PLNU’s virtual fall semester is well underway. While 300 students already live in the residence halls and 500 more are waiting to transition to on-campus housing, the rest are dispersed around the world. None of them know for sure whether or not they will return to in-person classes before 2020 is over. At this point, neither do faculty.
Every week, PLNU’s COVID-19 Task Force strategizes how to respond to the ever-evolving health crisis plaguing the globe. The task force originally emerged in February when the university’s main coronavirus issues revolved around its study abroad students. Now, the six groups of interdisciplinary experts meet every Wednesday to discuss how and when PLNU can safely welcome students back to campus.
Charles Hardison and Monique Sawyer — two members of the Medical Testing, Prevention & Protocols Group — both denied requests for interviews. Attempts to reach Dawne Page, biology department chair and member of the task force, were unsuccessful.
According to Jake Gilbertson, PLNU’s dean of students, members of the COVID-19 Task Force work closely with leaders at other universities in San Diego, county health officials and even state-level officials. With so many people involved and the developing nature of the situation, the decision-making process is both rapid and complex. As soon as the university receives guidance, they adjust plans and communicate to students as quickly as possible, Gilbertson said.
Halle Peters, a junior education major, will live on campus for the remainder of the fall semester. Peters said she wished PLNU had provided more information for students throughout the process.
“[PLNU] has communicated their reopening plan alright, but they could have done better,” Peters said via text. “A freshman I spoke with [told] me she just got accepted for housing yesterday, when she was supposed to find out a few weeks ago.”
She added that the university did adequately communicate what students could expect as they moved onto a socially-distanced campus.
Jill Monroe, PLNU’s director of public affairs, helps the task force navigate the official guidance released for higher education. Monroe said the state guidance for higher education that came in early August deferred responsibility to counties and encouraged institutions to work with those counties. This revision ultimately allowed PLNU to increase on-campus housing opportunities, but not to resume face-to-face instruction.
“Our county has indicated that they want us to prioritize virtual at all costs — whether that’s virtual instruction, virtual meetings, virtual events,” Monroe said. “If we can’t do them virtually, [they] want [us] to do them outside. Indoor anything is their last preference.”
Gilbertson, Monroe and Jeff Bolster, vice president for university services and head of the COVID-19 Task Force, all said it is impossible to tell whether or not PLNU will transition back to face-to-face instruction before President Brower’s deadline on October 19. Considering the logistical challenges involved with reopening a hybrid university mid-semester during a pandemic, they agreed it is unlikely.
“If the last six months [have] taught me anything, it’s that my ability to predict things is not great,” Gilbertson said. Nonetheless, returning to campus “certainly doesn’t seem imminent.”
“When you think about safety, there are several things that are known and there are several things that are just unknown,” Bolster said.
According to Bolster, the uncertainty about an effective vaccine contributes to PLNU’s hesitation to resume in-person instruction.
Monroe pointed to PLNU’s testing capabilities as the biggest challenge the task force is working through. She said although the university purchased or made agreements with medical companies to obtain rapid response testing kits, they have often been superseded by state-level health and human services, or by other industries that are considered more essential.
Starting the semester remotely also created operational challenges for the university that might prevent a smooth transition to face-to-face classes.
“Over the summer, there was a disproportionately large number of students who were planning on being in residence and in hybrid instruction,” Monroe said. “What you have now is the flip of that, and so you have more students who will likely remain remote.”
Bolster said the immediate focus of the COVID-19 Task Force is to find the intersection between community and safety for students and faculty.
“Community living defines PLNU, and not just at our Point Loma campus,” Bolster said.
Despite classes starting remotely this semester, Monroe said the university cannot delay intentional community-building until everyone is back in person.
“Virtual experiences will continue to exist, so PLNU has to start fostering that community now,” she said.
“We want students to stay engaged, we want students to be encouraged, we want to create a positive message and a really vibrant campus experience for the students who aren’t here,” Gilbertson said. “And we have to be honest that some things will have to be different.”
Written By: Lauren O’Brien