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College announces two-class modules for Fall 2020 and plans for COVID-19 disruptions

Disclaimer: All interviews for this piece took place over the phone. 

On Tuesday, March 31, Beloit College President Scott Bierman sent an email to the student body announcing academic calendar and curriculum changes for the Fall 2020 semester in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The email announced that the Fall 2020 semester will be delayed until September 8 and will end on December 18 with a weeklong midterm break on the week of October 26. The email also stated that “the fall 2020 semester will be divided into two modules, and each of our courses will be delivered as full-unit, seven-week courses in one of these modules.”

The announcement comes amid the current outbreak of COVID-19. Beloit College, along with many other learning institutions across the United States, has moved to online learning as students return home during the national emergency that necessitates isolation and social distancing. Bierman wrote in the March 31 email that “we believe that the flexibility of the modular approach allows you to plan now for your fall semester with an expectation of less disruption to your educational experience whether it is happening on-campus or off-campus.”

Provost and Dean of the College Eric Boynton spoke with the Round Table about the planning process for the module curriculum, which, Boynton explained, began over a week prior to the email announcement in a meeting with Bierman. “It was in this meeting, right at the apex of the [work being done by the] COVID-19 Task Force,” Boynton said. “The Task Force was in a completely defensive posture, because it had to be. And I just had that sinking feeling that, ‘we’re just not doing enough.’ I thought, ‘what is the forward thinking step?… What’s the opportunity there? Instead of the constant triage.’” 

“The aspiration for Beloit College is that everybody in the fall is in residence,” Boynton said. “That’s the goal. That everybody is in the dorms, eating in [the] Commons, going to the Powerhouse. But we know we have to have these contingencies. If COVID-19 creeps into the summer and the fall, we would have to go online for the whole semester. Because how would we pivot and bring people back [after they were sent home]?… So we have flexibility [now]. We can have the first module and then go to the second module depending on COVID-19 rearing its head.”

Boynton continued, “We’ve been moving really fast on this plan. One thing we have to do is check with…  the Higher Learning Commission, so any changes we do to our curriculum or calendar we have to run through them. We reached out to our liaison at HLC and they said ‘not only do we approve the plan, we give you a standing ovation. No other institution has come to us about the fall yet.’” 

Regarding the reaction to the news among faculty, Boynton said, “Last night, we had a meeting about the modules with all the faculty on Zoom where they were all asking ‘how can we get it done?’ rather than ‘what are you doing?’ So that’s what the mentality is. We’re going to wrestle this thing to the ground as best we can. We want to have a plan and feel less uncertain. And this plan is adaptable to whatever we can find in the fall. It’s optimistic. All we’re doing is trying to find a sunny patch in a kind of cloudy situation… The two things that are in our control are the calendar—so we start as late as we can, which is September 8 so COVID-19 can burn itself out—and the curriculum.”

When classes were moved to distance learning on March 14 after the college initially extended spring break, students were forced to adapt to taking four or more classes online. The modules will allow students to earn their credits with less online work, should moving back to distance learning be necessary. “It’s really hard to do 4 courses online simultaneously,” Boynton said. “So this is a way to help that… It’s better teaching and better learning online [with fewer classes to worry about]. It’s smarter work.” 

Boynton’s stance was echoed by Maddie Holicky’22, Maggie Baugh’22, Isabel Mendoza’22 and Fiona Cismesia’21. 

“Personally, I like that they’re trying to be proactive and lighten the load for us,” Mendoza said. “Because none of us want to be online. [Students] don’t want to be online; professors don’t want to be online. So having way less classes helps us manage work better, especially essential workers.” Mendoza works at the full-service Woodman’s Food Market in Carpentersville, Illinois.

Holicky cited field work in her geography courses as an area that would benefit from the module plan. “If we can have modules happen physically, it’ll make it nice,” Holicky said. “I personally don’t mind. I think it’s nice and more flexible if [the pandemic] continues, and then it is really nice that you can come back after fall break and still get two full credits. They’re making it really accessible.”

Baugh echoed those sentiments. “This is not my preferred situation, but I understand that this is what the college needs to do to keep everybody safe and make sure academics are happening,” Baugh said. “Making this announcement early will make other [colleges and universities] model after Beloit [instead of] Beloit modeling after other groups. And I like that they made this announcement now, instead of after class sign-ups, so we can talk with our advisors about it.” 

“I think Beloit won’t be alone in this,” Cismesia added. “I also think it will be easier [if people want] to overload courses.”

As the college and the COVID-19 Task Force look ahead to the 2020-2021 school year, Boynton confirmed that proactive and creative steps are being taken to solidify alternative graduation plans for seniors and recruitment for incoming students. “The whole higher education sector is concerned,” Boynton told the Round Table about enrollment numbers for the 2024 class. “Even UW-Madison is concerned. My email explodes every day with not being able to have campus visits… we instead moved to producing videos to send to students. The modules are part of a larger marketing campaign that will be unfurled. We want to be ahead of the curve. We want to tell them ‘you’d be insane to go anywhere else.’” These phone calls are made by staff and advisors who have volunteered their time to talk with “over 1000 [accepted] students,” Boynton said, “to talk to them about not just the college, but also the fall [semester] and how we’re planning for COVID-19, to show them how we are prepared.” 

The Beloit College COVID-19 Task Force was assembled following winter break, when the outbreak first became a concern, and consists of Boynton, Dean of Students Cecil Youngblood, Director of the Health and Wellness Center Tara Girard, Director of International Education Betsy Brewer, Chief Information Officer Pam McQuesten, Vice President for Enrollment Management Leslie Davidson, and Vice President for Human Resources and Operations Lori Rhead. Boynton told the Round Table that the meetings leading to the college’s decision to move to distance learning lasted over eight hours. “Decisions came as fast as they could come,” Boynton said. “The feeling, leading the Task Force, was that we were always trying to play catch-up. We wish we could have moved quicker. In hindsight, we moved as carefully as we could, but there were so many things we were thinking about. He continued, “We called in lunch and dinner one day. We just didn’t feel like we could leave the room. It was this amazing collegiate group. Everyone who was on that committee are like best friends now. It was like being in the foxhole… [Now], could we have done better? Yeah. But at the moment, I’m really confident we did the absolute best we could.” 

Boynton said he has also heard from other college provosts during this unprecedented time period. “All of us provosts [from the Associated Colleges of the Midwest] were in contact with each other,” Boynton said, “so that showed some collegiality among the sister colleges.”

Boynton echoed Beloit students when he said that the college’s focus remains on the student body. “It’s the focus of the institution,” Boynton said. “It’s the thing we have to do well. And if we do that and we do that well, the future will be bright. If anything is murky or unclear, tell us. Let us know. Tell us what you don’t understand. Send us an email.” 

A follow-up email was sent by the COVID-19 Task Force on Thursday, April 2 to clarify the reasoning that the college “fundamentally cannot predict whether, when, or to what degree COVID-19 will again pose a challenge to all of us remaining on campus” and that having fewer classes at one time will be helpful as “it is likely that news and updates about COVID-19—and, for an unknown number of us, the trauma we and our families may experience between now and then—will continue to impact our stress and energy levels, concentration levels, and levels of motivation.” The Task Force included the email covid-19@beloit.edu for students to use with a promise to respond to questions within 24 hours. 

 

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