By Lea Killian
In Spring 2020, Cameron students transitioned from traditional classes to online classes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This Fall, students returned to campus with social distancing guidelines, mask requirements and new technology in most classrooms.
In an interview, CU President John McArthur spoke about decision-making and campus life during a global pandemic.
When we first realized in March that the pandemic was going to impact our everyday lives, what was it like for you to begin making decisions about something so unprecedented?
We started planning and worrying about the spread of this strain of a coronavirus as early as Jan. 24, 2020, as cases began to appear in countries where our students and employees from around the state travel. The Cameron University Emergency Operations Group began meeting or corresponding daily about the pandemic on March 13, 2020.
For me, the pace of decision making and the ramifications of those decisions increased gradually from that day in March and have continued through this day. I can’t imagine how we would have responded if the onset had not been gradual.
I am fortunate to work with a thoughtful and resilient group of students, employees, and colleagues to help us to continue to move forward. Your question uses the word “unprecedented” and I agree; however, our first course of action was to look for precedents or similarities to other emergencies.
I relied very heavily on our campus and community response to the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009 as a starting point for decision making.
During Spring 2020, CU provided students the opportunity to receive an “Incomplete” for classes they were unable to finish due to the pandemic. In doing so, they would be able to take classes again the next time courses were offered – and at no cost. What effect did that opportunity have on the University and its students?
I hope that the effect of the “COVID-I” on students was to allow as many as possible to preserve their academic standing while attending to other matters such as personal health, loss of childcare for dependents, or loss of employment. There were 290 students who took advantage of the opportunity. The cost to Cameron University for providing this option to our students was approximately $400,000.
While student, staff and faculty safety is an unnegotiable priority, what is your biggest concern reopening the campus for this semester?
After health, my biggest concern with reopening is maintaining the quality of education. A college education is a once in a lifetime opportunity for many of our students. I want our students, and eventual graduates, to be proud of their well-earned course credits and degrees. I don’t want any of our students to feel as if their accomplishments have an asterisk attached because they happened to go to school during a pandemic.
What has the process been like ensuring each classroom has Zoom-capable technology? What types of adjustments have been made, budget-related or otherwise, in order to make sure each student has access to instruction?
Spend money. Install gadgets. Repeat. Our Information Technology Services team joined with other employees to find some very creative solutions to modify traditional classrooms into functioning Zoom centers.
I would like to be able to tell you that we have succeeded in guaranteeing access to instruction for each student but we still have a long way to go for that to be true. We have made great strides to be able to deliver instruction using technology but we still have many citizens in southwest Oklahoma who want a college experience but who do not have access to the software, hardware, or Internet service necessary for an effective learning experience.
We continue to fundraise and write grants to help support our students. So far, we have been able to raise just under $4 million to help our students financially, to purchase technology equipment, and to increase and improve campus facility sanitation and cleaning.
Some of the classroom modifications in addition to Zoom, or “synchronous, technology-facilitated instruction” if you want to be precise and use more syllables, include increasing space between desks and chairs so we can still safely conduct some face-to-face instruction and making better use of recording tools to allow students who miss a class to have alternatives besides borrowing notes from a classmate.
We have also modified services outside the classroom. Students need increased virtual access to tutoring, library resources, academic or financial advising, or health resources.
Has COVID-19 affected student enrollment at Cameron? If so, how?
There are almost 400 fewer students at Cameron this fall compared to a year ago with most of that number at the lower division (freshman and sophomore) level.
The working adults in our graduate programs are holding steady but we saw significantly fewer recent high school graduates choose to start college this year.
What is your plan to encourage students to attend CU in the future?
It is imperative that we continue to provide outstanding student learning opportunities and high quality classroom experiences, whether real or virtual, if we are going to support current students to return to Cameron or attract prospective students to become Aggies.
We also have to demonstrate every day that we can provide a safe and healthy experience. I am very proud of our students and employees for using face coverings and maintaining social distancing so we can continue to have classroom experiences.
Has COVID-19 affected the budget at Cameron? If so, how?
The pandemic has affected university finances. There are fewer students attending, and we have fewer students in many course sections. Both of those events reduces revenue available for personnel and services. On the expense side of the equation, increased technology costs, cleaning costs, and purchases of personal protective equipment add up quickly.
Were there any programs or organizations that had to be disbanded or postponed due to budget issues?
We have not discontinued any programs at this time. Many activities have been postponed or delayed such as intercollegiate athletics and performances by our visual and performing arts students.
A CU COVID-19 Response and Recovery Task Force will be convened soon with student, staff and faculty members to help us develop and prioritize actions to help more students return to school and to help assure that Cameron is offering the right mix of programs and services to our students and community.
How did Cameron decide which programs or organizations would remain available and operational?
So far, we’ve tried to keep all of our programs and all of our employees. That approach has made for an austere budget but the decisions about what programs and services to keep are too important to make quickly or without broader campus discussion.
Have there been any confirmed Covid-19 cases since reopening the campus?
Unfortunately, our students and employees have not been entirely spared by this virus. There have been cases reported by students and by employees since classes began on Aug. 17.
A weekly campus health update will be provided soon so that we can track occurrences. Thank you for staying home if you are sick and for contacting the COVID Hotline to let the university know of your circumstances.
What process will the University undergo if a student or faculty member is diagnosed with COVID-19?
I hope that you received the recent email message from Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Success Jerrett Phillips on Aug. 27.
In his message, he describes how Cameron will respond to a student or employee communication about a positive test for COVID-19.
For students who live on campus, we have dedicated quarantine space available in Cameron Village, and we have arranged for food delivery for those individuals.
The University partnered with the Comanche County Health Department and IMMY Labs to host a free drive-thru community COVID-19 testing in the Cameron Stadium parking lot on Aug. 25.
What are Cameron’s plans for continued testing throughout the rest of the semester?
We will continue to monitor community incidence of COVID-19. We don’t currently have plans to host a regular testing program as long as community tests remain readily available at the Health Department or at area hospitals.
However, we will remain flexible and adaptable. I’m certainly hoping for an effective, fast and inexpensive test that we could provide on a regular basis.
How does the university acclimate to individuals who are unable to wear a mask due to other medical issues?
Cameron enacted the mandatory face covering policy because local and state medical experts and the Centers for Disease Control agreed that this is the single most effective method for slowing the spread of COVID-19.
For individuals who are unable or unwilling to comply with the university and community health expectations for face coverings, then Zoom or online classes are the best option so the individual does not need to come to campus.
What is the University policy for individuals who refuse to wear facial coverings due to other personal reasonings, such as their political affiliation?
University policy is for each faculty member to establish behavioral expectations for students and to clearly communicate those expectations.
If a student is unable or unwilling to abide by those expectations, then a different college home should be sought.
Many universities have made the decision to function completely online. Why has Cameron chosen to retain in-person classes?
Many of our students indicated a preference for a face-to-face classroom experience. That preference may be due to lack of technology access at home, desire for peer interaction, the need for the structure and imposed discipline that a classroom experience provides, or something else entirely.
Regardless, Cameron is here to serve all types of students and we want to provide learning opportunities to suit each learner.
While we are living in uncertain times, what is the one thing you would say is certain about the future of Cameron University?
Cameron University will continue to provide outstanding student learning opportunities with highly qualified faculty and staff at an exceptional value.
Is there any additional information you would like to provide to Cameron students?
Thank you for choosing Cameron for some or all of your college experience. Please continue to share your ideas, thoughts, and concerns. Your input makes this a better place for all of us.