Colleges Take a Hybrid Approach

Colleges in Northern Virginia plan a mix of online and in-person classes and services this fall to keep students safe while allowing them to stay involved as much as possible in campus life.
Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), George Mason University and Marymount University will be complying with guidelines announced by Gov. Ralph Northam in mid-June to monitor health conditions and contain the spread of the coronavirus.
At NOVA, the majority of classes will remain online, said President Anne M. Kress. A few classes will be a hybrid of online and onsite, she said, with priority given to areas of study such as nursing, dentistry, information technology, welding and auto technology that require hands-on learning.
Kress added that students have specifically asked that some courses — such as math and English as a Second Language — be offered in the hybrid format.
Computer labs and libraries will be open, with social distancing requirements and frequent deep cleaning, she added. Both students and employees will receive training on the precautions needed to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The higher education community also needs to look beyond the fall semester to find the “new normal,” said Kress, who is co-chair of the Virginia Community College System’s Post-Pandemic Task Force. “The ‘new normal’ refers to the need to live with greater uncertainty. We don’t know exactly how things will roll out in the future, and, even if we think we know today, things can change tomorrow.”
So far, “we’ve learned a lot of lessons. One is the readiness of many students to take to online classes,” she said. “They like not having to fight traffic, having to find a parking space, arranging for childcare.”
“Another lesson we have come to understand during this time is that our campuses provide much more than classes: They provide social and emotional support, networks of connections that help move our students forward in their academic and career pathways,” Kress said. “So, all colleges will need to find a way to translate this into the online experience if virtual learning continues or even expands.” 
George Mason University’s blueprint for a safe return to campus calls for a mix of in-person instruction and expanded online classes, as well as the continuation of research, Interim President Anne Holton said in a message to the university community. The plan calls for starting the fall semester Aug. 24, as scheduled.
“We know that many students benefit from being on campus, interacting in the classroom, and having an opportunity to engage in person with faculty and fellow students. We are also proud of our online offerings and understand that online courses may be the best fit for some students. But for many, there is real value in the opportunity to connect within the vigorous living and learning community we treasure so much at Mason,” she said.
In this new environment, the priority for in-person instruction “will be courses that most benefit from face-to-face interactions, including laboratory sections and classes that engage experiential learning in a wide variety of subjects. Larger classes and lectures will be online,” according to Holton.
Faculty who are at high risk will be given the option not to teach in-person courses in the fall. Telework will be encouraged for staff who do not need to be on campus. Students with special vulnerabilities will be provided options to continue their education remotely or to return to campus with additional protections if feasible. Occupancy will be reduced in residence halls to allow for increased physical distancing. 
Holton said GMU is evaluating whether to complete the semester as scheduled or to end in-person classes before Thanksgiving and hold final exams online. She added that the university is prepared to pivot back to fully remote operations, if necessary.
“Even if we proceed as planned, campus life won’t be exactly how we remember. Flexibility remains crucial in this period of uncertainty,” Holton said in her statement.
Face-to-face classroom experience “is the signature of a Marymount education,” according to Irma Becerra, the university’s president.
While the university was able “swiftly to move 700 courses online” when the need arose this spring, a survey found that students prefer on-site instruction, Becerra said. Therefore, classes in the fall will be in-person as much as possible.
“We are able to bring everybody back with social distancing. Masks will be required, even for visitors. This president will wear a mask,” she said. Any students who need to be quarantined can switch modes and study online.
Marymount is planning to resume extracurricular activities and athletic events and is making adjustments to practice schedules for athletes, she said. Also, “community service is an important aspect of campus life, and we’re exploring how to continue in this environment.”
“There’s never been a better time to be in school than now,” according to Becerra. “This is a moment to equip yourself with the best set of tools. That’s what your college education allows you to. In this pandemic, people with a degree are the ones who are able to pivot. I hope this brings a renewed appreciation for college.”

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