With COVID-19 safety protocols in place and enrollments either declining or flat, Pasco County’s colleges and universities have welcomed back students for the fall semester.
Whether it was Saint Leo University or the campuses at Pasco-Hernando State College, most courses were offered online to keep class sizes small. Zoom video conferencing technology was utilized for full interactivity, while hybrid/in-person attendance demanded face masks, hand-sanitizing and social distancing.
Seat configurations were redone. Plexiglass shields were installed in high-transaction, high-touch point areas. Some student activities were abandoned, while others were offered virtually.
“The keyword for everyone these days is flexibility,’’ said Saint Leo Senior Vice President Melanie Storms. “Of course, there will be a learning curve. But we’re very comfortable with what we’re doing.’’
After a record-breaking 2019, which featured a 40% enrollment increase, Storms said Saint Leo will have the same number of new students (1,000) as last fall. There is a 30% reduction in new international students and a 10% decrease in students living on the main campus. Enrollment in Saint Leo’s online programs are up 16% over last year.
“We got out early with a plan and were very transparent with our students about what we were planning to do,’’ Storms said. “We often talk (in the administration) and wonder what our enrollment might have been had there not been COVID. We might have seen another pretty substantial increase. We believe the fact that we have held steady is a reflection of how strong our new class is and the flexibility we’re providing them.’’
Saint Leo students could choose their educational method — either hybrid (alternating in Group A and Group B between in-person and Zoom), connected (exclusive Zoom in a scheduled class period with other students) or online.
Regardless of the choice, all Saint Leo students are required to have at least one class fully online, so overall traffic at campus sites could be kept at acceptable levels (maximum 50% of the normal population, maximum of 15 students in all classes).
“It’s a lot to take in, but we have a team solely dedicated to analyzing this and manipulating the boxes,’’ Storms said. “We went through the classrooms and determined where we’d need to be for comfortable occupancy. We backed that into the scheduling software and worked to make sure students would have the right mix and be optimized in their educational experience.
“We’re all doing things we’ve never done before. Many students are just navigating their lives and saying, ‘Sometimes I’m on Zoom, sometimes I’m online, sometimes I’m in the classroom.’ It’s interesting that one-third of our students selected connected (Zoom), but our housing is only down 10%. So we anticipate a lot of students coming to live with us who are (solely) studying in the Zoom capacity. It’s a new world. We’re getting our feet wet and making adjustments on the fly.’’
At Pasco-Hernando State College’s Porter Campus, in Wesley Chapel, and its East Campus, in Dade City, course offerings will largely be online or Zoom. There are notable exceptions, particularly in the health sciences programs, where students need access to laboratories and specialized equipment or disciplines, such as welding or law enforcement.
Porter Campus Provost Kevin O’Farrell said his enrollment was down 24% from last fall during a recent snapshot, but he was optimistic about an upswing due to students making last-minute decisions.
“I know the word ‘unprecedented’ has probably been overused, but there’s no other way to describe the challenges faced by all levels of higher education,’’ O’Farrell said. “At the same time, I’ve been so heartened by the level of innovation and ingenuity everybody is using. I always say, ‘Don’t let a crisis go to waste,’ and by that I mean, it’s an opportunity to rethink all of our processes and problem-solving.
“We went to a virtual waiting room for students to utilize time with advisors. I think that’s going to become a standard now. When the pandemic goes away, I think people would rather wait at home to speak with an advisor instead of sitting in the lobby. We’ll go back to some things, but we’ve found better ways to do other things.’’
At the state college’s East Campus, Provost Ed Goolsby said his faculty has adapted well to working remotely, although some prefer occasionally utilizing their on-campus office.
“They can work from there, but they just won’t be teaching on campus for the most part,’’ Goolsby said. “There will always be a place for the face-to-face teaching and I know some students want that level of accountability. We’ll just have to see what the environment is moving forward to the spring semester and beyond.
“I think we have shown — and we have been forced to show — that education can adapt. We have seen the words ‘fluid’ and ‘pivot’ quite a bit, but those are words that describe what we need to do,” he said.
By Joey Johnston
Published August 26, 2020