In late April, as the Covid-19 pandemic wore on, Dordt University announced plans to reopen for the fall semester.
“Our goal is to provide face-to-face instruction, with residential hall life, community dining, and the full spectrum of co-curricular activities, including athletics, fine arts, clubs, and cultural events,” wrote President Erik Hoekstra in his letter “Planning for the Fall Semester.”
To accomplish this goal, faculty and staff have had to get creative to try to provide a safe, on-campus educational experience for Dordt students during a pandemic. From rethinking classroom spaces to getting a Covid-19 testing site on campus to participating in Covid-19 vaccine trials, faculty and staff have been willing to do what it takes to help Dordt students learn and live well in community.
Rethinking reopening campus
How are we providing students with a safe, on-campus learning environment during a pandemic? Staff and faculty spent hours this summer and fall researching, discussing, and thinking about how to reopen Dordt’s campus well.
One of these people is Dr. Teresa Ter Haar, who serves as dean of curriculum and instruction and as a theatre professor.
“As dean of curriculum and instruction, I get to help all Dordt students by helping all Dordt faculty,” she says. She helps faculty members develop their teaching skills, think about curriculum strategies along with program development and growth, and find ways to be even more effective in their classrooms.
Ter Haar was one month into her work as dean of curriculum and instruction when the pandemic hit. She, Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Leah Zuidema, and Director of Online Education Joe Bakker (’07) came up with ways to equip faculty to transition from in-person coursework to an online learning format for the rest of the spring semester.
As soon as summer hit, Ter Haar began thinking about how to help faculty prepare for the fall semester. Faculty were asked to prepare for both in-person and virtual learning, given the likelihood that students might need to quarantine or isolate due to Covid-19. The big question was, how do you teach well when some of your students are working remotely and others are sitting in the classroom with you?
To help answer this and other questions, Ter Haar coordinated a series of pedagogy workshops every Wednesday during the summer, which faculty attended through Zoom. They learned how to use technology tools, talked about how to help students who might struggle with learning online, practiced how to create videos for coursework, and crafted assessments for students in face-to-face and virtual settings.
“We were trying to help faculty develop confidence in whatever approach they’d need to use, because there was a lot of uncertainty of what the fall semester might look like,” she says.
Ter Haar also witnessed just how dedicated the faculty were to making on-campus instruction work. “By and large, I think the faculty said, ‘I want my students back with me in the classroom. I will do what it takes. If that means I have three students in quarantine and on Zoom for two weeks, that is fine.’ There is a deep desire to be in communion with our students. I think that’s grounded in the deep relationships we have with God. That’s our model, and when we couldn’t have that in the same way in the spring, it lit a fire under us.”
Teaching in a mask or having to restructure classrooms to accommodate social distancing is not easy, and some of these shifts have been difficult, taxing, and uncomfortable for students and for faculty.
“We want to see students’ eyes gleam and to have those conversations after class, in our offices, or on Zoom. Dordt faculty are here because they have a passion for undergraduate education, and they’re willing to do what it takes to have it in-person,” says Ter Haar.
Having faculty ready to do what it took to teach classes both in-person and virtually this fall solved only one part of the logistical puzzle. What would it take to find enough classroom space and offer classes in a safe learning environment?
“I started thinking about this in April, to be honest,” says Registrar Jim Bos (’85). “How are we going to match how many people can fit in a room with the rooms we have? How do we provide the best pedagogical experience given the circumstances?”
Bos loves doing puzzles, and he approached the space issue with an eye for putting pieces in the right place. He turned two classrooms in the Campus Center into one and did the same with a large dividable classroom in the Ribbens Academic Complex. He and his staff looked into unconventional spots for classrooms, too—they converted the Eckardt Lounge, a gathering space in the Campus Center, into a classroom by adding 56 chairs and a portable whiteboard. They arranged with the City of Sioux Center to use a big meeting room across the street in the All Seasons Center as a classroom. They even used the B.J. Haan Auditorium for some of the larger classes. All these efforts are allowing students and faculty to maintain social distancing within each class offered.
Bos found the magic number for classes to be 20. Keeping classes under 20 students meant that they could use more of the current classrooms. He and Ter Haar then worked with faculty to, in some instances, decrease class sizes, which sometimes meant increasing course loads. “For example, the theology department said, ‘We’re used to having classes of almost 40, but we can do smaller sections and pick up an extra section each,’” says Bos.
Once that problem was solved, Bos had to face the issue of tables, chairs, and desks. Dordt’s classroom furniture wasn’t purchased with a pandemic in mind. Some chairs were too bulky; some tables were not long enough for social distancing. Bos ordered portable desks at the beginning of the summer, but he received a weekly notification that they were backordered. By late August, he made a decision: students would have to use padded chairs and dining trays in classrooms until the portable desks showed up. Fortunately, the portable desks showed up in mid-September.
Even now, Bos will occasionally walk Dordt’s hallways in the middle of a class period, glance into classrooms, and consider a series of questions. “Do students look as comfortable as they can be with a mask on? Does it look like the learning environment is working between students and professors?” he says. “Faculty and student interaction is so important to us here at Dordt. Online can be great, but there are some activities where being together and wrestling through problems together in a physical space does a better job. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t work at a residential campus.”
And then there were broader public health concerns connected to bringing students back to a residential campus for the fall semester. In May, President Hoekstra partnered with Northwestern College President Greg Christy to ask Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds to provide testing on their college campuses. In August, both presidents got word that they would be able to host Test Iowa sites for Covid-19 testing.
“We have a great partnership with Sioux Center Health, the Iowa Governor’s office, and Test Iowa,” says Robert Taylor (’99), vice president for student success. “Having the site on campus makes testing more accessible to our students.”
The on-campus Test Iowa site allows Dordt to test only their students and employees, leading to a faster turnaround in test results and direct reports on Covid-19 tests. This has also enabled Dordt to maintain a Covid-19 dashboard with data about active positive Covid-19 cases in the student body.
“Most students who have been tested have done so at our on-campus Test Iowa site, and Dordt’s Student Health and Counseling Center staff are notified when students’ Covid-19 test results come back. This allows us to report accurate, timely student data on our Covid-19 dashboard twice a week,” says Beth Baas, director of student health and counseling.
Originally, Baas and Taylor had planned to work with the Iowa Department of Public Health for contact tracing students who might have been exposed to Covid-19. But then Covid-19 numbers began to rise locally and, in some cases, there was a five-day delay between a Covid-19 positive test and someone following up with contact tracing.
“The first two weeks of classes were difficult, with so many of our students in isolation and quarantine. We realized we had to start doing contact tracing ourselves,” says Baas.
When students get a Covid-19 test at Dordt’s Test Iowa site, they are asked to fill out a contact tracing form to identify what other individuals they might have been within six feet of for 15 minutes while not wearing a mask. Doing Covid-19 tests and contact tracing in-house has helped Dordt to keep up with active Covid-19 cases as well as quarantine and isolation efforts.
“This semester has required hard things from all of us,” says Baas. “It is hard for a student to have to quarantine for 14 days and never have any symptoms, for example. Our ability to look out for the best interest of another person isn’t something that is everyone’s default; we tend to look at our own needs first. This pandemic calls us to think about the other person and to do things that are hard.”
Although doing contact tracing in-house and having a Test Iowa site on campus has significantly added to Baas’s workload this semester, she sees it as worth it. “Life is meant to be lived, and we’re not meant to be islands unto ourselves. We can do in-person education responsibly,” she says.
Getting creative in the classroom and beyond
In spite of and probably because of having thought about all of these issues, faculty have made good learning happen during Covid-19. In August when Dordt announced that classes would begin at a yellow alert level, Professor of Agriculture Dr. Jeremy Hummel (’03) realized he would need to limit attendance in his Introduction to Plant Science and Agronomy course to 24 students, down from 56.
“The course is mostly freshmen. In a course like that, I believe it’s important to spend the first week getting to know the students and learning their names,” he says.
For the first week of classes, Hummel took all 56 students outside to a grassy spot between the theatre building and the Science and Technology Center. He brought along an Owl, a 360-degree video camera, so he could accommodate five students who were already in isolation or quarantine.
“With the Owl, the students can see me, the rest of the class, and the activity going on around them,” he says. “That piece of technology has really helped with moving the classroom outside.”
Over the past five years, Hummel has moved more labs and other classroom experiences outside, so this wasn’t a big stretch for him. He is accustomed to being constrained by the weather and what changing seasons bring.
“Students are resilient and flexible,” says Hummel. “It’s a good reminder that we don’t need to be so entrenched in what we think a typical classroom experience should be like. Students have the ability to adjust.”
The nursing department has also found a way to take advantage of the current learning environment. They are helping their students prepare for pandemic-like conditions by requiring them to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) in labs.
“The lab is a simulated hospital environment, and the patients are mannequins, but that’s the only real difference between the nursing care in a lab and nursing care in a hospital,” says Dr. Debbie Bomgaars, professor of nursing. “The nursing profession has always had to deal with contagious illnesses, and we have to protect our patients and ourselves from illnesses by wearing PPE.”
Simulating pandemic conditions has sparked conversation in nursing classes around what it means to be called to nursing. “We have talked about how the pandemic and the fear of catching what could be a serious illness makes a difference in students’ calling to become a nurse,” adds Bomgaars.
Criminal Justice Professor Donald Roth (’07) is teaching a course on domestic preparedness, which focuses on emergency management of the Covid-19 pandemic. Students majoring in criminal justice, social work, biology, history, English, political science, and exercise science take the course—each of them considering how to learn from past crises like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 and how to assess current major incidents like Covid-19.
Almost everyone has had to make adjustments adjustments because of Covid-19. Traditionally at Dordt, the first music concert of the year is the Pops Concert. With more than 100 band members and 35 orchestra members participating, crowding onto the B.J. Haan Auditorium stage wasn’t an option. So, Dr. Onsby Rose opted for using the football stadium so that his students could practice proper social distancing. The week of the concert, temperatures dropped, and the wind picked up. Unwilling to risk damaging expensive instruments in the rain, Rose looked for an alternative.
“The athletic department jumped through hoops for us to have our two last practices in the Rec Center and then to set it up so we could hold our concert in the De Wit Gymnasium,” he says.
Rose has also gone out of his way to make it possible for his musicians to practice and perform well during Covid-19. At one point, Rose drove two hours to drop off an instrument at the house of one of his students who was in quarantine. He also purchased puppy pads on which his brass players empty their water keys—a solution he read about from the University of Colorado-Boulder.
“I have friends who teach instrumental music all over the nation, and none of their administration or universities have been willing to go to the extent that ours have in order to make it possible for our students to perform music in a manner that is as close to a normal experience as we can have right now,” says Rose.
Dordt’s theatre department decided to hold all their fall shows in the 4th Avenue Theatre, rather than at the larger but publicly used TePaske Theatre.
“We can completely control all the circumstances under which our plays happen so we can be as safe as possible,” says Ter Haar. “We’re looking at a much smaller audience seating area, with appropriate social distancing and wearing masks.”
Being as safe as possible is also why Theatre Instructor Laurel (Alons, ’06) Koerner chose to direct the comedy “Arms and the Man” as the fall mainstage production.
“The smaller cast size reduced potential for exposure and allowed us to stay nimble as cast members could have been absent at any point of the process,” says Koerner.
It is also a public domain script, which made it easy for Demetrius Rowser, a digital media major, to record the production using a multi-camera and microphone system. The footage was then professionally edited and arranged by Jack Maatman (’05), an editor and motion graphic artist at NBC Universal Media.
“We’re trying to be very conscious of how we do what we do,” says Ter Haar. “It’s true that many colleges and universities aren’t doing any theatre productions in person. Because of Dordt’s smaller size and our ability to carefully control our environment, we think we’re making responsible choices and are striving to be very careful.”
Having hope for the future
And then there are the faculty members who have engaged Covid-19 outside of campus. In May, Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Bruce Vermeer and Professor of Biology Dr. Tony Jelsma signed up to take part in a promising Covid-19 vaccine trial. Vermeer is in phase two, alongside 600 other participants nationwide. Jelsma and 30,000 others are in phase three.
Vermeer was excited to find a medical research opportunity like this because, as chair of the Research and Scholarship Council, he saw the trial as an opportunity to put his words into action.
“I believe it’s important for faculty members to encourage students to look at opportunities that are out there and put some skin in the game. I knew this trial would be potentially controversial but also potentially very beneficial. As Christians, we’re called to step outside our comfort zone and get involved when these types of opportunities arise.”
For Jelsma, participating in the trial was a matter of expediency. “The sooner we get a vaccine, the better,” he says.
All of the assignments are double-blind and randomized, and each phase is a little different. As part of phase two, Vermeer has either received a smaller dose of the vaccine twice, a larger dose twice, or the placebo. He’s gone in for a face-to-face visit eight times and has had his blood drawn frequently. “You feel like a veritable pin cushion when you come out of it,” he chuckles.
Jelsma has only had to go in once a month since early July. As a phase three participant, he received either a larger dose of the vaccine or a placebo during his two visits.
Typically, the vaccine development process takes about three to seven years to complete. These and many other vaccine trials are hoping to develop a Covid-19 vaccine in one to two years.
“When it comes to developing a vaccine, people often wonder, ‘Why is it taking so long?’ We need to know that the vaccine is safe, that it raises the right antibodies so it can provide protection, and that it actually makes a difference,” Jelsma says. “This process takes many people and much time. 30,000 people is a lot to recruit.”
“There is a fair amount of misinformation about these vaccines,” adds Vermeer. “Several of these trials do not expose you to any of the Covid-19 material itself. People ask, ‘Is it dangerous?’ The primary danger lies more in not knowing what the potential side effects are.”
Participating in a clinical trial has been a fascinating process for Vermeer and Jelsma—especially as they apply what they learn to their work as professors. Jelsma plans to talk more about the clinical trial when he and his students talk about the immune system.
Vermeer covers medical research and research methodology in some of his psychology courses, where he’ll discuss his experience. “One reason I’m trying to weave it in is to give students a sense of hope. Our students—well, all of us, really—need a sense of hope right now, and according to what we’re seeing with the early results of this and other studies, it looks like we might get this nailed down through vaccines.”
Regardless of what the future holds for a Covid-19 vaccine, the work of the university continues on. “There’s a hunger for learning, and we’re going to figure out ways to facilitate that,” says Ter Haar. “We’re not scared. We might be worried or concerned at times, but we’re moving forward together in faith and trying to use the wisdom that God has granted us. And even if we make mistakes—we can try again.”