As I write this, it is the night before our first day of class for fall semester 2020 at Dalton State College. As you read this, we will have just completed our first week of face-to-face classes since early March.
This fall semester doesn’t look like any we’ve faced before. Many of our services are virtual, and much of our coursework is available online. As excited as I am for more people to be back on campus, it is also a worrisome time for us.
We have spent months developing plans to safely return in a COVID-19 environment, but we can’t help worrying if it is enough, a feeling I’m sure is mutual among all educators right now. Will our students and colleagues embrace the safety practices we have identified as essential? Will we, individually and collectively, stay healthy? And our family members?
As valid as those concerns are, I remind myself higher education is a part of the state’s critical infrastructure. For this reason, we have continued to operate safely — mostly remotely — for the past four months. While most of our employees were able to conduct their work remotely, we have several groups of employees that never left campus. Dalton State still had to function even while the campus was closed to students and the public.
Our public safety officers have continued their shifts as usual, ensuring campus remains safe 24/7. They are our first responders, and they provide critical services to employees who are on campus. They have gone above and beyond their usual duties to help with the pick-up and distribution of supplies from outside organizations and food for our students in need.
Our staff in plant operations has continued working throughout this pandemic, busy with the annual maintenance work they usually do in summers when the campus is a little quieter. These staff members have been responsive when building issues arise, such as broken chillers. They also helped us remove furniture from some spaces to encourage physical distancing. Our plant operations staff members are responsible for the care of our campus at all hours of the day, 365 days of the year. These employees play a key role in creating an efficient and inviting place for learning.
Our mailroom staff is another essential group of employees. With fewer employees on campus, we continue to receive and process a variety of mail including high school transcripts and other key admissions materials, payments and bills. And those bills must be paid in a timely manner. Key employees in enrollment services and business services have come to campus periodically to process these and other items. The remainder of their hours were spent serving students remotely. We opened to the public this past week. The staff in these areas will continue to work remotely, but they have also begun seeing people in person by appointment.
I must also acknowledge the staff in our Ken White Student Health Center. They have tirelessly consumed every piece of guidance they could find from the Department of Public Health, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health organizations. They have in turn used that evolving guidance to help us develop our plan for returning to campus. Dr. Cheryl Owens, director of our Student Health Services, was recently identified by this newspaper as Citizen of the Week for her work on behalf of Dalton State and the Ken White Student Health Center, and that is well deserved recognition. I don’t want to imagine managing this pandemic without her dedication and wisdom.
Our faculty members have worked miracles. First, they were given a week’s notice this spring to move all course content to a virtual environment. Then these faculty members also offered online classes this summer. Now they have created course content for in-person classes that can also be moved to our digital platform in a moment’s notice. This allows individual students to participate remotely in many of our classes if needed and ensures we are in a better position to pivot quickly and seamlessly if circumstances require us to shift to online instruction mid-semester. This was a great deal of extra work for our faculty members who did not necessarily sign up for online instruction. But they have risen to the occasion.
The hard work of the “Dalton State Reopening Group” was instrumental in bringing us through the summer months as staff began returning to campus. And this same group developed the plans for welcoming students and faculty back to campus this fall. This group was intentionally small to manage the work through virtual meetings, but each of these leaders relied on additional employees from their areas to inform our plans for navigating in this environment. This group consisted of the three vice presidents as well as representatives from marketing, communications, human resources, the Ken White Student Health Center, public safety, one of the academic deans (although all deans were heavily involved in this work) and the Office of Computing and Information Services.
There are many more who have contributed in some way to the reopening of campus, from a committee dedicated to making sure we had signs on campus, to those who spent hours communicating with students about what to expect this semester, to those who made sure we could do campus-wide and departmental meetings virtually.
For months now, our campus bells ring a special tribute at 7 each evening in honor of healthcare workers and other essential workers. In my mind, these bells honor our own Dalton State essential workers and healthcare employees, too. Each of our employees has been vital to our operations and addressing ongoing challenges. Our faculty and staff will serve our students on campus this fall, as well as remotely, to ensure our students do not lose momentum on their life trajectories to become the next generation of leaders in our community.
All of our employees are heroes. And all of our students who persevere despite these challenges are community heroes. Please say a special prayer for us all.
Margaret Venable is president of Dalton State College.