In late January, BSU announced that it was planning to return to in-person classes for the upcoming fall 2021 semester, a plan that would take the school back to pre-COVID operations for the first time since March of 2020. To begin the planning process, BSU reconvened the Safe Return Task Force in February under the leadership of Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Karim Ismaili.
The task force — a mix of students and faculty that represent every division of the university — met every week in February to brainstorm the key issues they may face during planning. One important issue the task force identified was the number of potential scenarios the school could find itself in regarding the capacity of individuals on campus. They had to develop an idea of what the number would be at 30, 50, 80, or 100 percent.
“We don’t think we’re going to be at zero percent, but we wanted to think about different gradations so we were understanding of what we needed to have in place on the upward side of that scale, but also if we needed to pivot backwards,” Ismaili said.
The planning in February was facilitated by a shared document among the group, where each member was invited to share concerns, challenges, ideas, or opportunities surrounding the re-entry in the fall. It served as the foundation of the planning efforts, Ismaili said.
The task force is now meeting monthly with an understanding that it might meet more frequently, according to Ismaili. Meetings will be held every month from now through August. The most recent meeting, held on March 26, was centered on the idea of community.
“We created a new subcommittee on belonging, connection, and community,” Ismaili said. “That’s led by a member of the task force, Dr. Cindy Kane. The goal of that committee is to help the community adjust back to the new or next normal. Thinking about student needs, employee needs, mental health, [and] wellness … so we are ready to help and respond in any way possible.”
The group also decided not to publish a Safe Return Task Force Report like they did last summer. Instead, there will be a series of bulletins for specific issues, including but not limited to: what the fall semester will look like for students, what it will look like for staff, telecommuting and alternative work options, and mental health and wellness. The school will release these updates in the coming weeks, according to a task force email update that was forwarded to The Comment.
“We decided that we wanted to have these in digestible chunks for different groups so that everybody is aware of our planning for the fall entry,” said Ismaili.
The task force then identified numerous courses that will be offered in person, such as capstones, experiential courses, and classes for first-year students. Students will also know ahead of time whether a course will be held in person, synchronously online, or asynchronously online. The schedule for the fall was released on April 1.
One thing the school is not currently considering for the fall return is mandatory vaccinations for students. Some institutions, such as Rutgers University and Roger Williams University, are requiring mandatory vaccinations. While BSU is encouraging eligible students and staff to receive the vaccine, a mandatory vaccination would have to be designated by the state, Ismaili said. He did add that the school is currently trying to get a vaccination center on campus and will administer vaccines if given the opportunity.
Ismaili said the biggest obstacle that could interfere with planning is an unexpected rise in cases. If a situation arises that suggests things need to be slowed down, the school will transition to a different model and plan for the fall — one that is very similar to the one currently in place. However, Ismaili is optimistic for a productive and good return.
While a return to pre-COVID conditions leaves a lot to be excited for, Ismaili noted that BSU will still have several regulations and guidelines in place to limit the spread of infection. Masks will still be required on campus, and social distancing procedures will still be in place. Any changes in approach will be directed by the state or the science.
“What we know from the science is that when you’re vaccinated, you might still be someone who can transmit COVID-19,” Ismaili said. “The way we can make sure that [it] is not transmitted, even for those who are vaccinated, is to mask up. The social distancing piece may change based on guidance from the state and based on the science.”
Ismaili said that vigilance is the most important concept being preached by the school and that these guidelines will remain in place for members of the community to take care of each other. They will also help prevent any relapse as the school works to move forward.
“We don’t want to fall backwards because we don’t know how difficult it will be to regain what we lose,” Ismaili said.
All this work has been done in conjunction with the school’s COVID-19 Planning and Response Team, a separate group that meets weekly and carries out the ideas discussed by the task force.
The task force is scheduled to meet again on April 23.