Virtual town hall answers student questions about fall return to Emory campus

By Roger Slavens | Emory Report | June 26, 2020

Campus leaders provide insight into what academics and student life will look like in the next school year, as well as how they’re working to protect everyone’s health and safety.

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As Emory welcomes students back to campus for the fall semester, much will remain the same — challenging classes taught by world-renowned faculty, access to the deep resources of a leading research university, and the opportunity to live and learn in a supportive campus community.

But while these core elements of the Emory experience will not change, how they are provided will, as the university implements a vast array of health protocols in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Emory Campus Life and the student-led Emory College Council organized a virtual town hall on Tuesday, June 23, to give students a clearer picture of how the university’s acclaimed academic programs and transformative college experiences will be provided when classes resume Aug. 19.

Through social media channels and during registration for the event, Emory College students were encouraged to submit their questions and concerns to leaders playing a pivotal role in the reopening of the university this fall: Michael Elliott, dean of Emory College, and Enku Gelaye, vice president and dean of Campus Life, along with several of their key staff members.

The town hall, held via Zoom, addressed dozens of questions from more than 300 student participants. It was moderated by College Council President Aditya Jhaveri and Riya Mehta, the council’s vice president of communications.

Many questions focused on how new safety protocols — from physical distancing measures to enhanced cleaning efforts — will help students stay healthy, as well as how these protocols will impact classrooms, labs, residence halls, dining and other facets of the on-campus Emory experience.

“We are in the midst of two pandemics at this moment: the global pandemic of coronavirus and COVID-19, but also a global response to the pandemic of racial injustice and the violence that it has wrought upon both American society and the world,” said Elliott in opening the town hall.

“The fall of 2020 will be a historic moment. As students at this moment, you may not have had a chance to really step back and realize what a pivotal time you’re living in, and how it is affecting everything in ways that no person who’s alive right now could have predicted or at least was really prepared for.” 

While Emory will no doubt be a changed place in the fall, Elliott noted, it will also be an especially meaningful time to be part of a university community and to experience together the ways the world can change positively in a time of stress. “We’re pledged to do what we can to support all of the members of the Emory community,” he said.

That pledge includes protecting the health and safety of students, faculty and staff, while also meeting academic expectations, Gelaye said. 

“Whether it’s remote or in-person, we’re doing the best we can to deliver an equivalent Emory experience for you, knowing the necessity of health and safety protocols,” she told students.

She continued, “We’re committed to delivering quality academic programs and doing what we can to improve your lives, and the lives of the people around us, by teaching and mentoring and doing research, doing the salient work of the university that compelled you to apply.”

Gelaye stressed to students that returning to campus this fall requires a collective, coordinated, transparent effort between them and Emory administrators, faculty and staff.

“We all have to commit to ourselves to wearing face masks and hand-washing and all the safety protocols we’re rolling out, because ultimately our success as a university — our ability to stay together as a community when fall [arrives] — will be based on our collective willingness to keep each other safe.” 

Elliott explained that while he, Gelaye and other administrators are working diligently in real-time to address the concerns of students, faculty, staff and parents, they don’t know all the answers yet. Student input has been critical to the process of returning to campus for the fall, and he and other Emory leaders have done their utmost to be as transparent as possible along the way.

“Because this is really uncharted territory,” Elliott said. “There’s no template for opening a university in a pandemic.”

Classes in the time of COVID-19

Fall classes at Emory, as at many universities across the country, will be a combination of online and in-person experiences, depending on the needs of students and faculty, and the nature of the coursework.

The new course atlas will be available on or close to July 1, and reregistration will begin on July 9 for seniors, and then be staggered afterward for other undergraduate students. 

Courses available online this fall will be different than the ones students adapted to in the spring, when faculty were forced by COVID-19 to quickly switch to virtual learning, Elliot said.

“[Fall classes] will be purpose-built online classes,” Elliot said. “More than 650 of our faculty right now are taking online teaching training to think about how to remake their classes for an online environment, because they want to reach the standard of Emory excellence that they were able to achieve in person.”

These new, enhanced online classes will be available to students on campus, as well as those who opt to stay at home and attend Emory fully online, Elliott said. “It’s going to be very unlikely that you will have a schedule that is entirely in-person classes,” he said.

Tuition will remain the same for all courses, regardless of the method in which they are taught, although those who opt to study from home will not incur the associated costs of housing, dining and other campus-based fees. 

Lab classes, too, will be a mix of in-person and online learning. Students may have access to physical laboratory facilities, but also will perform lab work virtually.

Other types of specialized coursework, especially in the performing arts and physical education, have presented additional obstacles, as both often require close proximity and exertion. Vocal and choral lessons may be particularly problematic, and plans for these courses remain under discussion. While there will be some PE courses offered in the fall —  mainly those oriented toward health and wellness — Emory will waive PE course requirements for all graduating students this academic year, Elliott said. All other students will receive an exemption for one physical education course moving forward.

Focus on health and safety

Most of the changes to academic courses are being done for the safety and wellness of both students and faculty. For example, in-person classes will now be a standard length of 75 minutes.

“Our best information is that’s the best way of keeping the classroom safe,” Elliott said. “There's evidence that being in [close] physical proximity to a group of people in an enclosed, inside location [increases] the rates of infection substantially from about one hour to two hours.”

Students will also notice once they arrive on campus that learning and other spaces have been reconfigured to maximize physical distancing and improve health outcomes, he said.

“The entire physical campus will all feel different,” Elliott said. “Small classrooms will be used as group study spaces. The library will be open, but it will be configured differently. And there will be places where you’ll not be able to congregate with as many people as you once did.” 

A lot of campus activity will be encouraged to be outside — where it’s healthier to be, he said. There will be tents used for various purposes, including places to study and eat. 

Across its campuses, Gelaye said Emory will be “attuned to guidance from the CDC, local health experts and our own really expansive set of public health educators, doctors and experts” on how to best prevent and respond to COVID-19 illnesses.

Students on campus this fall will be subject to mandatory COVID-19 testing at no cost for those living in Emory and Oxford residence halls or those taking in-person classes. Face coverings will also be required for everyone both inside and outside.

Some students wanted to know if masks and hand sanitizers would be available for free to members of the campus community who may not able to afford them. “We are committed to making sure those resources are available to all students equitably, and we're working on a plan where we hope we will deliver kits as students are moving into the residence halls,” Gelaye said. 

Living together as a campus community 

Residence halls will be open, but with a maximum of two students per room. Gelaye noted that “single rooms will be available, and students who have need for single rooms based on pre-existing medical conditions or other circumstances will be prioritized.” Cleaning of common spaces and bathrooms will be done more frequently and intensively.

“For students living in the residence halls, Emory’s testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine strategy will include providing support services,” Gelaye said, “such as dedicated housing away from well students, health care services, food delivery, laundry service and access to academic coordinators.”

As for campus events that contribute immensely to the college experience, such as student-led clubs, organizations and other activities, social gatherings and in-person programs will be allowed, but they must follow physical distancing guidelines that the university is still developing, Gelaye said. “These are not decisions we would make unilaterally. As we’ve said before, this is a consultative process.”

“We know that the safest mode of delivery right now is for routine gatherings and meetings to be virtual,” she emphasized. “So we’re going to work with our clubs and organizations and student leaders to figure out how to make [their activities] relevant and still meaningful for the students who will be here in the fall.”

How these new health protocols and norms on campus will be enforced was another concern of students. 

 “We're currently calling it the Emory Community Compact,” Elliott said. “It will be both a statement of principles and a set of expectations, for which there will be repercussions if they are violated… If you show a repeated [disinterest] or inability to respect the community health standards, you might be asked eventually to no longer be on campus.”

“The people who will be really leading this will be you and your peers,” Elliott continued. “We will be empowering you as students to set and execute the standards for the community. And that’s because in some ways we know that you have the most at stake in being on campus… We think that with our resources, and frankly with our tradition of student leadership, that Emory can be an example about how to do this.”

More questions answered

In addition to the questions asked by the student moderators during the town hall, more than 120 additional questions were answered live in chat during the 90-minute meeting. For more answers to some of these common student questions, including details about campus dining and meal plans, mental health services, and other topics, please watch the full video of this first back-to-campus Emory College student virtual town hall. 

“A lot of what Emory is deeply engaged in now is the work to really understand COVID-19 and how to interrupt its impact on the world,” Gelaye said.

As the university moves forward with its plans to make campus the safest environment possible for students this fall, administrators are committed to keeping everyone in the Emory community updated, she added. “We will have an email outreach effort as we learn more, but stay connected to the Emory webpage for the latest information as we learn it and plan it,” she said.