‘We’re coming back better and stronger than ever’: ETSU faculty, students excited about fall return to campus

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – East Tennessee State University officials announced Wednesday that most classes would return to in-person, and all the residence halls would return to full capacity come fall.

Upon hearing the news, faculty and students told News Channel 11 they are excited for the “new normal” the next semester is sure to bring.

“Everybody has been suffering. Just as far as needing that human interaction. Because when you’re online, especially for me because I live at home. I live about 45 minutes away. So when you’re online, you just can’t meet people, because Zoom is just, it’s mostly just black screens. Nobody has a camera on, anytime, and so you just don’t get to make those connections like you normally would. And so, I’m just really excited to get back to the normal, or at least the new normal, because there’s still going to be social distancing, but I’m still very excited to learn in person because I feel like it retains a lot more information,” ETSU sophomore David Roberts said.

Roberts said he felt virtual learning made him miss out in many aspects of the traditional college experience. He said the student governing body election Wednesday was his first taste of normalcy on the university’s campus in months.

“I’m sure all of us thought that online school was going to be tremendously easy and stress-free but in-person classes actually gave me sort of a stricter schedule. And so it keeps me more accountable and so I’m ready for that. I’m ready to meet new people, have some new experiences, I feel like COVID has taken that away. And so I’m just super excited for the campus to come back because I just love it here. I love the people here and I miss being here. It honestly felt very strange walking around campus today campaigning for MEP. So hopefully that’ll become something that, you know, seems familiar again, because I don’t want my college experience taken away like that,” Roberts said.

One aspect of the reopening model announced by school administrators Wednesday, was that laboratory classes would return to in-person as well. This move praised by students in the field of science.

“I’m definitely excited about campus reopening because not only are lab classes going to be easier to kind of learn from, because I’m a biology major so I really need that practical experience in the lab as much as I can. So, it’s been kind of hard online, but also just to be back on campus and to be interacting with people again is really nice and it’s good to look around and kind of see this place looking back to normal,” ETSU junior Ryan Byrd said. “I definitely missed out on, like I said, getting to see people, and getting to my labs and things like that but also it kind of becomes hard to pay attention in class sometimes, especially when it’s hard to interact. Most of the professors are either sending out videos, or when they do hold live lectures, it’s kind of hard to get their attention sometimes, because they can’t exactly see you raise your hand all the time. Overall, I think that’s kind of been the hardest thing, just kind of getting used to how classes have been running.”

Another change students showed excitement for was the residence halls reopening to full capacity in the fall, depending on the COVID-19 case count and vaccination rate.

ETSU junior Mason Mosier was campaigning for himself for the role of SGA president Wednesday afternoon when he told News Channel 11 that he would like to like in the dormitories on campus in the fall.

“I know for me, as someone that’s an extrovert and who sees ETSU as a family here. I am very excited to possibly have everybody come back and I know that, you know, if I’m able to win the presidency, I definitely want to live on campus to have that full Buccaneer experience and having everybody back on campus, and having full capacity, again, I think it’s high time that we safely, but we made sure that everybody came back and we had what it is to be a family here again,” Mosier said. “When we can show everybody that ETSU is coming back, that we’re coming back better and stronger than ever, and that we’re excited for the future, and what it may hold.”

In the Spring of 2020, David Linville, ETSU executive vice provost for academics and health, headed up a committee that looked at how the university could operate during a pandemic environment. The school had switched in March to remote operations rather quickly out of safety concerns, but many questions still remained unanswered.

“Recognizing there are a lot of unknowns and this was going to be a long haul, how do we deal with that? So this, our group came up with a series of four different operating stages that we could move either forwards or backwards in depending on the nature of what was happening and so the things that we look at related to number of cases in the community, looked at what about hospital capacity. What about our ability to be able to keep our students and faculty and staff safe. And so, a lot of those things went into the decisions on how we move forward. Of late, we’re moving to sort of a more relaxed age in anticipation of fall and summer as well,” Linville said.

He said the university anticipates through the continued availability of vaccines, reopening would be possible. However, he recognized that if the COVID-19 case numbers rise, those plans could be modified or rolled back.

“Because the way that stages are created, we have the ability to dial things backwards if we need to in terms of decreasing the density on campus, to be able to protect our faculty, staff, students and visitors to campus and so we’re prepared to do that if necessary, but hopefully we’re moving in a direction where we feel like we’re pretty confident that we should be able to be able to operate in the way we propose today,” Linville explained.

He added that the current mask mandate on ETSU campus, for now, will remain in effect through the fall, but he recognized that could change, depending on the region’s COVID-19 positivity rate.

“We have mask mandate or mask requirement moving into the fall but that may change. We’re very excited about the possibility to loosen restrictions as, as things allow and so there’s a lot that’s still in front of us, but at this point it’s really important for us as a university to be able to communicate what our plans are going to be for fall, so that our students understand, that our faculty and staff and get ready and we’re very excited about the direction we’re heading,” he said.

When it comes to educators, none seemed more excited to physically have students seated in his classroom for lectures more than Stephen Hendrix, instructor in the ETSU Department of Computing, as he spoke with News Channel 11 Wednesday.

“I’m looking forward to conversations with students. We’ve taken a lot of time on to have these Zoom meetings and conversations and try to be really intentional to connecting with our students, but so many times some of the greatest conversations I’ve had with students about content in the course happens right outside of the course, so right after right before the class begins. And so, I really miss that opportunity for that, that kind of fluid that kind of natural discussion that may occur and so I’m super excited about that opportunity to have those conversations again,” he explained.

ETSU faculty said Wednesday that some of the digital aspects adopted during the pandemic would likely be carried over into the post-pandemic era.

“Most all of our classes will be, as they have traditionally been taught, whether that’s face to face, or we have a robust online educational experience as well for our students,” Linville explained.

Creating an opportunity for students to still have that “robust” online class remains an option, he said.

Hendrix said he will be carrying over some resources developed during the pandemic.

“It’s my hope, you know, as I was thinking about the past year and some of the things that we’ve done to get ourselves, you know to provide quality content for our students and to get through the process, you know, we’ve created a lot of digital content for our students so we’ve created a lot of help videos a lot of support videos. And so one of the things I hope to do is to continue to use that, to continue to use those support materials, to continue to provide students assistance, but to also have them in the classroom to have those discussions at the same time,” he said.

But just because class will return to traditional modes of learning, Hendrix said it probably won’t look the same just yet.

“I think of the classroom environment coming back into the fall, you know, I think it would be unfair to think it will be completely like it was pre-pandemic. You know, there’s still going to be some limitations in terms of capacity. And as the summer progresses we may see other limitations pop up, but I think what students can expect is you’re going to see a group of faculty who are ready to be back. We’re ready to engage in conversations and to have those conversations and dialogues with our students and so I think you’ll see an energized faculty ready to be back in the classroom, and ready to be connecting with our students,” he said.

Follow News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais on Facebook and Twitter for updates.

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