Georgia Southern University plans to resume mostly in-person classes Aug. 17, placing fewer students in each classroom to maintain social distancing while making many of the same classes – and some large classes exclusively – available by Zoom videoconferencing for remote participation.
The university, which last fall had 26,054 students at its campuses in Statesboro, Savannah and Hinesville and online, went to all web-based instruction with the rest of the University System of Georgia for the last five weeks of spring semester. Georgia Southern's summer-session courses were also offered entirely in online formats. But Aug. 17 is the long-scheduled first day of classes for fall semester, and campus life is set to resume subject to some obvious changes.
For one thing, the University System’s July 6 updated guidance on COVID-19 requires “all faculty, staff, students and visitors to wear an appropriate face covering while inside” buildings and other facilities on campus “where social distancing may not always be possible.” But the document also states that the use of face coverings “will be in addition to and is not a substitute for social distancing.”
Georgia Southern’s plan for social distancing while maximizing opportunities for one-to-one discussion is based on an evaluation of the space available in classrooms in relation to the number of students in each class, GS Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Carl Reiber, Ph.D., explained in a July 10 interview.
"It's not one-size-fits-all," he said. "There are classes that have 20 people but they were scheduled in a room that could have held 70 people, and so we have gone around to every classroom, and based upon the configuration of the classroom, its square footage and its seating arrangement, have determined a COVID-19 class cap."
If a class with only 20 students was already assigned to a classroom with a “COVID cap” of 20 – but which might have a maximum capacity 70 in pandemic-free times – no reassignment was needed.
"We will have signs on chairs as to where students can and can't sit so they stay a minimum of six feet away,” Reiber said. “We're also looking at where the instructor would stand and making sure they're not in the face of the students that are right up front."
Most university classes do not meet five days a week, and they can meet at a wide range of times. So this provided some leeway, especially for small to medium-size class sections.
Zoom lecture halls
But the university will obviously be prohibited from using its lecture halls at anything close to their full capacity.
"The other extreme would be where we have some very, very large classes, you know, 250 students, and there's no room to move them to, and if we tried to break them up into subsections that would meet the COVID cap for that room, in many instances a room goes from 250 to 70 or 60, so we've have to have five or six subsections,” Reiber said.
In other words, five or six groups of students would have to rotate in using the classroom for face-to-face lessons. But for a class that meets twice a week, students would then see their instructor only once in three weeks, he noted.
In those cases, the faculty member will instead teach the course as a synchronous Zoom class, meaning live, at a certain time, but over the Zoom online classroom platform.
Students can then be anywhere, including in their apartments or residence halls or outdoors, and participate, even “raising their hands,” virtually, to ask questions.
Zoom classes can also be recorded so that students can watch at a later date.
For such large, remotely taught classes, faculty office hours, when students can talk with their instructors, become critically important, Reiber said. Zoom office hours and phone office hours are encouraged.
"I kind of joke about this, but if a faculty member has their office on the first floor and they have a window, and the student can walk up to the window, and you can talk on the phone so you can see each other, that's perfectly fine but we want that face-to-face interaction,” he said.
More practically, the university plans to hire graduate students to help professors expand their office hours.
Some medium-size class sections are being divided into subsections for a hybrid in-person and Zoom schedule. For example, a Monday, Wednesday and Friday class would divide into three subsections, with one-third of students attending in-person each day while the other two-thirds participate through a synchronous Zoom connection.
"They're still getting that one-on-one contact, which is important,” Reiber said. “Our parents and students have told us they want as much of that as we can deliver."
Document cameras, already available in many classrooms for use with projectors, can be converted for Zoom use, he said. In other classrooms the university has been installing new cameras, and microphones are being installed or upgraded.
In addition to using Zoom as needed, all faculty members are expected to activate class accounts in Folio, the platform Georgia Southern has previously used to anchor online courses. It will be used to deliver materials such as the course syllabus, directions and handouts to students.
Folio is also one means the university is using to inform students of changes resulting from the COVID plan.
"Students are going to need to log into their Folio accounts and look at their courses, because that's where we're going to tell them if their class is going to be modified in terms of delivery or when they show up,” Reiber said.
Signs, shields and masks
Meanwhile, the university has installed 7,600 new signs to remind people about public health recommendations and encourage social distancing, as well as 1,000 new hand sanitizer stations, and has ordered almost 400 germ shields for places where people might otherwise be face-to-face. These items, together, cost $87,659 and were paid for with federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds, according to information provided by GS Director of Communications Jennifer Wise.
From its regular funding, Georgia Southern has spent $155,353 to order almost 70,000 cloth face coverings, or masks, two for every student and five for each employee, and another $29,160 to deliver approximately 3,300 bottles of personal hand sanitizer to employees.
Additionally, personnel in the university’s Allen E. Paulson College of Engineering and Computing used a 3-D printer to make more than 1,200 face shields for faculty use, Wise reported.
Some instructors prefer these because a shield allows them to be heard better than a mask would, Reiber said.
"It's not going to be normal,” he said. “We're all good with that. This fall is not going to be business as usual.”
But the plans have not reduced the number of classes or students Georgia Southern can accommodate, with new sections being added late in the day or into the evening, Reiber said.
"We're still adding sections and probably will continue to right up until the start of classes because we have many freshmen that have applied, been accepted and their intent is to come to Georgia Southern," he said.