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BYUI, ISU, CEI: How local institutions are dealing with COVID-19

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IDAHO FALLS — One month ago, life dramatically changed for more than 35,000 college and university students in eastern Idaho when Brigham Young University-Idaho, Idaho State University and College of Eastern Idaho closed their campuses due to the threat of COVID-19.

The schools moved instruction online, and graduation ceremonies they would be holding this time of year were canceled. Summer semesters are being figured out, and administrators are optimistic about plans for the fall.

EastIdahoNews.com spoke with leaders from the three campuses to find out how the adjustment is going and what’s next in this unprecedented time.

Brigham Young University-Idaho

Twenty years ago this summer, President Gordon B. Hinckley of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Ricks College would become a four-year institution called Brigham Young University-Idaho. The Rexburg campus has seen drastic changes over the years that have helped faculty and staff deal with current conditions.

“Our employees have gone through so many changes and are examples of people who get down, roll up their sleeves and get it done,” says Brett Sampson, the director of public affairs for BYU-Idaho. “All things considered, things are looking very well.”

BYU-Idaho canceled classes from March 13 through March 17 so faculty members could transition to remote and online learning beginning March 18. Campus officially closed March 25 when Gov. Brad Little issued a stay-home order and the majority of employees are working from home.

The university has focused on online classes for more than a decade, but many faculty members experienced challenges with the quick transition last month.

Photo courtesy Brigham Young University-Idaho

“There’s been an incredible amount of adjustment despite the work we’ve been doing for 15 years,” Sampson says. “We have been so focused with online learning, and we’ve learned a lot along the way. There are teachers who have not had remote learning or online classes, so everybody has had to make some adjustments.”

BYU-Idaho says 19,211 students were enrolled in on-campus classes during winter 2020, and 4,793 were taking courses online only. Sampson says it’s unclear how many students have left Rexburg, but those who have are being asked not to return until the campus opens again.

Spring semester courses will continue to be held online and BYU-Idaho has extended its application deadline to invite thousands of recently returned missionaries to enroll. Administrators are also working with international students who need extra assistance.

“We’ve started to learn about students who are in especially hard times with not being able to work and things changing the way they have, so we’re trying to take care of them,” Sampson says.

Since students have been told to stay away from Rexburg, many are concerned about their upcoming housing contracts. They feel they don’t need to pay or deserve a refund since they won’t be living in their complexes. Sampson says BYU-Idaho has encouraged apartment owners and managers to be fair with their tenants.

“Nobody is holding students completely to the contract that they originally signed,” Sampson says. “The range of what apartment owners are doing differs from letting some students out of their contracts entirely to some fees for deferring or just deferring entirely their contract.”

RELATED | How BYU-Idaho students are handling their housing contract dilemmas

The university has a section on its homepage dedicated to COVID-19 updates. Students, their parents, faculty and staff are asked to visit the website regularly for the latest news.

“We’re all in this together. We’re helping one another, and we’re seeing mostly just the best in all of us,” Sampson says. “We talk so much about being student-focused, but in these circumstances, I’m really seeing in ways I never imagined where faculty are going out of their way to get new equipment, to learn new ways of teaching to adjust their classes, to be all-remote. And bless those students’ hearts, they are adjusting and doing everything they can to get their education.”

Idaho State University

Even though President Kevin Satterlee is working from home, he makes a point every day to visit the Idaho State University campus in Pocatello. Typically, hundreds of students in residence halls would be preparing for finals, but at last count, there were only 28, and they were spaced apart to follow social-distancing recommendations.

“It’s pretty quiet but while our on-campus population has dwindled, our student population has not,” Satterlee tells EastIdahoNews.com. “This time last year, 102 students left school. This year 100 did. So fewer students dropped than this time last year.”

ISU quickly transitioned from traditional classroom learning to distance-based instruction over two weeks last month. There were challenges with hands-on classes, such as laboratories, but Satterlee says he’s impressed with how smoothly the process went.

“I’m really proud of our faculty and staff and the way they stepped up,” he says. “Our university has been through a lot in the history of over 100 years, but in some ways, I think this was one of our finest hours as an institution.”

In addition to helping students and faculty, the campus is reaching out to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. WiFi equipment was installed in parking lots for the public to access the internet without charge. ISU has also reserved one of its living units for medical professionals who may need a place to stay if the coronavirus outbreak becomes extreme.

“We have one that is ready if we have health care providers that might need a place to stay so that they are serving their job in the day but don’t want to go home to their family and expose them,” Satterlee says. “We are setting up one of our residence halls that could be a quarantine area if our community needs it.”

Courtesy Idaho State University

All summer courses at ISU will be held online with the hope that classes later in the semester may be able to resume face-to-face instruction. The university is planning for normal operations in the fall, but it will all depend on current health conditions.

Satterlee estimates ISU has already lost $3 million due to the cancellation of concerts, events and other revenue generators. Waning enrollment, state budget cuts and plummeting revenue have put the university on track for a projected $16 million deficit heading into the 2020-21 budget year, Idaho Ed News reports.

A hiring freeze has been put in place with a plan to eliminate 120 vacant positions or leave them unfilled.

RELATED | Idaho colleges and universities feel financial crunch amid pandemic

“We’re going to see a public health crisis that will bring about long-term change in higher education. We don’t know what it looks like now, but I think it will bring change,” Satterlee says.

Satterlee says it’s important students know that although the campus is physically closed, the ISU counseling center is still open and seeing patients for free via telemedicine. The university is posting updates on the COVID-19 section of its website and Satterlee hopes to use this time as a learning experience.

“Ten years ago, we would have shut down because we didn’t have this level of connectivity to do what we can online,” he says. “If something deserves accolades, it’s the way our faculty and staff have bonded around our mission that we still are going to deliver education.”

College of Eastern Idaho

COVID-19 has presented a “new reality” for post-secondary education, according to President Rick Aman, but he says the College of Eastern Idaho has adjusted “extraordinarily well.”

“When you think about what happened three weeks ago and where are today, it is immensely different,” Aman tells EastIdahoNews.com. “One of the things we always knew would be important as we hire would be the ability to deliver or be comfortable with structural technology. The dividends are being paid right now with faculty who have understood that and embrace that.”

Like other campuses, CEI has transitioned all classes online. It has been tricky with welding, nursing, machine tool and courses that require hands-on work but, being relatively new, the college has not encountered housing or other issues facing larger institutions.

EastIdahoNews.com file photo

Once the stay-home order was issued, administrators quickly realized many students did not own computers so CEI created a laptop loaner program and installed WiFi routers in parking lots. Faculty have been working to teach in creative ways and have an eye on the coming months.

RELATED | College of Eastern Idaho closes campus after governor’s order

“Our summers are never heavy, but enrollment is up at least 20 percent,” Aman says. “It is just impossible to tell how this will affect fall semester. Fall is going to be important to us. I don’t know if we are going to have students on campus. We would like to go back to normal, but we don’t know.”

Aman is unsure what the long-term financial impact will be on CEI, but he’s remaining optimistic and looks forward to seeing his campus community face to face soon.

“We’re doing everything to really help students,” he says.

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