University officials contemplate transition to online courses

Marshall University President Jerry Gilbert confirmed courses for the fall 2020 semester may transition to online or virtual depending on the number of active coronavirus cases on campus.

Gilbert said there is no definitive number of active cases on campus that would close down the university and cause the online transition, but if 5-6% of the on-campus students have active coronavirus cases at the same time, university officials would start examining if plans should change. De- spite this possibility and other changes on campus, Gilbert said faculty and staff members are working hard to make this year a good one, and a safe one, for everyone.

“It’s going to be different, the students certainly know that, but we’re going to do the best we can to try to make the experience a good one for them,” Gilbert said. “Our fac- ulty are committed to doing the best they can under the circumstances. A lot of them have been seeking additional training when it comes to technology, so we have spent a lot of time over the summer assisting them in techniques and ways to utilize technology to better create a learning environment that is conducive to our students.”

Gilbert said the safety precautions on campus include mandatory masks in campus buildings, barriers in class- rooms, cleaning materials available for classrooms where face-to-face courses are taking place and masks will be available in some vending machines for purchase. While students living on campus are required to get tested for coronavirus upon arrival, commuter students enrolled in face-to-face courses will also be able to get free testing on campus when the semester starts. Gilbert said there will be multiple stations set up for student to get tested.

Additionally, the university has decreased the density on campus by limiting the majority of face-to-face courses to freshmen and graduate students, as announced by Gilbert in an email sent to students July 29, 2020.

Gilbert said university staff decided to allow graduate students to take in-person courses because the number of graduate students at Marshall is a small fraction com- pared to the overall student population. But Gilbert said freshmen students would be allowed to take face-to-face courses if they wish, to help give them some of the experi- ences that come with transitioning to college living.

“We are allowing freshmen because we understand that an important component and important experience for first-time freshmen is the campus experience and adjust- ing to on-campus experiences,” he said…

… “We thought the freshmen were the most critical in terms of giving them a campus experience, in terms of their future semesters and their perception of what it’s like to be college students. So, we felt like it was very important to give the freshmen that opportunity. If a freshman were to be uncomfortable being face-to-face, they certainly have the option to go all virtual if they so choose to do that.”

There will also be a health-check app where students living on campus and commuters partaking in face-to-face courses will be required to fill out a daily health survey. The app will also act as a ‘passport’ for students, Gilbert said, as students will not be allowed in campus buildings until they have completed their daily survey.

While Gilbert said he hopes a vaccine for coronavirus becomes available soon and that he hopes students will follow guidelines to ensure everyone’s safety, others have expressed concerns with coming to campus.

David Trowbridge, associate professor of history and the director of African and African American Studies at Mar- shall, said he thinks the return to campus is a bad decision because it puts student and faculty lives at risk.

“I think the decision we are making is going to kill our students and our colleagues, and I think it will kill their families,” he said.

Trowbridge, who will be teaching virtual and online courses only during the semester, has taken to Twitter to

A sign on the bottom floor entrance of Smith Hall reminds students and staff to mask up before entering the building.

voice his concerns regarding the transition back to school. When asked if he is worried about backlash for speaking out against university administration’s decisions, Trow- bridge said public health is more important than his job…

“…What happens to me is less important than what happens to hun- dreds of people,” he said. “I am willing to go on record to say I would much rather have a furlough or a pay cut, and I am not a wealthy man, to save a kid’s life. I’ll walk away, I’ll go back to working for a phone company, before risking the lives of my students. I know the financial interest is to proceed as normal, but knowing what might happen, I think we need to reverse course.”

Carrie Cockerham, an incoming freshman from Winchester, Kentucky, said she has been following Marshall’s emails and social media to keep up with information, but is concerned for how the year will turn out.

“I feel like there are some classes that really should be face-to-face, but I also haven’t taken an online class with a professor who has been trained to teach online,” Cockerham said. “The biggest change in my expectations is I don’t know if there will be as much of an opportunity to get out and be social with new people. In general, I’m unsure of what to expect.”

While there has been expressed concern over the return to campus, Julie Snyder-Yuly, an assistant professor in the Communications Depart- ment, said many of the professors in her department have not expressed opposition to the decision unless they had personal health reasons for not wanting to return.

“One of the things we talked about with professors is do they feel com- fortable with this when talking about going back to campus,” Snyder-Yuly said, “and really no one said, ‘I don’t feel like I can do this.’ But I think Marshall and my department have been really good about saying ‘if this is a problem for you, you have options.’”

Snyder-Yuly also said she personally has mixed feelings about return- ing to campus because she wants to see her students, but she also wants to be safe. Her course schedule this semester includes teaching mainly freshmen and sophomores, so Snyder-Yuly said she will have a mixture of virtual and in-person classes.

Mark Robinson, Marshall’s chief financial officer, said the university’s 2020-21 budget has allocated funds for extra cleaning supplies and neces- sary items to ensure all safety measures can be taken, all while not raising the tuition from the 2019-20 academic year. Robinson also said there arestill multiple monetary options for students who may be seeking financial support for the upcoming year.

“The university does have remaining federal CARES Act funds available. Information about how those funds will be distributed and application in- structions will be sent to students shortly,” Robinson said. “In addition, the Marshall University Foundation continues to receive generous donations from university supporters to assist students. Those funds will be made available to the Office of Student Financial Assistance for distribution to qualifying students.”

Sarah Ingram can be contacted at [email protected]