While Salisbury University has survived in-person instruction longer than many institutions across the state of Maryland, the fight against COVID-19 has been an ever-changing journey for the entire campus community.
After welcoming students back to campus in the first week of September, chaos erupted immediately with a series of coronavirus-related crises.
Within the first week of classes, President of Salisbury University Dr. Charles Wight announced a mandatory round of Labor Day COVID-19 testing for the entire campus community after an 18.3% positivity rate was found on Sept. 1 tests, putting the university’s in-person operations in jeopardy of a potential shutdown just five days into the semester.
367 positive tests were then captured over three days of testing, with many university members forced to leave campus and return home or stay in isolation areas in Dogwood Village to quarantine.
SU then overhauled its entire COVID-19 testing process to curb wait times after facing criticism for non-socially distanced lines as well as mandating negative tests on file every 30 days for university members to retain access to campus facilities.
The campus’ positivity rate steadily dropped since reaching a weekly height of 6.2% positivity, remaining at or below 2% since late September, according to SU’s coronavirus dashboard.
Despite the various challenges faced throughout the fall semester, Wight touted the university as one of the most successful institutions in the state in adjusting to the pandemic.
“SU maintains the highest level of face-to-face and hybrid instructions in the entire University System of Maryland,” Wight said. “I know it hasn’t been easy, but it’s important for your education and your future.”
SU has offered courses in all modalities — in-person, virtual and hybrid formats — throughout the entire semester, with plans to continue the combination in the spring.
But face-to-face instruction has seen dramatic changes compared to years past, as social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines now dictate on-campus life.
Sophomore Riley Keener admits the changes have been draining psychologically and that she still prefers in-person instruction despite the new policies.
“I do love the in-person classes, even if I have to wear a mask … [because] I feel like you are more engaged, whereas I can get too comfortable on Zoom and lose focus,” Keener said.
Professors across the university agree that connecting with students has been the toughest obstacle during the pandemic, which has forced them to find creative ways to teach in this new normal.
“The biggest challenges have been student engagement and making sure that students are getting the same quality of education, which has been difficult by switching between Zoom and in-person formats,” said Susannah Taylor, lecturer of fitness and wellness. “It can be difficult connecting with students when you don’t see them multiple times in-person each week, so [instructors] have to be strategic with different methods, like using Kahoot and breakout rooms or meeting outside the classroom, that might be more effective in delivering the content.”
Another drastic shift took place in on-campus residence life, with each resident allowed just one on-campus guest, barring any family members, off-campus students or members of outside universities from visiting SU residence halls.
For Nanticoke Hall resident Kyla Diggs, like many freshmen, social distancing has been the only version of the college experience she knows.
“What’s bothered me most was having to stick with the room arrangement given to me because, even though it’s socially distanced, it’s made things like my dresser and drawers not even be able to open fully because they hit my desk,” Diggs said. “But overall, I’ve had a pretty pleasant experience.”
The university’s dining services were also significantly impacted by COVID-19, as touchless swipe-in entry to the Commons Dining Hall was added, self-order kiosks were installed and self-service stations were required to be staffed by employees.
As with all other SU facilities, the dining hall was reorganized to accommodate social distancing, and mask-wearing was enforced when individuals were not eating.
Social distancing was made easier with a significant portion of SU students opting for all-virtual class schedules rather than return to campus, making half-filled parking lots and an empty Red Square commonplace.
In a step toward normalcy, SU did see the return of sports midway through the semester.
The university’s fall sports teams resumed limited practices Oct. 1, marking the first time student-athletes could take the field since all fall sports activities were suspended by the Capital Athletic Conference July 21. Fall and spring sports are all slated to compete during the Spring 2021 Semester.
While SU determined a “regular” Thanksgiving break would still be appropriate this fall, some students have opted to stay on campus and not return home to their families, primarily due to coronavirus concerns.
These students will be moved into their own individual rooms in Dogwood Village or Sea Gull Square with residence halls locked during holiday breaks, according to Vice President of Student Affairs Dane Foust.
Though SU’s positivity rate has remained low since early September, the campus still faces great uncertainty in the coming months.
Wight said that every item on the university’s calendar remains subject to change for the foreseeable future as potential challenges posed by the virus continue to surface and threaten SU’s levels of operation.
Thus far, SU has already announced an all-virtual commencement ceremony for the class of 2020 in December and an abbreviated spring break of two days as precautions for the pandemic.
For more information on SU’s testing protocols or to view the latest university COVID-19 test results, visit https://www.salisbury.edu/coronavirus/testing-info.aspx.
By JAKOB TODD
Featured image courtesy of Salisbury University Public Relations Office.