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The Red Wolves
Return to Campus

By Audrey Hanes, Photography by Kayla Broadway

As the 2020-2021 school year begins and Red Wolves return to Arkansas State University’s Jonesboro campus, they do so because of the tireless work of A-State administrators and specialized committees who dedicated much of their time over the past few months to preparing for the safe start of classes amid the uncertainty of a continuing pandemic.

Arkansas State University Chancellor Dr. Kelly Damphousse says that the decision to reopen A-State was a shared decision by many players. In the end, the goal was to balance the health and safety of A-State’s faculty, staff and students with the belief in the value of the on-campus experience.

“Over 70 percent of the students that we surveyed in the spring reported that they wanted to return to in-person instruction,” said Damphousse. “Our task force on teaching and learning was composed primarily of faculty members. It recommended a plan that described the conditions under which we could return to in-person instruction in the fall. We also relied on guidance from the CDC, the Arkansas Department of Health and our local health officials.”

He says that while enrollment has been affected by COVID-19, the university is only projecting a five percent decrease in the number of students. Although fewer international students will be attending in person, the online program, which is already the largest in the state, has continued to grow.

“One bright spot for us is that we have already broken our record for the percent of last year’s freshmen who have returned for their sophomore year,” said Damphousse. “We also hit our campus housing projections, with about 2,900 students living in our residence halls.”
Many of the changes to A-State are physical, such as food service and classroom space, all of which required months of planning.

“The world may never know the depth of thought, the number of meetings and the amount of work that my cabinet, our Emergency Operation Center and our staff put in to bring our Return to Learn plan to life,” said the chancellor. “… I am very proud of all that they did to make this fall possible.”

Damphousse says that work on the Return to Learn plan began in April and started operationalizing in June; the plan is specific and detailed regarding the university’s focus on resuming on-campus instruction for the fall 2020 semester. Seven COVID-19 continuity task forces were responsible for formulating the plan, led by members of the Chancellor’s Cabinet, which serves as the ad hoc A-State Continuity Advisory Committee (ACAC). Together, everyone worked together to ensure safe face-to-face on-campus learning.

Dr. Martha Spack, vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students, was one of those leaders responsible for Return to Learn. The A-State alumni, who received her doctorate in education in 2018, worked with the student affairs staff and student leaders to create a plan for housing, campus life and campus recreation. The committee members followed the state and federal guidelines for these areas and drafted plans that allowed for a combination of virtual and face-to-face student involvement opportunities, then spent the summer months on Zoom calls with student leaders.

“As the dean of students and vice chancellor for student affairs, I represent both students and staff,” said Spack. “I strive to serve as a voice for student perspectives and concerns when meeting with these two groups. Our goal is to create a campus community that supports student success.

“… Starting at the end of the spring semester, we gathered feedback from the (aforementioned) groups and met via Zoom meetings to make drafts of our sections of the Return to Learn plan. This process is ongoing as we continue to assess the ever-changing circumstances surrounding the pandemic to determine the best options for our students.”

Spack’s leadership experience at A-State helped her make recommendations to the chancellor, but she credits his leadership with much of the school’s student-focused return to learning.

“Like any university, we have had our share of emergency events, from tornadoes and thunderstorms to tragic accidents, but nothing like this,” said Spack. “We all have taken what we learned from those past events, but every day is a learning experience with coronavirus. We are fortunate to have a chancellor like Kelly Damphousse who is both accessible and extremely student-oriented. His attention to detail and willingness to listen to student concerns allows for a student-centered approach to decision making.”

Damphousse says he has also worked closely with ASU System President Dr. Chuck Welch, and from the very beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, they have discussed plans and options on a daily basis.

“While each of our campuses face different challenges because of the pandemic, the system was able to secure pricing advantages in PPE (personal protective equipment) purchases and helped forge a system-wide testing/tracing protocol that will increase our chances of finishing the fall 2020 like we started it,” said Damphousse. “I think that the best option for returning to some sense of normalcy is a vaccine, followed by an effective treatment regimen. While our treatment options have made tremendous strides, none of us know when, or if, a vaccine will be developed. I think our faculty and staff understood that we could not put off the return to in-person instruction indefinitely, so they set about creating a plan that would allow us to provide the best learning environment possible while also limiting the spread of the virus.

“Our plan is based on decreasing the possibility of getting infected by mandatory masking, enhanced cleaning and sanitization, and minimizing close contact. We know that it will be impossible to totally eliminate infections by these actions, so we have also developed comprehensive testing and tracing protocols, which we are doing ourselves through our partnership with NYIT and our immediate isolation and quarantine practices. We feel that if we can quickly identify those who are positive and those who have been exposed, we can limit the viral spread via isolation and quarantine.”

Damphousse says that while putting this extensive plan in place has been a tremendous effort, the university believes it gives students the best possible opportunity to learn. A-State faculty have invested an incredible amount of time preparing to transition to all-online instruction like the university did in the spring, but leaders say the school is much better prepared for that this fall, so the sudden pivot should not be as challenging as it was last semester if that is deemed necessary.

To ease back into on-site learning, A-State followed early phases of the Return to Learn plan and offered 25 in-person classes in July. The chancellor says he was very impressed by the level of compliance with the plan and how well those classes went; lessons they learned over the summer will be applied to the current school year.

Prior to classes starting, the Arkansas State University Board of Trustees decided to require face coverings on ASU System campuses during all sessions of classroom instruction, regardless of physical distancing.

“I cannot say enough times how proud I am of our students, faculty and staff in their adoption of wearing face coverings,” said the chancellor. “Like we do every fall, Beth and I are living in Kays Hall, so we are getting to interact with students in a unique way. On move-in day on Aug. 22, even our parents, friends and volunteers joined our students in wearing masks everywhere, which had to be a challenge in the heat and stress of a move. We have spent every evening walking around campus, and people are wearing masks even where they are not required to do so. There have been a couple of times when we have had to remind groups to distance and to mask up – it takes everyone some time to get used to the rules – but our students are quick learners, and I expect that these rules will feel like normal to all of us very soon.

“I have been very clear with both students and employees that we are holding everyone on our campus to a high standard. While distancing and sanitizing are relatively easy to enforce, mandating masks, which we did early on, is more of a challenge. We are focusing on the fact that wearing masks is a sign of respect and care for others – because my mask protects you and your mask protects me. Again, I think this is something people will adopt rather quickly on campus.”

Spack points out that physical distancing and other precautions in and out of the classroom remains a vital part of the school’s plan, as well.

“We all have to become accustomed to staying six feet apart, even outdoors,” said Spack. “Wearing your mask isn’t enough, but it is a big part of the plans. Aggressive hand-washing and personal hygiene is also important. The key to creating a safe campus is community responsibility. We all – students, staff and faculty – must be diligent to practice these three components and encourage others around us to, as well.”

Damphousse says that converting learning spaces into physically distanced areas took considerable time and effort.

“As you can imagine, this is very difficult for some lab or practicum courses,” said Damphousse. “We had to assess over 220 teaching areas on campus, reset the furniture, block off areas and create safer learning environments.  We also took non-traditional spaces like Centennial Hall, Fowler Center, FNB Arena’s Hames Room, the A-State Museum’s theater and gymnasium spaces at HPESS and (the) Red W.O.L.F. Center and converted them into places where we could have large-scale lecture classes. To get the six-foot spacing we need for an 80-person biology lecture, we needed to spread them across all three sections of Centennial Hall, as an example.”

A-State athletics will be factored into Return to Learn, as well. Damphousse has worked closely with the Vice Chancellor for Intercollegiate Athletics, Terry Mohajir, to develop a plan that will keep student athletes and their coaches safe and allow fans to participate as much as possible.

“Terry Mohajir has been on the front lines of working with his staff and gathering information from national experts to create a safe environment,” said Damphousse. “His top priority is the safety of our Red Wolves athletes, coaches and staff members. He and his medical team have put into place protocols that mirror the best in the country.

“Our fan experience will be determined by a combination of compliance with Arkansas Department of Health guidelines, the Sun Belt Conference regulations and, especially, our community. The more that Northeast Arkansas limits and reduces the spread of coronavirus, the more freedom we will have to get athletics back to normal. But, until the number of positive tests in the community decreases, we will be hard pressed to allow our fans to participate in as much of our programming as we all would like.”

With the 2020-2021 school year already under way, the chancellor says he is most looking forward to welcoming the incoming class of 2024.

“As high school seniors, many of them missed out on their graduations and many rites of passage,” he said. “I hope we can help them adjust to university life in this pandemic and prepare them for the next stage in their lives.”

Damphousse and the university leaders who worked together to develop Return to Learn hope that the cooperation and positive attitudes of everyone on campus will continue as faculty and students adjust to a new way of collegiate learning.

“We say it a lot, but it really has been true over this summer; the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack,” said Spack. “I’m very proud of our students, faculty and staff for the work they have accomplished to prepare our campus for the fall semester. This is a continuous challenge, and I am confident in our ability to adapt as needed for the changing times ahead.”

For more information about Arkansas State University and the 2020 fall semester, visit astate.edu.