Sam Landstra — Staff Writer
It’s evening at the empty campus of Dordt University. As Vice President Howard Wilson and President Erik Hoekstra stand on the front steps of the Hoekstra household, not a car drives by, not a student walks past and waves hello. It has been a week since the university ordered its students to stay home after spring break as a protective measure against the COVID-19 virus. Only 80 people remain on the campus. All the academic buildings are dark.
“Where had all our friends gone?” Wilson said. “A sense sunk in that the world had really changed.”
Since then, Wilson has been drawing up plans with his colleagues for a potential return to on-campus learning in the fall. Him and ten others have met together twice thus far to discuss a “rolling quarantine model” that anticipates challenges with the virus next academic year.
Separate teams have been formed to manage residence halls, dining, sporting events, and more in the new normal of social distancing. All ten of these task groups have received direction from research leader Dr. Kristin VandeGriend, a professor at Dordt who holds a masters in epidemiology and a doctorate in public health.
“We are looking at a wide variety of options.” Wilson said. “I tell people that pretty much everything I say should have an asterisk behind it because it could change.”
While the future is uncertain, Wilson and his team are planning on a normal start for the 2020-21 academic year with the original start-date of August 25 still intact. This date does hold the potential of being pushed back a week or two should a second spike in the virus occur in the late summer months.
As Wilson works with this mindset, he looks to minimize the risks of a fully populated university. A considerable danger from this plan arises within the first few weeks of returning to campus. Over 1,500 students will be traveling from their respective 49 states and 24 countries and have the possibility of carrying the virus with them. He and his team hope to counter this threat by encouraging students to pack with them a personal thermometer and “as many fabric masks as they have pairs of underwear”.
If students do show symptoms of COVID-19, the task force is considering the possibility of blocking off a section of a residence hall for these individuals. Should a sickly person decide to stay on campus instead of returning home, they could continue their schoolwork from there.
Continuing into this world of hypotheticals, Dordt is exploring multiple methods of social distancing. All fall classes have been capped at fifty students and a contact-tracing system that uses assigned seating to track and curtail the virus is being discussed. Consideration is even being given to the possibility of playing sports without fans and instead being broadcasted via livestream.
On top of these precautions within campus, students may also find restrictions on when and where they can leave it, including Thanksgiving break.
“It would be weird and obviously somewhat different, but we think that we could probably figure that one out.” Wilson said. “We have not ruled out many ideas at this point.”
This lack of firm and final decisions is not a trait specific to Dordt. Because of the changeability of the pandemic, a feeling of uncertainty permeates all the discussions about the future of universities across the nation.
“Is this a blizzard? Would you just hunker down and get through it?” Wilson says, referencing an article written by Christian author Andy Crouch. “Is it a winter, where it is a long season? Or is it the ice age?”
While Wilson believes the COVID-19 pandemic best resembles a winter, he notes that the answer cannot be known in full until after the virus passes. In the current stage of ambiguity, many experts have predicted systematic changes to universities. Whether it be a shift in educational philosophies or a complete step in the direction of online-only learning, these transitions would extend far beyond the present measures of virus containment.
“Is there a way to go back to things we thought of as normal before or are things just going to be different? Dr. Dave Mulder said. “I think the answer is really unclear at this point.”
Mulder teaches education at Dordt and specializes in online learning. While he believes the current virtual academic experience is challenging accepted practices in the education system, revealing their flaws and inefficiencies, he still advocates for in-person classes.
“Is the most important thing that we’re all breathing the same air?” Mulder said. “I would suggest that it’s still pretty important.”
He cites social presence theory for his reasoning, an educational philosophy that emphasizes the impact of the educator showing themselves as a real human being to the learner. An online platform, by nature, hinders this process.
Mulder also points out that the current period of online learning should not serve as an example for the field as a whole, should schools continue to use it in the fall.
“We have to think of this as triage.” Mulder said. “This is not typical online teaching. We should call this emergency distance learning.”
With a more advanced notice, educators could cater their teaching methods and subjects to an online medium, creating a more tailor-fit experience for all. Additionally, as 70 percent of Dordt faculty have completed online training, Wilson believes the university is set to weather whatever the world throws at them.
Even as some schools brace themselves for a drop in enrollment numbers, Dordt has recorded a higher than normal registration for returning students next year and ranks in the top quartile in financial strength for their type of institution.
“It might be one of the ten plagues, but it’s not the apocalypse.” Wilson said.
As Wilson and others meet to determine how to move forward next semester, he begins each one with a quote: “The sun will come up tomorrow and there is a bright future for Dordt University. The impact of the virus is like a great series of waves, but God has made us so that we float and don’t drown.”