(Editor’s note: Friday’s Online Town Hall Meeting was recorded and is available on the University website with a feedback form. A NetID is required to access it. To find this recording and all the latest updates on University operations, go to the main coronavirus page)
Members of the University community participated in what might’ve been a first in the University’s 146-year history on Friday afternoon – an Online Town Hall meeting via Zoom.
With online courses being delivered online and the majority of the institution’s services and operations being provided remotely due to the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), the Zoom setting was indicative of the University’s current reality for students, faculty and staff.
It was a coming together, said Dr. Cheryl Hug-English, director of the Student Health Center, which was needed.
“Although we’re physically separate, connecting the way we are today, we need to be creative in how we get together, like we are doing today, which is very important,” she said.
Even though the medium was digital and viewers were scattered throughout their own residences in northern Nevada and throughout Nevada, the message was very clear: Faculty, staff and students might live, work and study on the same campus physically for the time being, but the connection among the University’s people still remained strong as they face an unprecedented moment in the University’s history.
“Everyone on campus has done extraordinary things in an extraordinary circumstance,” President Marc Johnson said. “We thank everyone for going through heroic efforts.” He later added, “Everybody on this campus pitches in to help this University fulfill its mission.”
Johnson fielded a number of questions, many of which focused on what the future might hold. A hiring freeze that was announced by the Nevada System of Higher Education in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak was illustrative of a larger policy that the University is hoping to use as a defensive measure against potential future budget reductions.
“This hiring freeze is extremely important to us,” Johnson said, noting that the University’s guiding principle will be that the institution does not want its employees to join the thousands of Nevadans who have lost their jobs in recent days. “For every position we get to keep open, we get to keep the salary savings as a buffer against any budget cuts.”
Johnson added the University is committed to “all individuals being paid,” and that includes student workers, many of whom can no longer physically do their jobs on campus anymore. “We’ve also stated that student wages will be continued to be paid at the same hours and the same rate,” he said.
Hug-English, director of the Student Health Center, explained many of the health and medical aspects of the situation. There had been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the campus as of Friday’s Online Town Meeting on Friday. She stressed the importance of social distancing, avoiding large gatherings and to remember that self-care is an important part of staying healthy – rest, eat well, exercise and find ways to manage stress.
“We don’t know the end of this story yet,” she said. “Things are changing rapidly and day by day. What I can tell you is that I have every confidence that this is only temporary, and we will get through this together.”
She added that the mental aspect to working apart should be considered critical. Any effort to connect using available technology should be welcomed.
“I’ve been amazed at some of the postings on social media by students and faculty, and I encourage them to keep this going,” she said. “It’s been great.”
Shannon Ellis, Vice President of Student Services said her division has found that although the University’s students have a well-deserved reputation for being tech-savvy, the past few days had shown how important it has been for the students to reach out and find assistance from Student Services in navigating the University’s change in operations.
“We are getting an interesting set of phone calls every day,” she said. “They’re (students) learning, along with us, how to do this remotely.”
Late fees have been removed, deadlines have been moved down the calendar, policies adjusted and housing and parking refunds are on their way next week to help remove barriers for students.
“We are a force to try and continue to make this a less stressful experience for our students,” she said.
Housing and dining refunds will be issued by next week to students. Currently 121 students have been given permission to remain in housing and will be moved into safe spaces with healthy proximity to one another.
“This first week, along with academic affairs, we set up a number of computer labs that we worried wouldn’t have the hardware or internet access for them to complete their coursework,” she said. “We were pleasantly surprised they were underutilized,” she said, noting that loaner laptops have been distributed to students.
Ellis said the past few days have seen students exercising their voice regarding the spring commencement. Earlier in the week the University announced the ceremony would be held virtually. After students and student leaders expressed their disappointment, it was announced that spring commencement would be postponed and 2020’s graduates would be given the option to have their own ceremony in December 2020 or in May 2021.
“We had great conversations with our undergraduate and graduate students of what they wanted and when they wanted it,” Ellis said. “Our students were the determining factor.”
Kevin Carman, executive vice president and provost, outlined much of the academic work that has been done in recent days. He thanked the faculty and staff for “your commitment to the success of our students.” He mentioned that the team in Teaching and Learning Technologies “worked with lightning speed” that had ensured online delivery of courses was accomplished efficiently and seamlessly.
Carman said summer courses are on track.
“We haven’t made any decisions on what modality,” he said of the possibility of continuing to use online delivery for summer school. A decision could come in a few weeks.
Carman said the conversion to online delivery of courses could prove to be a valuable lesson for the University in how it attends to future instruction. He said it was important to acknowledge the “tragic” situation the country was currently experiencing. That said, however, he added, “I really think this is a watershed moment for higher education.” He said the University, once it is through the threat of coronavirus, would not be converting “in any way to an online university.”
“But I do expect us to grow in our ability to meet the needs of our students,” he said.
He counseled the University’s faculty to be mindful of students’ individual circumstances.
“I think that in particular this semester faculty needs to be sensitive to these issues that students may be facing,” he said. “I encourage faculty to reach out to students to help them.”