Recently, a parent of an incoming first-year student asked me, “So, why is Fort Lewis College opening?”
We never closed, I thought. While we operated virtually through the early months of the pandemic, this summer we’ve been offering classes, as well as housing and services to a limited number of our students on campus. What the parent really wanted to know is why are we holding in-person courses and bringing students to campus this fall in the middle of a global pandemic.
The reason we are opening has everything to do with what we provide our students and the values that underpin our work.
A four-year degree affords an opportunity for personal development and a path to social and economic mobility. Our faculty take pride in creating a rigorous experiential learning environment tailored to the needs of our students. As a campus, we prioritize creating a sense of belonging for our diverse student body. We’re committed to examining our own racialized history and being a more inclusive institution. While COVID-19 has changed nearly every aspect of our work, it hasn’t changed our commitments to these guiding principles. We’ve always cared for our students’ safety, and this year that concern is elevated.
Before we made the decision to open for face-to-face instruction, we asked ourselves several questions: Could we keep our students as safe (or even safer) as they would be in their home communities? Could we secure enough tests to understand how widespread the disease was in our community? And, could we count on our students to be leaders in mask wearing and social distancing?
We listened to local public health experts and our students, staff and faculty to help answer these questions. One of our public health faculty members reminds me that public health is iterative – changing as science changes. Our plans today look different than they looked in June and they may look different again in the future. We’ve never been more flexible. And all of these adaptations have led us to a plan for in-person instruction that I can confidently share with the parent of a first-year student, and with the Durango community.
As we all have learned, robust testing infrastructure, mask wearing and social distancing are key to reducing the spread of COVID-19. All of our 1,600 residence hall students will be tested before move-in, and every student and employee will have the opportunity to be tested on campus, free of charge. Thanks to our partnership with COVID Check Colorado and Gary Community Investments, our results will be available in 48 to 72 hours and not drain our community testing resources.
After our initial round of tests, we’ll be conducting more than 1,000 tests a month offered free to our students, faculty and staff. In partnership with San Juan Basin Public Health, we will build our understanding of the disease in our region. There will be positive cases and we are prepared to isolate students and support them until they are cleared to re-enter classes.
Masks are required in all indoor spaces, as well as in centralized outdoor spaces. We know that social distancing and handwashing are also critical pillars of virus mitigation. We contracted with a local motel to reduce the density of on-campus residents and to provide more students with single occupancy accommodations. Our classes will also be suited to distancing. Our faculty added online courses (nearly 15% of our total offerings) and the ability for students to “Zoom in” to a course being offered on campus. In total, nearly 50% of our courses offer some type of remote access. We’ve also focused on our employees. Faculty members who were more comfortable teaching remotely can; staff members who can do their jobs from home are allowed to.
As they always do, our students help lead the way. From conversations with Ally Gee, our Hozhoni Ambassador and a public health major, I learned about the concept of K’e’, a common practice in many Indigenous cultures to make decisions that benefit the community as a whole. Skyhawks will be wearing masks to not only protect themselves, but to protect others and their families. Our faculty, students and staff members will monitor their symptoms and keep their distance to ensure that we “protect the nest.”
Our solutions will not eliminate all risk, but behind every decision is the intention to protect the health of our campus and local communities while staying true to our educational purpose. We have worked incredibly hard to strike that balance and develop a plan that serves the greater good.
In the time of a global pandemic, it’s necessary to act on behalf of the greater good, to think beyond the individual benefit. I know the Durango community shares with FLC the value of K’e’ and doing what will benefit the community as a whole.
Tom Stritikus is the president of Fort Lewis College.