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Students, faculty embrace ‘new normal’ during first week on campus since March

Geoffrey Habron teaches a socially distanced class
Professor of Sustainability Science Geoffrey Habron, standing, teaches a socially distanced class.

Furman Focused || Fall 2020 Underway from Furman University on Vimeo.

 

Masks, social distancing, phased return, fall sports postponed until spring – Renee Neves ’21 knew so much would be different when she returned to Furman this month. What she didn’t know was how much would be the same.

“The second I rolled in, it felt so great to be back … I have loved these small interactions of just passing by someone and saying, ‘Hi.’ They’re so life-fulfilling and life-giving in a way I never realized before,” said Neves, a sociology and Spanish double major who lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “It just feels so normal getting to hang out, laugh, joke, dance, doing little things.”

Neves and her classmates haven’t been on campus since March, when it was closed to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. But while the return of students certainly adds some long-overdue familiarity to life, make no mistake: Things are still very different. Some professors are teaching their classes remotely, second- and third-year students still haven’t arrived (they’ll arrive in September), Furman remains closed to the public, and, as Neves noted, “You can’t see anyone smile.”

Student rides skateboard beside Furman Lake
A student checks his phone as he rides a one-wheel skateboard beside Furman Lake during the first week of classes.

Still, what she loves about Furman is worth the inconvenience.

“I was looking forward to feeling that sense of home and community on campus, and that definitely has been the exact same,” she said.

Incoming Student Government Association President Griffin Mills ’21 had a similar experience.

“I don’t think it’s as strange as I thought it was going to be … The campus, it’s still as beautiful as ever. It’s just as nice to go for a lake walk. It’s as nice to hang out outside with your friends. I can still go for runs on the Swamp Rabbit,” he said. “It’s been an adjustment getting used to the new ways of the Dining Hall, Trone (Student Center) and the PAC, but it feels like the new normal.”

Seating arranged to facilitate physical distancing is just one of the many changes Furman implemented to reopen as safely as possible. Others include:

  • Requiring face coverings in academic buildings, common spaces and hallways of campus housing, including laundry rooms, lounges and housing units when guests are present. Face coverings should also be worn outside in most cases and when driving with passengers.
  • Encouraging thorough and frequent hand-washing lasting at least 20 seconds.
  • Changing HVAC filters more often and maximizing air exchanges to optimize the percentage of outside air.
  • Requiring students and employees to complete safety training and commit to the Paladin Promise. Students must also review the Return-to-Campus Guide for Students.
  • Developing enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols for common areas and frequently touched surfaces consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
  • Quarantining for 14 days any student who tests positive for COVID-19 or meets the criteria for exposure.
  • Strongly encouraging all students, faculty and staff to remain in the Upstate South Carolina area during the Fall semester and to leave campus as little as possible.
  • Offering remote instruction, which 11% of students have chosen this semester.
  • Launched a new website, Furman Focused: Fall 2020, that lists policies and procedures put in place to increase safety and decrease the risk of COVID-19 transmission and includes regular updates as they become available.
An aerial view of socially distanced students in the Dining Hall
Students observe social distancing in the Dining Hall.

That’s a long list, and the only way it will be effective at keeping COVID-19 away from Furman’s campus is if unprecedented discipline is shown in the face of a nearly unprecedented pandemic. Several institutions around the country that started in person have reverted to remote-only learning because of outbreaks, and Furman has sent a few students home for not adhering to the Paladin Promise.

Students are encouraged to report violations, but ultimately individual decisions are the most important part of the equation. Both Neves, student director of the Shucker Leadership Institute, and Mills are student leaders, and they and others in similar positions are trying to drive home the importance of accountability.

Neves said the problems at other schools caught her attention and strengthened her resolve.

“It does make me worry in the sense that you see that and think, ‘Wow, that could easily be us,’ and it makes everyone reevaluate how they’ve been doing their part,” she said. “I definitely think it serves as a moment to stop and reflect and think about how you’ve behaved and how you should be behaving.”

“Everyone is kind of on the same page of making sure that everyone is wearing masks,” Mills added.

Director of Student Involvement and Inclusion Jessica Berkey-Barnes supports taking the coronavirus seriously, but her job is to make sure the Furman experience is fun, too. Her first week was spent answering questions and supporting first-year students.

“It’s a little bit of a slower pace than it had been in previous years, but I think that was actually a benefit because it allowed the students time to become comfortable on campus,” she said. “I relied on our orientation leaders a lot to inform new students about these policies and expectations, and we really impressed on them the importance of being role models – and I think they stepped up to that challenge.”

Berkey-Barnes said many seemed better able to accept the safety procedures once they understood why they were in place.

“They have a lot of questions, but I feel like if I or others have taken time to sit down and talk them through the intent behind certain decisions, they get it and are comfortable with it,” she said.

The weeks leading up to campus reopening were “overwhelming” as Berkey-Barnes worked with her student team to completely reimagine orientation and student life while remaining engaging. The first and top priority was to help first-year students get to know campus and each other.

Virtual scavenger hunts took them to physical locations they would need to be familiar with or might not find on their own, while other virtual activities such as trivia, bingo dance parties and even a physically distanced escape room allowed them to interact. Whenever it was possible to do it safely, students were encouraged to meet and socialize in person, and Berkey-Barnes said many more activities along those lines will be announced in the coming weeks

The Furman University Student Activities Board also offered ideas, including ways to create a sense of community by engaging both on-campus students and those who are taking classes remotely.

“They have a good plan to focus on first-year students over the next few weeks to help them get to know each other, because we realize, again, when you’re 6 feet apart and wearing a mask, that can be more difficult to do,” she said.

The Lakeside Amphitheater is likely to be a hub for many activities. Berkey-Barnes said there will be movie nights in addition to morning yoga and painting classes, which have been already offered. “We actually bought a bunch of hula hoops so we can set those 6 feet apart,” she said. “It’s an easy place for us to spread ourselves out.”

A sign warning students not to rearrange furniture
A sign warning students against rearranging furniture and reminding them to practice social distancing.

For Professor of Sustainability Science Geoffrey Habron, the biggest challenge in his classroom has been maintaining the student collaboration necessary to create a successful learning environment. The pods of six tables with four students each that he has traditionally created don’t meet social-distancing requirements, and some of the students in the two classes he’s teaching are attending remotely.

Fortunately, technology is available to clear the hurdles.

“I use two computers. One is to connect to the projector so students that are remote can see what’s going on in the classroom and the students that are in the classroom can see the students who are online,” he said. “I also have another laptop that’s showing me, because otherwise they can’t see me.”

Habron spent much of the summer applying lessons he learned in the spring to improve this experience, and so far, so good. For him, it’s been exciting because it’s all new.

“I want (students) to be just as excited about Furman and about our projects … I want to be able to demonstrate to them that we’re not going to change at all as far as our expectations, and if there’s any way for this to enhance their learning, then that’s what I’m trying to do,” Habron said. “Not just get by and bring it back to normal, but (see if there) is there any way to make it better.”

Associate Professor of Chemistry Karen Buchmueller is also viewing a unique situation as a unique opportunity by incorporating COVID-19 into her curriculum. The No. 1 thing for her is that her students stay safe.

“The No. 2 thing is that I hope they learn some practical chemistry that they can take with them, which is why I’m teaching about COVID-19,” she said. “This is biochemistry, which we can tackle from a chemical point of view, and we can talk about some of the small-molecule drugs that are being developed. We can talk about hydroxychloroquine.”

One sentiment shared by all is that nobody wants to be sent home again, which is a powerful motivator to live up to the Paladin Promise.

“What I’m encouraging students to think about is the fall is going to be different, but if we are smart and if do everything right, by the time we get back in the spring everything will be at least somewhat back to normal,” Mills said. “There are a lot of incentives to do good this fall.”

Buchmueller said students are very serious about wanting to be here.

“It doesn’t mean that poor choices might not be made, but a lot of people know they want to get in the lab to do research,” she said. “They don’t want to be at home.”

Neves had a family member die from COVID-19, so she views doing her part to stop the spread of the disease as a moral obligation to more than just Furman.

“Looking at the numbers, I think there’s probably a good chance I wouldn’t be deathly sick (if I were infected),” she said. “But for me at least, that doesn’t take away from the fact the way I should be responsible for others, because there are other older individuals who could get it and get really sick.”

Students take a painting class in the Lakeside Amphitheater
First-year students take a painting class in the Lakeside Amphitheater as a part of Furman’s Fall Orientation 2020.
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