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College of Charleston Heads Into Fall With COVID Answers

South Carolina's College of Charleston had to put away its plans for a year-long 250th anniversary celebration to instead mitigate the pandemic. The transition yielded lessons for the future, pandemic or not.

college graduation
Flickr/Merrimack College
Just as the College of Charleston in South Carolina was about to launch into a year-long celebration of its 250-year anniversary, in early 2020, the whole landscape of the year ahead changed with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The college’s administration was forced into another gear, from planning for a celebration to coping with a public health crisis. The administration set about providing the same quality education, albeit in various forms; keeping the student body safe; and keeping faculty and staff layoffs at zero.

Heading into the fall 2020 semester, the performance of the student body, a relatively healthy one, was at or above standards and no faculty had been laid off.

The challenges of COVID-19 were met by the college with a mitigation plan that included a combination of in-person, online and hybrid classes in the fall 2020 semester; panel discussions that educated students and families about class formats and how teachers would teach; virtual town hall meetings; and daily tech tips to accompany the more than 275 laptops made available to whoever wanted one and the 61 Wi-Fi hot spots implemented for students. The college’s Division of Information Technology also implemented a virtual desktop solution to enable students and faculty to access software from anywhere on a personal device, and implemented Zoom and LinkedIn Learning options.

As with campuses across the country, the College of Charleston had classes that were taught fully online, some that were taught both asynchronously and synchronously online, and classes that were taught in hybrid fashion, meaning a certain percent of the class would come in person one day and the rest of the class would come the next day.

“Our faculty members were very well resourced and prepared to do this, and at the end of the day, our students did very well both in the fall and spring semesters, because we were looking at average grades, and students came through very strongly,” said Suzanne Austin, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost.

To keep students and faculty healthy, the college put in place a strict face mask and social distancing policy, ensuring students stayed six feet apart in classrooms and limiting capacity indoors, while keeping students connected by creating virtual events and regular virtual “check-ins.”

“The students ended up being super creative in connecting with each other, putting sticky notes of their social media on their doors so that suitemates or floormates could find out who they were, and they connected virtually that way,” said Alicia Caudill, executive vice president of student affairs.

The students were offered weekly testing in the fall semester and had mandatory random sample testing in the spring. “We also offered testing for students with symptoms, and we had a robust quarantine and isolation process for on-campus residents,” Caudill said.

The college deployed a team of contact tracers to work with those students who tested positive. “It was a pretty well-rounded piece,” Caudill said. “We did educational sessions about testing, and we reinforced our policies in multiple ways through things like physical signage and the town halls.”

The school's chief information officer, Mark Staples, came up with the idea of doing “tech tips,” which lasted throughout most of the spring and fall semesters. “I woke one morning realizing we had just delivered Zoom and LinkedIn Learning and a bunch of other technology out there and people were going to need to know how to use it,” he said. “Most of us do not like to consume a lot of information all at one time, so I would get up at 5 a.m., think of a tip and send it out at the same time every day.”

The college now heads into fall 2021 with some lessons learned for this ongoing pandemic or perhaps another future hazard.

“One is that our students do really value and want in-person learning,” Caudill said. “That’s one reason they were so compliant, because they knew they had limited in-person learning and that it could be taken away.”

But students also enjoyed the virtual component, and more of that will be offered into the future. The administration also gained a better insight into the fiscal lows that can affect the student body. The college raised about $250,000 as an emergency fund and vows to continue to work toward ensuring that there is an adequate fund available in the future, pandemic or not.
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