When Bridgewater State University announced details for Spring 2021 in late October, the plans included a one-week extension of winter break and the removal of spring break in early March.
The biggest factor driving both decisions was the safety of the entire campus community, according to Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Karim Ismaili.
Ismaili, a member of the COVID-19 Safe Return Task Force since day one, said they decided to extend winter break by one week to give themselves as much time as possible between semesters before students return to campus for testing in late January.
This delayed start is also meant to “enhance the overall health of the campus community by eliminating one winter week of classes when students are largely confined to indoor spaces,” according to a statement sent by the Office of the President in October.
“We knew that week would be critical for us to have testing on campus for students, for staff, [and] for faculty,” said Ismaili, who is also a member of BSU’s COVID-19 Planning and Response Group. “We knew that the longer we were out of session in the winter period, the better off we would be. That was a critical issue.”
The school canceled spring break to minimize the risk of the coronavirus spreading during the academic semester. To make up for the loss, the university has declared Friday, March 12 as a mental health day for students and at the request of the Student Government Association, faculty are being encouraged to steer clear of assigning additional work on this day.
“We wanted to prevent the idea of spring break being a time when people travel,” Ismaili said. “That was going to raise the risk of infection when individuals came back to campus. We decided to eliminate spring break but remember, we haven’t really eliminated it because we’re giving students the week at the beginning. It’s like we pushed the semester forward a week and because we pushed it forward, we could no longer afford the spring break week.”
Ismaili said the school knows this schedule will be difficult for some students, which is why they will work with individuals who have hardship issues and provide testing for those who need to travel during this time. BSU also isn’t the only school following this schedule for the spring, as many schools around the country have adopted this new setup to minimize the risk of a COVID-19 breakout when class is in session.
While spring break is usually a welcomed pause during a long semester, Ismaili said most members of the school community understood their rationale because it has been communicated throughout the entire process that safety is the number one priority behind these actions.
“I do agree with the decision,” said one senior exercise science major. “The more we can eliminate a break in the semester — which incentivizes unnecessary travel — the more we are able to limit the potential of students [spreading] COVID-19.”
In terms of the overall planning for the spring, Ismaili said they all learned a lot from this fall and took a “deliberately conservative approach” in their preparations.
Due to the significant amount of uncertainty with the virus and the real potential for a second or third wave this winter, the school will hold most classes remotely while select classes mix remote and in-person learning.
“I think overall, we learned that being really safety-conscious, focusing on our testing protocols, our messaging around physical distancing and hygiene, and being really clear about what we needed to offer in-person has put us in a very good position [with] reducing the number of infections in the BSU community,” Ismaili said.
Ismaili believes BSU’s clear communication strategy is making a positive impact. The school has used multiple initiatives to share any COVID-related information such as town halls, meetings with the SGA, and meetings with faculty and staff.
Ismaili also pointed to the school’s comprehensive COVID-19 website, which includes a statistics dashboard, FAQs, and other resources, and said the school has made every effort to stay proactive when supplying this information.
“We can do all the great planning we want and say, ‘We’ve got a plan,’” he said. “But if you don’t communicate the plan, people won’t know. It’s not just high-level communication, we’ve been trying to communicate as effectively as we can throughout the organization, the student body, the academics, and all the different divisions that support student affairs.”
The planning team also noted how important it was to recognize that things can change in an instant because so many aspects surrounding this pandemic are out of our control. Therefore, planning carefully and conservatively while emphasizing the safety factor was crucial for this upcoming spring semester.
“I’m hopeful that if we all just stay the course [and] focus on safety, we’ll get through the spring as well as we did [in] the fall,” Ismaili said. “It’s on us — all of us. We can’t let our guard down. I feel prepared. I think the university is prepared and I’m hoping that we’re able to continue doing what we’ve been doing.”
Ismaili said the entire BSU community has a lot to be proud of in terms of how this situation has been handled thus far and asks for everyone to stick with the program so we can get through this together.
Throughout the fall, BSU administered over 16 thousand COVID tests with just 88 positives through December 2, per the COVID-19 dashboard.