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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, May 8, 2020

Off to college or home on a laptop?


High school grads face uncertain freshman year



Who doesn’t treasure high school graduation memories? The pomp and circumstance amid a sea of caps and gowns. Family and friends whoop-whooping as the principal offers a diploma and a handshake that ends one chapter of your life, eager to chronicle the next phase with the start of freshman year of college in the fall.

That was then, this is now.

As rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic cut short classes and wiped out graduation traditions for the class of 2020, memories will now consist of online recognitions, a mailed diploma or perhaps a drive-thru ceremony. One car-door window opening and closing and … now what?

Like all high schools, colleges and universities canceled spring and summer classes amid COVID-19 health and safety concerns. And high school seniors must come to terms with the very real possibility the first term of their freshman year of college could be reduced to online classes, a hybrid mix of online and in-person instruction or even outright cancellation should a second wave of the outbreak sweep across campuses like a tsunami.

Most Tennessee universities are formulating plans to reopen this fall, though many facets of campus life – from attending classes to living in dorms to eating in dining halls to attending sports events – have yet to be determined.

Colleges and universities are facing the financial impact of staying closed and the very real need to keep students, faculty and others safe.

A second wave of infection also looms in the fall, possibly hitting about the same time students move into dorms. Failing to keep students safe from COVID-19 could lead to lawsuits, with at least one COVID-19 related suit has already been filed here.

A Vanderbilt freshman has sued the university in a class-action lawsuit stating it violated state laws in refusing to reimburse students for room and board, tuition and other costs for its spring 2020 semester, raising the issue of costs for the student and whether online classes should cost as much as attending classes on campus.

The University of Tennessee says it is planning to welcome students back to “each of its campuses this fall.

“We are planning for a safe return to campuses in the fall and will do everything possible to protect the health of our students, faculty and staff,” said UT System President Randy Boyd.  “We will continually monitor the local and state health data and policies and be prepared to adjust and communicate our plans when needed.”

Plotting a roadmap to normalcy is the first step toward having students back in class for the fall semester, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Chancellor Steven R. Angle said recently while announcing the formation of a fall 2020 task force.

Executive vice chancellor Richard Brown and Robert Dooley, dean of the college of business, will co-chair the school’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their mission, according to a news release, is to develop creative solutions that can lead to safe and effective scenarios this fall. More task force members are expected to be added soon.

“I want to thank Dr. Brown and Dr. Dooley for agreeing to lead this important task force that will coordinate campus efforts to safely resume campus operations this fall,” Angle says.

The task force’s mission is a two-pronged approach, according to the chancellor:

• To come up with a plan to protect the health and safety of faculty, staff and students

• To provide a high-quality educational experience with transparency and flexibility.

“The success of this endeavor will take the commitment and work of the entire UTC community,” the chancellor adds. “Our university has risen to the challenge of the coronavirus crisis over the past six weeks, and I am certain we will develop a plan that ensures the quality of the educational experience for our students, while at the same time keeps the health and safety of our entire campus community at the forefront.”

Middle Tennessee State University is planning to resume on-campus and in-person classes for the fall semester.

“While we cannot predict the future, we can prepare for the possibilities that lie ahead,” MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee wrote to the student body. “Will everything be just like it once was? Unlikely, but we will be prepared to adapt and evolve so that we remain efficient, effective, and even more relevant as our nation emerges from this crisis.’’

Tennessee Tech and Trevecca also have announced plans to reopen in the fall.

Lipscomb has a multiphase plan to reopen, but Belmont is still exploring possibilities, as are Tennessee State University and Fisk.

East Tennessee State officials say they will announce a decision in June.

Vanderbilt University is considering a number of possibilities, and other Tennessee schools, including The University of Memphis and Austin Peay, have formed task forces to consider options.

What kind of freshman year?

But having been robbed of cherished high school graduation memories, students the Ledger spoke with hope they get to experience their first semester of college life at its fullest – even if it means wearing masks and gloves in classrooms, constant hand sanitizing and practicing social distancing.

“I’m really scared that we’re not going to have in-person classes this fall,’’ says Brentwood High School’s Lauren Hurt, 18, who is headed to Rice on a swim scholarship and plans to major in biochemistry and cellular biology.

“That’s my biggest fear because I’ve missed out on so much at the end of my senior year. And to not have the first part of my freshman year in college would be devastating,”

While Lauren is in Houston learning and training for a shot on the 2021 U.S. Olympic swim team, twin sister Jordan will begin her collegiate experience more than 1,600 miles away at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. Like Lauren, Jordan is on a swim scholarship. And like Lauren, Jordan wants to make the most of campus life.

“Probably my biggest concern is having fall semester canceled and having to take courses online because some of the classes that I’ve had online so far are so drastically different than the classroom experience,” says Jordan, who plans to major in international relations at the private liberal arts college.

“And it’s harder for me to learn and absorb information in the online classes. I’m worried about missing out on experiences and opportunities and the community that you build in college if I miss that first semester or more than that.”

Rice recently announced plans to resume classes this fall, while Colgate is committed to reopening “as swiftly as possible.”

The twins’ mother, Stephanie, regrets that her daughters missed out on a traditional high school graduation and says she would be saddened if freshman college experiences are equally missed.

“They’ve lost out on all the memories of their senior year, and then potentially, they could lose out on the fabulous memories that you have of your freshman year of college,’’ Stephanie says. “Fall semester of your freshman year of college is the best semester. So the fact that they may not get that, it’s just really sad, you know. It’s like they’re getting a double-whammy by not getting the end of their senior year and the beginning of their college.”

Hope for the best

Katherine Wright, 18, valedictorian at Nashville’s Hillwood High School, will attend Duke this fall and plans to double-major in global health “and something else.” Duke plans to reopen in the fall in some form and has appointed two committees to come up with short- and long-term plans by August.

“Pretty much every university is trying to say ‘yeah, we’re all planning to be there in the fall but we’re making plans just in case.’ What’s the phrase – hope for the best, plan for the worst?” Wright adds.

“I definitely do want to be able to go to campus. I want the whole, traditional orientation week experience and all that stuff. So I’m really hoping it will all work out that way.”

Wright says she’s willing to wear masks and gloves at Duke – especially if it means getting to watch the powerful Duke men’s basketball team play for an ACC and potentially an NCAA championship – if there is a season. The 2019-20 season was cut short by the pandemic.

“It’s going to be hard for any of us to just immediately go back to the way we were when we’ve been cautioned against everything we used to do so much recently. There will be concerns with having, like, a thousand students on the lawn to go through orientation,” she says.

“I honestly don’t know if that’s going to be allowed to happen but my mom has made me put anti-viral on my keychain, gloves in my car, wipes in my car. So I’m sure, at the very least, she will have me outfitted with the latest protective gear.”

As for being one of the Cameron Crazies – the student section at Duke basketball games – Wright sighs before she answers a question about sitting shoulder to shoulder in a sweaty (don’t say rabid) student section at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“I mean, I honestly don’t think any of these universities are gonna allow anything that’s not even remotely safe, just because they have so many peoples’ livelihoods and huge finances on the line. Like, they have so many people to answer to,” she says.

“So if it were permitted by the university, I probably would (attend games). I’m not going to lie because I’ve been looking forward to these games. Especially wins over UNC. I just might have to risk it.”

Katherine’s mother, Amy, a nuclear medicine technologist at Vanderbilt Heart Institute, admits to being “cautiously optimistic” about her daughter attending classes this fall.

“I work in health care so (COVID-19 is) definitely on my mind and I wonder how universities are going to do things,’’ she notes. “You know, like how they’re going to handle so many kids in classes and what dorm life will be like, if they’re even going to let kids live in the dorms. You know, it’s all going to be a new normal.

“I’ve heard some colleges talk about maybe they might do some rotation, like if they go to classes one week and then they do online classes the next week – you know, things like that.

“But sporting events? I think football will probably fare a little better than basketball, what with basketball being indoors. But that’s hard to say – especially at places like Duke. I don’t know how they’re going to handle all that.”

Contingency plans, worse case scenarios

Lipscomb is one of the Tennessee schools planning to open on time.

“We greatly value the benefit of being together in the Lipscomb community – and we have missed it tremendously,” Lipscomb president L. Randolph Lowry says. “Simply put, we are better together and we look forward to being together again this fall.”

Byron Lewis, the school’s vice president of enrollment management, says the goal now is to keep incoming freshmen and parents informed and to stay prepared should the virus return.

 “We have been challenged quite a bit over the last several months, making sure that we’re responding to students’ needs,’’ he says. “There have been greater numbers of engagement with students perhaps since this all started because there are less distractions. So there have been some positive side-effects, if you will.

“We plan to have everything ready to go in August for students to move in. We’re preparing in that way. But, you know, as any good institution would be, we’re preparing contingency plans for if that for some reason we are not able to.’’

 MTSU is scheduled to begin fall classes Aug. 24, and President Sidney McPhee appointed a committee to prepare for worst-case scenarios.

“We will act quickly, but carefully, keeping the safety of our community at the forefront of our planning,” McPhee says.

Terrance Izzard, TSU’s associate vice president for admissions and recruitment, says his school is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and Glenda Glover, school president, has been in contact with state and city governments as well as the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Izzard also says a move-in date for students to return in the fall had not been determined.

“But as we look at those options, you know, our No. 1 priority is safety,’’ Izzard says. “So we’re going to do what’s best to keep our students and our faculty safe.

“We’ve already implemented new protocols on campus around a new way of doing things with social distancing and making sure the workspace is appropriate for people who will be working in their offices and serving our students.

“But we’re also making sure that there’s a plan in place to keep our campus and our classrooms and our facilities sanitized to ensure safety for all of our constituents.”

Trevecca president Dan Boone says COVID-19 “has changed our world,” adding that, “Fall 2020 will probably look a little different from the previous falls when we’ve welcomed incoming freshmen, transfers, graduate students, faculty and staff back to the Hill.

“But at Trevecca, we deeply understand the value of community and its importance in the lives of our students. We do community best when we can be together. As a university, we will strive to do everything within our power to make that possible for the fall 2020 semester, taking all precautions and letting public health guidelines, procedures and orders guide our decisions.”

‘Live in the moment’

Several of the graduating high school seniors were asked not only about the immediate future, but what memories they will someday share with grandkids about these strange times.

“In the most immediate future, it will be just to live in the moment,’’ says Katherine Wright who is headed to Duke.

“A big part of high school is planning for the future. Everything you do, you’re thinking how this is going to affect or impact your future. And COVID-19 is an example of how in life there are going to be things that just throw you right off-track. They don’t care what your plan was. And there’s not going to be any way to plan for them.

“So it will be a lesson for us in having to live in the moment rather than trying to advance ourselves to the future. I think immediately that will be very obvious as we all go out and see the people we love again.

“But I think that will be a long-standing lesson that will end up staying with our generation since it happened at such a pivotal point in our lifetime.”