One’s first year at college is generally assured to be memorable. For freshmen students at Gustavus Adolphus College, it undoubtedly will be this year.
About 1,000 of Gustavus’ current 2,300 enrolled students are expected to be on campus to start the 2020-21 school year. The on-campus students include freshmen and a small number of upperclassmen, who are expected to support the first years and help the college run smoothly amid an historic pandemic.
Students were expected to arrive Aug. 28-30, with class — mostly online, even for those living on campus — beginning Sept. 2.
“It has taken us all summer for us really to be ready,” said COVID Response Coordinator Barb Larson Taylor. “To have students here and do what we think is the core part of our mission — teaching students on a residential campus — but doing it in a different way.”
Larson Taylor is normally in charge of coordinating institutional events, like the Nobel Conference, at the college. But with COVID-19 putting an end to many events or making them virtual, and some serious planning needed, her role has shifted.
“The safety measures are clear but yet continue to evolve, so that is one challenge,” she said. “And there is a lot of people on campus, so we have to essentially reimagine every aspect of the college.”
In a message to Gustavus students, President Rebecca Bergman said, “The calculus of our decision-making has shifted constantly as we track infection rates, receive updated guidance from public health officials, and build out our operational capacity and plans at Gustavus. In light of Minnesota’s recent upswing in positive COVID-19 cases, particularly among 18- to 24-year-olds, and out of an abundance of caution, we made the decision to limit the number of on-campus residents at the beginning of the academic year.
Our faculty has been preparing for online learning over the course of the summer, and I am confident that the quality of our academic offerings will remain at our usual level of excellence.”
Indeed, after shifting to online classes at the end of the 2019-20 school year in the spring, Gustavus leaders have been planning for what to do this fall.
“From a process standpoint, what we first tried to do is imagine the reopening phases, similar to what people see across the state of Minnesota,” Larson Taylor said. “So we developed five phases, red to green, from all the way closed to all the way open. Then it was determining what phase we’ll be opening in, trying to anticipate where we would be.
“We decided we were going to start in phase orange, which is a really restrictive stage. We thought it would be easier to loosen restrictions later than feeling we needed to do more at the end of August.”
Gustavus staff and faculty were separated into 12 actions teams, and those teams were all assigned different areas to work on — athletics, fine arts, theater, etc. This allowed each of the college’s departments and areas of focus to confront the challenges associated with COVID-19 individually, and then come together to determine what was needed to keep students and the larger community safe.
But even with all that planning, the conclusion Gustavus came to in July had to change in August. Originally planning to welcome all students to start the year, the college has determined that only first year, transfer and a small number of returning students would start on campus, at least for the first three weeks.
“I would say between July and now, the biggest shift that happened was just how many students would be on campus,” Larson Taylor said. “Most of the planning we did in July for what we would have to do to be open is still in place.”
Classes at Gustavus, to begin 2020, will be online, except for the first-year introductory courses. The college will require masks on campus; students will be expected to maintain distances of 6 feet and limit close contact; they’ll be expected to engage in self-screening for symptoms; and they’ll be expected to stay home when sick and limit travel in general.
While President Bergman acknowledged that students have expressed a desire to be back learning on campus, leadership feels they need to be cautious and take at least a few weeks to test the waters. Having a smaller number of students on campus will allow staff to ensure that the precautions in place will be enough to prevent the virus from spreading rapidly.
“We will have cases. We know there are cases. COVID is present in our world,” Larson Taylor said. “We are prepared to manage having cases. I think what all colleges are trying to do is prevent the sustained high level of transmission.”
But while the college is determined to keep the campus and outer community safe, students will still desire some kind of first year experience. So while large events and activities are out of the question, staff and students are trying to come up with ideas for students to get out of their residences, be active and social.
“Our approach is to bring in the students and not have them just stay in their room, coordinating activities that will get them out, but in a safe way,” Larson Taylor said. “Some things are planned for them; some are modeled. And a lot of things are coordinated by students for students, and in that case, they’ll need to put in place a COVID safety plan, so we can make sure it was thought through.”
At St. Olaf College in Northfield, 17 students were recently suspended for participating in a maskless off-campus party, which resulted in 50 students needing to quarantine for two weeks. If students at Gustavus violate policy, they may face similar consequences.
“Students that are in violation of COVID safety measures will go through our regular conduct process, and that conduct process could and does lead up to suspension or even expulsion,” Larson Taylor said. “But we’re trying to catch people doing things right, and not wrong, so we’ll have a group of student employees, and it will be there job to encourage people, have extra masks, remind people. We’re going to try to celebrate the right decisions and take that approach.”
When 1,000 new people enter a community in the midst of a pandemic, there is certainly the potential for impact. Gustavus leaders intend to work closely with the city of St. Peter to ensure students are not shirking responsibility and putting the larger community at risk.
“Luckily, we have a really great relationship with the city, the hospital and the Police Department,” said Larson Taylor. “Those conversations have started, and I think we, as a college, want to be partners with all the places in St. Peter, so we’re not putting our business owners and their employees at risk. We are wanting to think with them and partner with them in ways we can do that well together.”
City Administrator Todd Prafke said the city’s relationship with Gustavus has been positive for a good 15 years now, and he believes they’ll continue to work together to mitigate any potential issues.
“We’ve had communication with Gustavus so we understand what they’re doing and how they’re planning to keep everyone safe,” Prafke said. “As students move on campus, I think there will be continued emphasis on wearing those masks and following rules in the community.”
The usual Gus Bus transportation service will not be active at the start of the school year, which might lead to more students walking and biking from campus to various St. Peter locations. Students will be encouraged to follow the rules of the community, the same as they do on campus. And if there are potential problems, Prafke said the Police Department will handle pandemic-related complaints of students the same way they do for anyone else.
“I think, as a community, we all share in some of that responsibility,” Prafke said.
While there are countless unknowns and likely a good deal of work, and potentially stress, ahead for Gustavus leaders, the college is committed to doing what it was created to do.
“COVID takes a toll on people and their wellbeing, so we’re trying to take care of each other,” Larson Taylor said. “But the mission of our institution is to educate students, so we’re excited to have another school year start.”