University announces adjustments to 2020-2021 academic calendar

Marshall University announced Friday new adjustments to the 2020-2021 academic calendar aimed at minimizing travel to and from campus to keep students, staff and faculty safe throughout the upcoming semesters.

“The way we are planning to hold classes in the fall [is] still in a state of flux right now,” associate biology professor and Faculty Senate Chair Philippe Georgel said during the Senate’s meeting earlier this week. “It looks at this time like we are going to have partially face-to-face and partially online, finding accommodations for at-risk students, faculty and staff to make sure none of those people are exposed to potential infection by the virus. This is being worked on daily.”

The highlights of the updated schedule for the upcoming semesters include:

  • Students returning to campus for in-person classes beginning Aug. 24
  • No classes held on Labor Day, Sept. 7
  • Students not returning to campus after Thanksgiving break in November
  • Students completing semester’s work (after the break) with a week of online instruction and a week reserved for online final exams
  • Spring term beginning Jan. 19 (delayed one week from previously planned schedule)
  • Cancelling the first four days of previously scheduled Spring Break to make up for instruction time lost by delayed start to the semester as well as to minimize travel to and from campus
  • No classes Friday, March 19, reducing “Spring Break” to a three-day weekend
  • Spring semester ending April 23, final exams occurring April 26-30, all face-to-face

Associate Provost and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Sherri Smith said the decision to include the spring semester in the schedule adjustments was made with knowledge that such adjustments are subject to change depending on circumstances related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Things are not going to change radically for us in terms of modifying the way we go about face-to-face until a vaccine is developed. For that reason, we’re looking at the entire academic calendar,” Smith said. “Of course, the proviso is added that if there’s another lockdown because of a rise in cases, then this will have to be modified further. But I don’t see us being in a position where, come December and January, we no longer have to worry about students travelling and coming back—such as during spring break—and risking transmitting the virus and having a major outbreak at Marshall.”

Stephen Young, assistant criminal justice and criminology professor, said during the Senate’s recent meeting that he is concerned about the ability of students to access necessary technology and internet connection to complete the final two weeks of the fall semester online.

“I’ve spoken with probably two-dozen students who do not really have stable access and were able to have better access—the lockdown actually benefited them in this way—because they were able to go to friends’ and family members’ houses, not having to worry about work on top of that,” Young said. “I’m concerned about students even having access and the technology required to even finish out those last two weeks.”

Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Jaime Taylor said university officials are working on finding an effective solution to the problem of students lacking access to necessary internet connection and technology.

“Last year, one of the big issues we had is that initially we thought public libraries would be open, and we thought people would be able to go to libraries [to access necessary resources],” Taylor said. “When they weren’t, that created a huge issue in the spring for individuals unable to access the internet. We’re not sure how that’s going to work right now. We’re working to make sure that it will be a much better process than it was in the spring.”

Taylor said university officials are considering ways to ensure certain areas of campus will remain open to provide students access to resources required to complete their courses, especially during the last two weeks of the fall semester.

“At least we have plenty of time now to try to come up with a solution to that,” Taylor said. “There are several departments worried about this issue, and we have people working on it right now.”

Associate Vice President for Online Learning and Dean of University Libraries Monica Brooks said public libraries may serve as a crucial resource for students who may not have adequate access to internet or technology when they are not on campus.

“It is highly likely that unless the governor declares another state of emergency and shuts us down, we will have 170 public libraries accessible to us across the state,” Brooks said. “I’m pretty sure they will be in operation just as our public campus buildings will be in operation unless there is another shutdown from the governor.”

Responding to concerns about how the university may transition to online instruction if doing so becomes necessary, Smith said there is a team working on a “Plan B” to ensure the transition is as smooth and effective as possible.

Taylor said there would have to be another major surge in COVID-19 cases before the university would announce a switch to fully online instruction for the fall semester.

“Based on responses from faculty and students, most everybody wants to do face-to-face, so we’re going to make our best effort possible to do some type of face-to-face this fall. We definitely will not be the first school in the nation or in the region to go fully online,” Taylor said. “If it looks like everybody is going to go online, then we will, and I think we will all know that ahead of time. We’ll see what’s happening in the region around us. There are just so many unknowns right now.”

An email sent by the university to Marshall students Friday states that a “Health and Safety Task Force,” led by Tracy Smith, the university’s director of environmental health and safety, will develop a comprehensive plan for COVID-19 related health and safety measures for the fall semester.

The email states: “This Health and Safety Task Force will produce a draft plan in mid-June, including procedures for classrooms, office spaces, residence halls and dining facilities, and employee and student protection. The plan will address masks, testing and screening, hygiene, cleaning and sanitizing procedures, self-reporting of health status by students, social distancing, contact tracing, quarantine and isolation protocols, and other measures. As soon as the task force’s plan is finalized, we will share it with the campus community.”

Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected].