Georgia Southern University began fall semester classes Monday with required facemasks, social distancing and other special protective measures. After the first week, the university had seen few confirmed COVID-19 cases, no entire classes quarantined and no drop in enrollment, said GS Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Carl Reiber.
Georgia Southern had gone to all web-based instruction with the rest of the University System of Georgia for the last five weeks of spring semester and then also conducted its summer session courses entirely online. So Monday was the first time since March that large numbers of students returned to the GS classrooms in Statesboro, Savannah and Hinesville.
In a July interview, Reiber, Ph.D., who holds the administrative position often viewed as second in command at a university, had described steps Georgia Southern would take for reopening with in-person classes.
“I think I said last time we prepared for the worst and hoped for the best, and it went remarkably well,” Reiber said Friday. “You know, with all of the new protocols we have in place in terms of social distancing, wearing masks, spreading the classes out, Zoom elements, et cetera, the number of issues that came out were not that much different than the start of any fall.”
Because social distancing requirements reduce the number of students each classroom can seat, the university has made most classes available both in-person and by Zoom videoconferencing for remote participation.
Some class sections with large numbers of students were to be offered via Zoom exclusively.
Other, medium-size, class sections have been divided into subsections for a hybrid in-person and Zoom schedule. For example, a Monday, Wednesday and Friday class can have three subsections, with one-third of students attending in-person each day while the other two-thirds participate through a Zoom connection.
A few technological glitches occurred during the first few days. But Georgia Southern’s information technology department fixed these “very, very quickly, and I did not hear anyone say that their I.T. needs were not addressed,” Reiber said.
Some instructors had to make last-minute adjustments, such as when students from a waiting list for a class “pushed it over the COVID limit” for the assigned classroom, but these are similar to things that happen every semester, he said.
“We have a very large freshman class that is coming in, and so we were adding course sections for incoming freshman right through this week,” Reiber said.
Last fall, Georgia Southern had a total of 26,054 students at its three campuses and online. The fall enrollment census doesn’t occur again until October, so there is no official count yet.
Friday was the last day for students to add or drop classes, and an estimate could be available next week or the week after, Reiber said.
But he added that he was fairly confident total enrollment will equal or exceed last fall’s number.
“We’re comfortable that we’re not going to fall below the 26,054. … We’re hoping that it’s going to be better than last year,” he said.
Having made his rounds and talked to the deans during the week, Reiber told anecdotes of students needing reminders such as to pull their masks up over their noses. But he said that compliance with the mask requirement is very high.
This mandate came from the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia and is the same at all 26 universities and colleges. It requires that protective face coverings be worn in indoor locations and outside in places where social distancing cannot be maintained. The university distributed reusable masks to students.
COVID case count?
As of Friday, Georgia Southern hadn’t released any count of COVID-19 cases reported on its campuses. But Reiber and GS Director of Communication Jennifer Wise said that weekly numbers of confirmed positive cases will be posted online beginning early next week. This will be done through the university’s existing COVID-19 information page, Wise indicated in an email.
As with the local schools and other locations, individuals determined to have been in close contact with someone confirmed to have the novel coronavirus are directed to self-quarantine for two weeks.
Reiber said the number of students having to quarantine this week was very low out of a population of well over 20,000.
“It’s really not causing a major disruption,” he said. “Certainly we do not have whole classes that are showing a problem at all.”
Earlier this month, Georgia Southern launched a CARES Center, with the acronym standing for COVID-19 Answers, Resources, Evaluation and Self-reporting. Students and employees can use the GS mobile app, website, internal portal, email or phone to contact the center. They can ask questions related to the coronavirus, self-report test results or symptoms and get an evaluation of their situation.
The university has both an employee CARES team and a student CARES team prepared to respond.
Students who go into quarantine but are not seriously ill can continue their courses remotely. In some instances,they will be allowed to quarantine in residence hall rooms and, if remaining on campus, have arrangements made for meal delivery from the university food service.
"From a housing perspective, students will be asked first to leave their on-campus residence and go home for the period of isolation," Wise clarified in an email. "If that option is not possible, the University has identified a limited number of rooms in Statesboro and in Savannah where students can isolate, but still take advantage of their meal plan if they have one."