When the 2021/22 academic year opened this fall with students, faculty and staff on campus for in-person learning, what was once normal seemed quite remarkable! After all, for the past year and a half, the campus was more like a ghost town than a university, with most classes meeting online and all but the most essential employees working remotely from their home offices.
The decision to return to in-person classes was made early in the summer when it appeared as though Washington state, and the nation, had turned a corner on COVID-19. Vaccines were widely available, and the rate of infection was going down. The state and health districts had lifted restrictions on gatherings, and schools and universities were given guidelines to return to “normal” operations.
“Our goal was, and continues to be, to provide our students with a quality academic experience while maintaining safety for all who come on campus,” said Dr. Melissa Hill, vice president for student affairs and head of the university’s safe open committee. “We worked very closely with the Department of Health to build a plan that would allow us to accomplish both goals.”
Ensuring safety meant maintaining all of the pandemic protocols—social distancing, wearing face masks and proper hygiene. The biggest change was requiring vaccinations for faculty, staff and students. Hill explained that the decision to require the vaccine came after a great deal of reflection and conversations with a wide array of individuals.
By that time, the vaccine had been widely distributed and was proving to be safe and effective in reducing infection and, in the rare breakthrough cases, in reducing the severity of infection, even with the onset of the Delta variant. Students and staff embraced the mandate for the most part, with only a handful choosing to leave the university or apply for religious or medical exemptions. In fact, at a time when most colleges and universities in the United States reported a drop in enrollment, Heritage’s enrollment remains strong.
“We are very proud of our employees and our student body,” said Hill. “The vast majority were fully vaccinated before the start of the school year.”
The university didn’t do away with its online platforms, which have proven to be an effective tool to help students stay engaged in their studies. During the summer of 2020, Heritage set up its online classrooms so that students can take classes three ways: in person, on campus; synchronously online at the time classes meet; and asynchronously online at a time that best meets their schedule. The result eliminates some of the barriers that can keep students from college, such as unexpected issues with transportation, childcare or even illness.
“Ideally, we want to see every student on campus, in the classroom with their instructor and their peers,” said Hill. “However, the reality of our students’ lives means that sometimes they just can’t make it here. Having these other options gives them more flexibility and options to keep them from missing classes and falling behind. We continue to see a number of our students take advantage of this flexibility.”
The first semester of the year recently wrapped up. Hill is encouraged by the results of the first few months.
“Operating in this pandemic world means we have to be flexible and open to rapid changes. We continue to monitor the situation and are prepared to adjust as needed,” she said. “If there is one thing this last year and a half has shown, it is that our students are resilient and focused on reaching their goals. They are not letting anything get in their way.”