Navigating the New College “new normal”

New College students, wearing face coverings and socially distancing, participate in an outdoor class this fall
New College students, wearing face coverings and socially distancing, participate in an outdoor class this fall

By Abby Weingarten

Keeping a college campus safe during a global pandemic has been—on every imaginable level—a learning experience.

Like all higher education institutions in the COVID-19 era, New College has evolved with each emerging challenge. But, as positive tests trend upward locally and nationally at record-breaking levels, the College’s leaders are doing what they can to effectively steer in a storm.

Since March, more than 321,000 cases of the virus have been recorded on 1,700+ college campuses, according to The New York Times tracking database. As of Monday, New College’s number was 16 (total cases among students and employees to date). A recent increase in cases has prompted administrators to move all classes this week online, and students are encouraged to remain off campus until January to mitigate any further spread.

“The cases are rising everywhere, and things are changing rapidly, week to week,” said Anne Fisher, Ph.D., the program director for New College’s Counseling and Wellness Center (CWC). “But I think the New College community, on the whole, has been really responsible, and people are doing a great job of staying as safe as they can, all things considered.”

The rising curve and the learning curve

In an attempt to flatten the COVID-19 curve during the spring 2020 semester, students and employees evacuated the New College campus by mid-March (weeks before Florida mandated a statewide lockdown on April 3).

To support Novo Collegians in all aspects of wellness during this transition, the CWC shifted its counseling sessions to a video chat platform called the Therapy Assistance Online (TAO) program, the Student Success Center offered virtual one-on-one coaching, and the Student Affairs and Housing/Residential Life staff helped students move out of their dorm rooms. Most students endured the remainder of the spring semester at home, learning virtually for the first time.

By June, New College was ready to present its fall reopening plan to the Florida Board of Governors (BOG) for the State University System (SUS). Fisher conducted intensive research to help prepare the safety guidelines—from masking measures to testing and social distancing—and followed official recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“From the beginning, we have been following the CDC guidelines based on the science about viral transmission,” Fisher said. “At New College, we’re doing what the CDC tells us to do, and even a little bit extra.”

By the end of July, comprehensive New College surveys determined that 60 percent of students preferred in-person learning while 40 percent opted for the remote alternative. So, a hybrid model (both in-the-classroom and online) was put in place for the fall semester.

Before students arrived on campus, New College’s Physical Plant staff thoroughly prepared the grounds. The team changed the types of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) filters in campus buildings; installed Plexiglass and wall-hung sanitizing stations; worked with campus stakeholders to place appropriate COVID-19 signage as reminders of CDC guidelines; consulted with vendors regarding ultraviolet lighting and bipolar ionization technologies for buildings; applied an antimicrobial barrier spray to surfaces; and investigated the indoor air quality (IAQ) of various high-occupancy buildings.

New College asked the companies Carrier and NORESCO to conduct both an IAQ and ventilation assessment of the Jane Bancroft Cook Library, the Academic Center (ACE) and the V Dorm buildings. The buildings were chosen because they best represented the various ages and types of structures on the New College campus, according to Chris Kinsley, New College’s vice president of finance and administration.

Carrier experts confirmed that the indoor particulate matter was within acceptable levels, and that the buildings’ ventilation systems were performing within industry and code requirements. The assessment provided assurance to students and employees that the buildings were safe for use in the fall.

A cautious reopening

With a typical student population of 700, a total of 90 professors, a student-to-faculty ratio of 7-to-1, and an average class size of 12 students, New College has a makeup unlike any other institution in the SUS. This smallness gave New College an advantage in terms of providing ample classroom spacing, customized housing accommodations and general scheduling flexibility.

In August, students began to settle into their new homes at New College. Move-in dates were staggered throughout the dorms, and private rooms were issued (unless students specifically requested roommates).

Upon arrival, students and families were greeted by New College staff members in masks and gloves, and given welcome packs (with face coverings, water bottles, campus maps and parking permits). Randy Harrell, New College’s interim dean of student affairs, referred to the personalized process as a “concierge check-in.”

The total number of students living on campus (and thus, the density of residential halls) was reduced. While New College’s residence halls can normally hold up to 667 students, only 366 had officially moved in by the end of August (including 136 first-years).

All students and employees were tested for COVID-19 before the reopening, and regular random testing of students and employees has since been conducted weekly (via drive-through or walk-up testing clinics set up at various onsite locations). This random testing method was intended to enable New College to establish a baseline against which to measure and trace future infections.

As a further precaution, all members of the New College community were instructed to use a daily COVID-19 symptom self-checker before coming to campus. 

For faculty and staff, this tool is a dynamic form on the myNCF portal (built by staff in the Office of Information Technology and leveraged by the Human Resources Department). For students, a health checker app was created by the University of South Florida (USF), connected to USF Student Health Services (SHS).

However, New College students reported numerous technical difficulties with the USF-based app, Fisher said. To that end, another app prototype is currently in the works at New College, which may either be a homegrown or commercial product. Because New College lacks a medical or public health school for in-house advice, SHS on the adjacent USF Sarasota-Manatee campus provides all medical services to students. 

“There’s a big question about what to do next with the student symptom checker because we’re not having students use it anymore,” Fisher said. “There were so many issues with it—from students having trouble creating USF NetIDs to forgetting passwords. We might have New College create its own alternative.” 

This change in technology will hopefully allay some concerns and clear up confusion among the student population.

Connection and communication

Maintaining open communication campus-wide has been critical at New College, especially since COVID-19 case numbers began rising significantly in the local area this month.

Viral testing results from onsite companies are shared with the New College administration, as well as the test taker, typically within a couple of days. Students and employees who test offsite, at locations such as the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in Sarasota (which offers rapid walk-up tests) can voluntarily share their results with the College. 

“Some of the people who tested positive offsite let us know right away, and they didn’t have to do that. This is terrific that they’re taking responsibility for themselves and for the New College community,” Fisher said. “I really commend them for being so forthcoming.” 

But what happens after the test, exactly, when a student who is living on campus is confirmed to have contracted COVID-19? Collaboratively, the staff in New College’s Office of Facilities Planning and Construction and Housing/Residential Life have developed specific protocols, including designating certain furnished rooms for quarantining/isolation.

Students living off campus who test positive are prohibited from returning to campus for 10 days from the date of the test (and they are required to be cleared first by SHS). Those living on campus quarantine for 10 days in their assigned private dorm rooms. 

“If I know a student tests positive, I call them right away. And I want to encourage students to keep their cell numbers accurate with Residential Life and not have their voicemail be full (we are having that challenge),” Fisher said. “The students who test positive have to go into isolation for 10 days—they are called by someone in Residential Life and told where to go. They are also coached on what to bring. And, after they’re in the isolation room, I tell them that SHS will be reaching out to them. Then we also have to find the students’ close contacts, and those people go into isolation for 14 days.”

To track down these sources, Fisher and other New College leaders talk with the students, attempting to find out what the students did 48 hours before they were symptomatic (and/or when the COVID-19 tests came back positive).

“We ask them who they were within six feet of—inside or outside, with or without a mask—for more than 15 minutes during that time,” Fisher said. “Also, those 10 and 14 days of isolation are the minimum time periods, because you have to be symptom-free for 24 hours before you are released from isolation. If you have symptoms, you’ll be in isolation longer until you don’t have symptoms for 24 hours.”

A person who tests positive has a shorter isolation period than someone he or she has exposed to the virus. Why? Because it takes a few days for the virus, after exposure, to cause an exposed person’s test to turn positive, Fisher said. The CDC counts the time before the test was taken as the time the person was incubating the virus (so it ends up being 14 days instead of 10), she explained.

Rooms are prepared for isolated students—heavily sanitized and stocked with towels, linens, and menus for meal deliveries from Metz Culinary Management

“SHS will decide when someone is done with isolation,” Fisher said, adding that SHS, Residential Life and Student Affairs staff are in constant contact with isolated individuals. “They follow the CDC guidelines exactly.” 

With the holidays fast approaching, administrators at New College—and throughout the state—are advising students to proceed with even more extreme vigilance. Just before students prepared for the Thanksgiving break, BOG Chair Syd Kitson issued a statement to all SUS schools:

“We can slow the spread and protect others more vulnerable. Remember, it’s not just about you,” Kitson wrote. We are all in this together, and we are confident our students, faculty and staff will continue to do the right thing.” 

The same day Kitson released his message, New College President Donal O’Shea told the campus community: “Your diligent commitment to wearing face coverings, maintaining social distance, and following other CDC-recommended guidelines to curb the spread of the virus continues to be critical to our community’s physical health and safety.”

Part of that “diligent commitment” is embodied by New College’s COVID-19 educators and student liaisons.

A committed community

A month after the fall reopening of campus, New College hired Susan Stahley to be the health educator for the CWC. One of her key roles is helping students navigate COVID-19 safety guidelines, such as participating in testing and communicating concerns about potential exposure.

Yosef Shapiro, the director of environment health and safety/emergency management, joined New College around the same time as Stahley. He has been instrumental in inspecting the campus for safety issues and helping Fisher with COVID-19 contact tracing.

Soon after Stahley and Shapiro were brought onboard, New College Student Alliance (NSCA) President Sofia Lombardi hired two COVID-19 student liaisons: second-year Oci Krasny and thesis student Courtney Miller.

The overall goal of the liaison initiative is to “increase the transparency and process between New College and students,” Stahley said. “We are trying to provide as much education as possible.”

The liaisons collect student input regarding New College’s handling of the COVID-19 situation on campus, and they advocate for student concerns, Krasny and Miller said.

“We act as a bridge to help ensure that student concerns are heard by the appropriate members of the administration. We also work on providing effective and engaging communications, and educational material to students,” the liaisons said. “We have created resources for students to share COVID concerns and questions, including an anonymous ‘COVID Concerns’ tip line and a student opinion poll.”

Twice a day, Krasny and Miller check the 24-hour online tip line, which invites students to report anyone not wearing a mask or defying safety protocols; to ask questions about COVID-19 policies (including testing) on campus; and to share “general concerns about the evolving COVID-19 situation on campus.” The liaisons have also distributed a “COVID Student Concerns Survey,” filled with student responses Krasny and Miller are currently reviewing to present to the New College administration.

We’re looking to be able to reach as many students as possible through our communications,” Krasny and Miller said.

This peer-to-peer communication matters, as administrators hope students will listen to health educators and liaisons as they embark on their holiday vacations. With a shortened academic calendar, New College will be wrapping up classroom instruction for the semester by Thanksgiving break to limit travel, and students can complete final exams and projects remotely. Students, if at all possible, should remain off campus through winter break in December and return in January for the Independent Study Period.

If students must return to campus after Thanksgiving break, they will be required to get tested from noon to 4 p.m. Wed. Dec. 2 or Thurs. Dec. 3 outside Sudakoff Conference Center. Any student who does not get tested must leave campus by December 6 (the only exception will be students who have previously tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 12 weeks and are now symptom-free).

Stahley knows the pandemic can be physically and emotionally exhausting, but she is constantly reminding students to stay alert, now more than ever.

“We’re tired of the lack of social contact, tired of having classes online, but it’s not the time to let down your guard,” Stahley said. “COVID is on the rise. It’s not going away. Numbers are going way up. This is not the time to be complacent.”

Echoing this sentiment, O’Shea, Harrell and Lombardi sent a joint message to the campus community on Monday: We will have more cases in the coming weeks, unless each of us takes action to reverse the trends we are witnessing. We are extremely grateful to you all for cultivating a community of mutual respect and care this semester.”

 

To review New College’s campus updates, policies, and procedures regarding COVID-19, visit ncf.edu/covid-19

For flow charts on what to do after testing positive, coming in contact with someone who has tested positive, or if you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, visit:

ncf.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/CWC-CovidFlowchart-PositiveTest-Final-V2.pdf

ncf.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/CWC-CovidFlowchart-ContactPositive-Final-V2.pdf

ncf.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/CWC-CovidFlowchart-Symptoms-Final-V2.pdf

To take a rapid, walk-up COVID-19 test locally at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex, visit scgov.net/government/health-and-human-services/covid-19-coronavirus/covid-19-testing

To reach out to a staff member in Student Affairs, visit ncf.edu/directory/unit/student-affairs

To contact the Counseling and Wellness Center (CWC), visit ncf.edu/cwc

To read New College’s fall reopening plan, visit ncf.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/New-College-Plan-to-Reopen.pdf

To see how New College is preparing for the future, visit ncf.edu/academics/new-can

Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing. 


Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is the state's only legislatively designated Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in liberal arts and sciences, a master’s degree program in data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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