When Thomas College shifted to a remote learning environment in March, the College’s leadership knew that when the time came to welcome students, faculty, and staff back to campus, it would require a massive shift in operations to do so safely. The team tapped into the school’s long history as a nimble, business-minded organization and set to the complicated task.
“We know that students thrive as part of a greater, close-knit community,” reflects President Laurie Lachance M.B.A. ‘92. “Health and safety had to come first in reuniting that community, and it took immense planning and cooperation.”
The labor of love resulted in a safe return to campus that has thus far, as of the writing of this article, proven successful – even while challenges remain.
Charting a Path – and Cleaning It
President Lachance organized a COVID-19 Task Force, comprised of staff who could monitor conditions, understand its impacts on the student learning and living experiences, and create and execute the plans needed to adapt – plus communicate those plans clearly and effectively. “Each member created plans that literally walked through campus using a lens of health and safety, from facilities to academics to support services to athletics with the mindset of a ‘day in the life of a student’,” says Lisa Desautels-Poliquin, Vice President of Student Affairs.
Key to the plans was testing for the virus to track its presence on campus and mitigate spread. The College organized a once-a-week testing plan for students, faculty, and staff (some with higher levels of contact or engagement across campus, such as custodians and dining services staff, would test twice weekly). Later this fall, as illness spread throughout Maine and the nation, the College ramped up to test all students, faculty, and staff twice weekly. The plan was possible in part thanks to collaboration with Colby College, which worked with the same testing provider.
In addition, safety protocols included screening students and family members prior to their moving into residence halls; mandatory mask-wearing; reduced room and dining capacity; and strict policies around campus guests, just to name a few.
“The Physical Plant team spent the entire summer preparing,” says Matt Breslin, Director of the department. “From reconfiguring classrooms and moving furniture to meet distancing requirements to researching new and stronger cleaning products in side-step with the state, and from renting the testing trailer and hiring extra temporary help, it was an enormous workload.” To maintain it, he adds, staff cleans 20 classrooms, 32 group bathrooms, 90 toilets, 70 sinks, Jeanie’s Café, the Dog Pound, and the Kenneth and Eva Green Library – all within three hours every morning, Monday through Friday, before classes begin.
Thomas faculty also took on a herculean task: after moving to remote learning in the spring, the plan to return to campus included a wide range of academic options, says Provost Dr. Thomas Edwards. “Some courses went online, but many more used a hybrid or blended model that still makes in-class learning possible in a way that protects the safety of students and faculty.” Ultimately, 80% of courses still include an in-class component. “In combination with our testing and safety protocols, this approach has allowed students to continue progress toward their degree in the kind of personalized learning environment that makes Thomas special.”
Edwards also points to the faculty’s willingness to adapt and a special grant from the Davis Educational Foundation that helped them. “We knew we needed to make good use of technology. We knew we needed to adapt from both a teaching and learning perspective. We also knew that one of our best resources is the experience and expertise of our faculty. With a special Davis Educational Foundation Presidential Grant, our faculty could look to each other for support and guidance. Professor Katie Rybakova managed an innovative process where faculty prioritized the topics they wanted to explore in more depth. Then, throughout the summer, they worked together through a series of online workshops and webinars to learn from each other, to adapt their teaching, and build the kind of educational experience that would best benefit their students. It was a great response to a challenging situation.”
Cultivating a Community of Support
In addition to adopting new protocols, students faced big challenges, especially considering pandemic-driven stressors like worrying about family members’ health, work changes, or navigating their college journeys. “Maintaining continuity of care and offering support for the physical and mental health of students during these challenging times was a high priority,” says Desautels-Poliquin. “Our Director of Health Services and counselor moved quickly to transition and be able to provide telehealth/tele-behavioral health services.”
Faculty and staff have also worked closely with students to help them remain resilient and focused. “At Thomas, we are known for this supportive, caring environment,” notes Debbie Cunningham, VP of Student Success. “When class sizes are reduced or we can’t linger and chat in the Dining Center – that feeling of support can ebb. However, we have a remarkable network that is dedicated to individual student success, from faculty to peer tutors to alumni, and their interventions and encouragement can make all the difference for students.”
Flexing to a New Normal – with Friends
“It’s been really refreshing to be back and it’s been even nicer to see how seriously Thomas has taken the virus,” says Lilly Hendry, an Early Childhood Education major. “The school is taking every precaution and continuing cautiously with student activities like free bowling, free movie night, and entertainment on campus. Being back at my second home with people I love helps make the crazy world we are living in a little more tolerable.”
Jim Delorie, Assistant Dean for Student Engagement, says that the silver lining to the year is the College’s work to ramp up its GOAL Program, which stands for Get Out And Live. The program, sponsored by Central Maine Power, creates outdoor activities for students, with recreational, health, and social benefits. Pre-pandemic, outings were typically off campus, say for a hiking or skiing trip. This year, due to concerns about group travel, the focus shifted to campus. “We purchased equipment like an inflatable screen, acoustic shell, and outdoor seating to create an attractive outdoor venue for events,” says Delorie. “Though COVID has forced us to take new approaches, students have responded and are active and safe in what we offer.”
Echoes Joel Matondo, a commuter student majoring in Marketing Management, “It’s not always easy to stay connected but fun events with friends are making the experience memorable.”
As of December 1, while the campus has experienced few cases of the virus, Thomas has stayed open safely – but College leadership knows that the community must remain steadfast in its work, and that the environment could change at any moment.
Notes Dr. Edwards, “What we have achieved thus far is remarkable for any college in the midst of such an unprecedented health crisis, but especially remarkable for a school of our size, with limited resources. It is a testament to the students, faculty, and staff who have adapted and dedicated their daily work to the safety and success of our campus.”
“The health and safety of our community has always been held above all other considerations,” says President Lachance. “We will continue to live up to that pledge with every decision we make.”
*This story was originally published in the Fall 2020 Thomas Magazine & Annual Report.