it’s potentially more disruptive from a health point of view.”
Despite the extra long Spring Break, the president was very clear about the future of the semester in one regard.
“You will not hear me utter the words, ‘The University is closed,’” he said. “We will finish out this week as if there has been no change whatsoever…. What we do at the end of that two-week Spring Break, I am not announcing today because I need to work through it, and that’s why we’re trying to buy some time.”
In closing, the President asked attendees for several things.
“One of the things I will ask of all of you is continued patience, cooperation, and understanding that ‘perfect’ is not achievable. So, coming up with a set of plans that is going to work exactly the way someone wants them to work is just not obtainable.”