Virtual forum addresses student concerns with semester changes

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UPDATE (Aug. 5 at 4:20 p.m.)

As of Aug. 5, SRU announced that only three on-campus dining locations will be open for takeout only. Boozel Dining Hall and Starbucks will be open in their original locations while Umami will move into the Boozel Dining Hall lobby where Boozel Express is usually located.


ORIGINAL STORY (First posted July 30)

Two days after announcing a majority of classes would be moved to an online format, SRU President William Behre addressed student concerns about the fall semester during a virtual student forum Wednesday night.

Behre, along with other university leadership, talked with students via Zoom about the steps the college has taken to ensure a smooth transition to online learning while keeping the community safe.

Behre said the “ambitious plans” to have more face-to-face classes this semester changed due to an uptick in cases in Allegheny County and developments in Ohio, where many SRU faculty and students live. He also said that while the data he has seen show a low mortality rate amongst young people, it also suggests that COVID-19 can cause “permanent organ damage.”

SRU announced its fall reopening plan July 15 and at the time expected 50% of courses to take place online. Now, SRU expects that number to be closer to 20%.

Classes still being held on campus are doing so either because they involve equipment only available on campus or required for licensure, like those enrolled in the university’s physician assistant program.

As with lecture courses, students can expect that many of their science labs have been moved to online instruction, said Abbey Zink, SRU provost.

Zink said the college has worked tirelessly to ensure faculty and classrooms were ready for any number of changes. According to Zink, over the summer the university has worked to get 100 faculty members certified in distance learning and enhanced classrooms with technology that will allow professors synchronous interactions with students while teaching.

“We have spent the last three to four months really trying to improve upon what we were able to do last spring,” Zink said.

Zink announced that a resource page for students will be launching Aug. 10 that will have information and videos showing students how to access their courses, working and learning in an online format and more.

While many disciplines have a game plan for the upcoming semester, those pursuing degrees in education are still in limbo with regard to their student teaching requirements.

According to Behre, the Pennsylvania Department of Education hasn’t provided any guidance with what is going on for student teachers. He said he expects an update on Friday.

For students taking classes online, SRU will once again have laptops that students can borrow, said John Ziegler, associate provost information and administrative technology services.

Through the connectivity website, students will be able to access all necessary software for their courses.

On-campus, students will still have Wi-Fi internet access. Ziegler said that there will also be around 400 computers throughout campus for students to use.

One of the most asked about topics of the evening regarded what students were to do about on-campus housing.

David Wilmes, chief student affairs officer, said that students who are looking to cancel their housing arrangements with the university still have time to look at the situation and decide what is best for them. He said that the university will not hold students at fault for canceling their housing up to their scheduled move-in date.

Wilmes said if SRU were to close like in the spring, students would receive a prorated refund. He clarified that if students were to accept housing and then decided to leave on their own while the university was still open, they would not receive a refund.

All students living on-campus will have their own private bedroom but may have a suitemate that they will share a bathroom with. Students will also have access to communal living areas and kitchens but the number of people able to be in those areas will be limited to allow for social distancing.

Wilmes added that while students will not be allowed to have visitors, parents and others are still able to help assist students with moving into their dorms on move-in day.

He said SRU normally has around 2,600 students living in campus housing, but that number is currently around 1,200 for the fall semester.

Students who canceled their housing for the fall will be put on a wait list Oct. 1 for the spring semester should the pandemic situation improve, and more students are allowed back on campus.

SRU Chief Financial Officer Molly Mercer said that students wishing to change any of their financial aid elections due to current changes and not needing as much or more should contact the financial aid office to make those changes.

With the decrease in students on campus, SRU has proposed a 50% reduction in student center, student activity and recreation center fees, Behre said.

According to Mercer, students can expect to save an average of $262 this semester with the reduced fee.

Mercer added that the fee changes have not been made yet because it has not been approved by the Council of Trustees and what some students may see on their accounts is not their finalized bill.

Behre said the trustees will vote on those fee reductions Tuesday.

Even with the fee reductions, services like Bailey Library, Smith Student Center and Aebersold Student Recreation Center will remain open but at reduced capacity.

Wilmes added that events will still be going on every week both on campus and virtually. One of the regular on-campus events will be an outdoor movie night utilizing an outdoor projector and screen that was recently purchased by the Slippery Rock University Student Government Association. These movie nights will be every other week.

Those on campus will still have access to dining facilities and other food options on campus and whether living on- or off-campus, students will still be able to purchase a meal plan, Behre said.

One exception is Watson Flatz, which will be closed, according to Wilmes.

Students will be able to order food online and pick up their meals to either take back to their rooms or eat outside and one of the many tents being put up around campus. Behre said students should be aware that main options will be grab-and-go and should take that into consideration when deciding on a plan.

The dining facilities on campus will still have indoor seating but at a reduced capacity, according to SRU’s reopening plan.

SRU’s reopening plan, which has been referred to as a “living document” by the university, has seen a few changes over the past few weeks. The plan has also been reviewed by staff with Allegheny Health Network (AHN) as part of contracted services the university entered into last week.

Behre said those with AHN have complemented the plan and characterized it as thorough. He said AHN is continuing to look at specifics of the plan, like classroom setups, to ensure compliance with federal and state guidelines.

As part of their contracted services, AHN will also assist with developing metrics that the school can rely on to determine how well they are doing or if they would have to close down the campus due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

AHN will also provide testing through Quest Diagnostics, Behre said. He added that testing is not required to be on campus and is only for those who may be showing symptoms.

Behre also addressed criticism on why the current change was not made earlier, if at all, when other schools in the state are having face-to-face classes.

“At the end of the day, I don’t have faith in the plans of the schools that are going face-to-face,” Behre said.

He pointed to Clarion University as an example of schools starting to change plans.

During the past week, Millersville University, along with Clarion, announced plans similar to SRU’s reduction of face-to-face classes for the fall.

Behre said that he knows this is not what anyone hoped for, especially staff.

He said he recognizes that there are people who agree and disagree with the decision to move more classes online and no matter what decision he makes, to some he will have made a mistake.

“Realizing that I have to decide what mistake would I prefer to defend,” Behre said. “And at this point, if we’re going to make a mistake, I’d prefer it that we made a mistake in favor of protecting the health and safety of our community.”

Joe is a senior communication major with a concentration in converged journalism. This is his first year with The Rocket as assistant news editor. Before joining The Rocket, Joe worked at Butler County Community College’s student newspaper along with a short-lived career as public affairs sergeant (along with many other assignments) with the United States Army. When not covering campus news, Joe spends his weekends with his fiancée and son in Slippery Rock.

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