As the COVID-19 pandemic continues worldwide, Kansas State intends to host some in-person classes in the fall semester. Classes will begin on Aug. 17 — a full week early — and will transition to an online format following Thanksgiving break. As such, dead week and finals week will occur a week early and be completed exclusively online.
“The best guidance we’re getting from health experts, from epidemiologists is that the greatest likelihood of a spike in the virus is in late fall,” Provost Charles Taber said. “In particular, that could be a very dangerous time because of the start of the flu season, which could coincide with an uptick in COVID cases.”
Another major concern would be students coming back to campus after traveling home over Thanksgiving break.
“We were pretty intent on avoiding that,” Taber said. “We sort of looked at all the options and decided that this was the best one for us.”
What this means for December commencement is not quite certain. May 2020 and December 2020 graduates were going to be permitted to walk at the ceremony. Taber said while a date isn’t available yet, both groups of graduates will walk before the fall semester ends.
“We do all we can to keep students safe,” he said. “We always strive to do our best to help students succeed academically even if they are dealing with illness. Because we do not anticipate a widespread problem (and are doing all we can to prevent such an outbreak), no new formal policy proposals are being considered at this time to protect the academic standing of students.”
In addition to calendar changes, class sizes will need to be adjusted. Each classroom will be given a “COVID capacity,” or the capacity of a room with social distancing measures. In the third phase of the reawakening plan — the current phase K-State is in — gatherings are limited to 45 people, but class sizes might need to be reduced from that maximum gathering size depending on the room.
For example, in a room that normally seats 100, only 45 to 50 people might be permitted to enter.
Taber said the university might also decide to make use of roomier gathering spaces for larger classes like McCain Auditorium or meeting rooms on the upper levels of the K-State Student Union.
How class size limitations are implemented will be at the discretion of an instructor and individual departments.
“Our strategy is we’re going to we’re going to give them a set of options, and we’re going to give them some guidelines and then they’re going to be able to choose across those options based on the guidelines,” Taber said.
Some classes could be offered in a mixed format where half of the students attend a class period in-person while the other half attends over Zoom, and the two groups swap their attendance style in alternating class periods. Some classes, like studios and labs, might only be available in-person.
Also, more popular classes could be offered in completely online formats to accommodate the needs of students and faculty who are at a higher risk of developing a more serious COVID-19 infection.
“We really expect that we’ll be able to give a good experience to students who are going to take their semester pretty much online,” Taber said.
A big first step in allowing flexibility in course offerings will be updating the technology in classrooms across campus so there are options for students to participate in whatever format the class takes. While a specific price tag on that process is not available, Taber said it could be covered at least in part by the second half of the federal coronavirus relief funding promised to K-State by the U.S. Department of Education.
There would also need to be some kind of measures in place to isolate students who test positive or have been exposed to someone that has. The protocol for protecting an individual’s academic standing if they become ill won’t change, Taber said in an email.
Prepared to “pivot”
But ultimately, this could all change.
If outbreaks on campus do occur to a degree that is unmanageable or guidelines handed down from the state and the local authorities change, K-State could decide to backtrack into previous phases. It’s even a possibility that all classes could be forced online again.
“The word of the year is flexibility,” Taber said. “All of our plans are being designed with the possibility that we may need to pivot to something different.”
All instructors will be required to implement Canvas and online tools into their course to a “meaningful” degree, Taber said, so that both faculty and students are prepared to go online if necessary.
More specifics should be available as the start of the semester nears.
“We do understand that there’s going to be anxiety and stress for everybody with the uncertainty in the situation,” Taber said.