Colleges, seminaries reopen amid COVID-19


As president of United Methodist-related McMurry University in Abilene, Texas, Sandra Harper is used to worrying about big stuff, such as finances, enrollment, personnel and buildings.

Last week, she was also having to make sure students were wearing masks and getting their temperatures taken before checking into dorm rooms.

Harper’s concerns include the looming West Texas Fair & Rodeo, an opportunity for the coronavirus to spread through Abilene and surrounding Taylor County.
 
“That’s a big event, and it hasn’t been canceled,” Harper said, noting that her school has no known COVID-19 cases and has a contact-tracing team ready in case trouble emerges.

Across United Methodist-related higher education — including 13 seminaries and 112 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone — there’s a scramble on to reopen safely for fall semester amid the ongoing pandemic. Many schools are resuming classes this week.
McMurry University, a United Methodist-related school in Abilene, Texas, is welcoming students back to dormitories and classrooms for fall term, but these posters document the restrictions in place because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Christopher Bartlett, courtesy of McMurry University.
McMurry University, a United Methodist-related school in Abilene, Texas, is welcoming students back to dormitories and classrooms for fall term, but these posters document the restrictions in place because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Click here to view full screen. Photo by Christopher Bartlett, courtesy of McMurry University.
Protecting faculty, staff and students is paramount, but private schools also must try to maintain enrollment and offer a rich enough campus experience to justify tuition rates higher than at public schools. That’s a big task with COVID-19-related restrictions in place.

Scott Miller is in his 30th year as a college president, a period that includes 9/11 and the Great Recession. He doesn’t think those events compare to the challenges currently facing private higher education.

Lydia Patterson Institute adapts

Paula Vizcarra listens to instructions from her algebra teacher at Lydia Patterson Institute, a United Methodist college prep school in El Paso, Texas. The school has had to move to online instruction only during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.
Paula Vizcarra listens to instructions from her algebra teacher at Lydia Patterson Institute, a United Methodist college prep school in El Paso, Texas. The school has had to move to online instruction only during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Mike DuBose, UM News.
Lydia Patterson Institute, in El Paso, Texas, has faced many challenges since its 1913 founding. The latest is the COVID-19 pandemic.

The beloved United Methodist school, named for a philanthropic Methodist laywoman, has provided English-language college preparatory education to generations of Hispanic high school students from El Paso and across the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

COVID-19 forced the school to go to online classes only last spring, and tighter border crossing policies by the U.S. also meant many parents couldn’t get over to pay their kids’ tuition.

“We rely on tuition for operations,” said Socorro de Anda, longtime president. “We had to get parents to acquire credit cards in preparation for this year.”

Mexican students are allowed to cross into the U.S., but the school has begun fall term with online classes only because of COVID-19 rates in El Paso County. The hope is the campus will reopen, with limitations, in October.

Enrollment has been slow, in part because COVID-19 has left some parents out of work. De Anda has been calling South Central Jurisdiction churches to ask for financial support, and many have come through.

Through the years, Lydia Patterson has survived everything from U.S. recessions to Mexican peso devaluations to violent crime waves across the border.

De Anda said, “We’re going to get through this.”

“You add those together and multiple by 10 and that’s what the pandemic has created for us,” said Miller, president of Virginia Wesleyan University and the North American Association of Methodist Schools, Colleges and Universities.

Virginia Wesleyan, in Virginia Beach, is welcoming students back on campus for a mix of in-person and online classes, but with a punch list of changes in place, including a hold on athletics.
 
Gatherings of more than 50 people currently aren’t allowed in Virginia Wesleyan’s part of the state. That means sit-down dining at the school has been replaced by “grab and go.”
 
Goodbye for now, to that beloved fixture of the campus dining hall — the salad bar.

“We have to have staff prepare salads for students,” said Keith Moore, Virginia Wesleyan’s vice president for campus life and operational management.

When COVID-19 forced much of the U.S. into lockdown in March, United Methodist colleges and seminaries joined their counterparts in moving to online classes only for the balance of spring term.

Federal funds through the CARES Act and Paycheck Protection Program helped schools avoid layoffs and cover rebates for student housing and meal costs.

“That was a godsend,” Harper said. 

But the pandemic has persisted, complicated by widely varying infection rates across the country.
 
Some United Methodist seminaries, such as Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, in Evanston, Illinois, made an early call to stick with online classes through term.

“We’re being very cautious. We have not made a decision about the spring, and we probably won’t until early October,” said Lallene Rector, Garrett-Evangelical’s president. “We want to see what’s happening with the other schools that are opening.”

For now, Rector said, online enrollment looks strong and the early decision allowed the school to hire a new technology specialist and upgrade generally its online presence.

Methodist Theological School in Ohio is, like Garrett-Evangelical, a stand-alone institution — not embedded in a university. MTSO’s surveying found new students, especially, wanted to be on campus, so the seminary is offering some in-person classes this term.

The roomy, 80-acre campus in Delaware, Ohio, helped with that decision.

“We can social distance with the best of them,” said the Rev. Jay Rundell, president.

Duke Divinity School, in Durham, North Carolina, has followed Duke University’s requirements about reopening.

That will mean some in-person classes, but lots of online classes, and students who want to take all their classes online can do so.

“Some of our students have chosen a completely online option and not even moved back to North Carolina,” said G. Sujin Pak, vice dean of academic affairs.
 
Duke is just 11 miles from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which recently pulled back on offering in-person classes after a spike of COVID-19 cases among students.
 
G. Sujin Pak, vice dean of academic affairs, Duke Divinity School. Photo courtesy of Duke Divinity School.
G. Sujin Pak, vice dean of academic affairs, Duke Divinity School
Photo courtesy of Duke Divinity School.
At Duke, Pak said, mask-wearing is strictly enforced and there’s a Duke Compact that students sign, wherein they agree to observe health protocols.

“We’ve also decided to start a week early so we could finish all our classes prior to Thanksgiving. Therefore, we would not have people dispersing and coming back,” Pak said.

A sampling of United Methodist-related colleges found a strong push to bring students back to dorm rooms and in-person classes, with online classes a big part of the mix.

Dillard University, one of 11 historically black colleges and universities supported by the United Methodist Black College Fund, is using that hybrid approach. The New Orleans university has posted on its website a 20-page guide for reopening titled “#Reconnect DU: Mask/Cleanse/Distance.”

President Walter Kimbrough said Dillard did surveys, and he personally sat in on focus groups to gauge what turned out to be strong sentiment, including from faculty, for having resuming campus life.

But lots will be different.

“We’re on the conservative side with residence halls. Everybody’s in a single,” Kimbrough said.

Walter Kimbrough, president, Dillard University. Photo courtesy of Dillard University.
Walter Kimbrough, president, Dillard University
Photo courtesy of Dillard University.
For now, Dillard appears to be only slightly behind last fall in enrollment.

“If we’re within 5 (percent), that’s great,” Kimbrough said.

Simpson College, in Indianola, Iowa, also appears to be holding its own in enrollment, said Heidi Levine, vice president for student development and planning, and chair of the crisis management team.

During fall term at Simpson, mask-wearing in public settings is required, and athletics are postponed. Many other events will be held virtually. Tele-therapy will be provided for students needing psychological counseling.

“There’s very little that looks like normal,” Levine said.

But she quickly added that Simpson’s surveys too found a strong desire to have as much happening on campus as possible.

“Students at a school like Simpson want that face-to-face experience,” she said.

The University of Indianapolis is, with 5,500 students and a range of graduate programs, one of the larger United Methodist-affiliated schools. 

President Robert Manuel said that this fall 36 percent of students will be studying remotely, 41 percent will combine online and in-person classes and 23 percent will essentially be on campus full time.

Reopening has required strenuous and expensive efforts to create a safe environment, he said, as well as investing in technology for expanded and enhanced online instruction.
Jim Bellew, professor of physical therapy, models the mask and face shield included in hygiene kits that the University of Indianapolis provides to all faculty. Mask-wearing is just one of several health protocols employed by the United Methodist-related school as it reopens for fall term during the pandemic. Photo by Luke Cooley, University of Indianapolis.
Jim Bellew, professor of physical therapy, models the mask and face shield included in hygiene kits that the University of Indianapolis provides to all faculty. Mask-wearing is just one of several health protocols employed by the United Methodist-related school as it reopens for fall term during the pandemic. Photo by Luke Cooley, University of Indianapolis.
While Manuel doesn’t downplay that this is a hard time, he thinks private higher education is going to pass the test presented by the pandemic.

“Some of the pundits were saying there’s not going to be an international student in sight. We have a large number joining us already,” Manuel said.

For sure, innovation is on display all over, including at Perkins School of Theology.

That United Methodist seminary, part of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, is using the HyFlex format for a combination of in-person and online instruction.

Perkins also is debuting a course on ministry in digital culture, led by professors Robert Hunt and Marcell Steuernagel.

“The course will be taught entirely online, using a full range of digital media both synchronously and asynchronously, making the course itself a laboratory for exploring digitally mediated relationships,” Hunt said.
Students at Virginia Wesleyan University, a United Methodist-related school in Virginia Beach, make the move into dormitories for fall term. The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges for colleges and seminaries as they seek to resume in-person classes safely amid the ongoing pandemic. Photo courtesy of Virginia Wesleyan University.
Students at Virginia Wesleyan University, a United Methodist-related school in Virginia Beach, make the move into dormitories for fall term. The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges for colleges and seminaries as they seek to resume in-person classes safely amid the ongoing pandemic. Photo courtesy of Virginia Wesleyan University.
Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.

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