From the President, re: Campus Reopening

August 20, 2020

Dear Colleagues,

Last Saturday, many of you watched our first-ever virtual commencement ceremony for the more than 2,300 undergraduate and graduate students who comprised the Class of 2020.

Although this was certainly not the event that we or any of these students anticipated when they commenced their Southern journey, the level of joyous, online engagement from family and friends made it more personal, in a way, and equally memorable. It was a worthy tribute to a class that will truly be remembered for its resilience, sacrifice, and determination under the most difficult of circumstances.

I thank our Commencement Committee and our marketing and communications team for their creativity and effort in producing this online ceremony. One positive by-product of the pandemic is that all of us have been forced to think in new, innovative ways, and we have seen this repeatedly across our departments, from orientation and academic support to enrollment services, information technology, alumni outreach, special events and others.

All of this creative thinking and sheer hard work has ensured that Southern has continued to operate effectively and interact positively with our many constituencies during the months of remote learning and working. And it will certainly inform and energize our efforts moving forward.

Saturday’s commencement ceremony served as a bookend for the recent academic year and a starting point for the new one, which begins next week.

The very next day, residential students began a staggered drop-off of their belongings to halls that have been limited by COVID-19 restrictions to about 60 percent capacity, or 1,500 occupants. The actual move-in days are next Monday and Tuesday, before classes commence on Wednesday.

Residential students were required to submit a negative COVID-19 test taken within the prior two weeks to be allowed to move on to campus.  During the first full week of classes, in partnership with Griffin Health, we will begin testing of 5 to 10 percent of residential students and hall directors that will continue until the on-ground portion of the semester concludes at Thanksgiving break.  Optional testing will be provided to faculty and staff at the same time.  More details on this will follow next week.

When contact tracing is required due to positive cases occurring on campus, a team of graduate students in public health and social work led by our Wellness Center coordinator Emily Rosenthal have been trained to respond through a program developed by Johns Hopkins University ‘s Coronavirus Resource Center. Erin Duff, a residence hall director with a master’s degree in public health, has been recruited to coordinate testing, screening and quarantining as our campus COVID coordinator. See the attached flyer for a summary of our testing, contact tracing and quarantine protocols.

During the next week, our facilities team will complete final preparations before opening day. The installation of signage, plexiglass panels and hand sanitation stations, along with reconfiguring classrooms for socially distanced learning, and a heightened cleaning schedule, has been an immense task. All of us owe an immense amount of thanks to Bob Sheeley, our former associate vice president for capital budgeting & facilities operations, his successor Eric Lessne, and their team.

A reminder that supplies of individual SCSU COVID kits (including hand sanitizer, alcohol wipes and disposal masks) are now available for pick-up at facilities. Department Chairs/Supervisors should call extension 26051 indicating how many kits are needed for their areas, allowing one day’s notice for pick-up.

When classes begin August 26, more than 20 percent will be taught in a hybrid/hyflex format, with 20 additional classrooms technologically updated for this purpose. About 8 percent of our classes will be taught fully on-ground.  We have prepared more than 100 classrooms for socially distanced teaching, along with an additional 30 instructional support spaces for use by students who need to transition rapidly from an on-campus course to a virtual course.

Non-traditional settings such as the Adanti Student Center ballroom and theater are also being used as classrooms. In addition, three outdoor class areas are being assembled – in the Davis Hall parking lot under the solar panel overhang, under the overhang of Earl Hall, and behind the sculpture overlooking the pond at the rear of Engleman Hall.

Unlike in March, when we had to perform a very quick pivot to move to remote teaching and learning, we have had the summer to prepare to offer our students the best pedagogical experience possible, given the circumstances.  A huge thank you to the Office of Online Learning team who, working with colleagues in Information Technology and Faculty Development, have conducted countless trainings to help our faculty enhance their skills in preparation for online teaching this fall.

I encourage our students to “own” this experience as much as possible. By fully engaging in both our online and on-ground offerings, they will ensure their own success and that of the faculty and staff who have worked long and hard to prepare for the new semester.  We will again kick off the new academic year with our Week of Welcome.  Be on the lookout for an announcement with the schedule of events.  Please encourage students to try out some of the programs and take advantage of them yourself.  While it will look different, the need to connect with each other is not new.

Similarly, the health and safety protocols that we have put in place are a shared responsibility. As our public awareness signage states: “My Mask Protects You. Your Mask Protects Me.” For the good of our community, please ensure that you observe social distancing and wear a mask at all times outdoors and indoors (excluding your own office or cubicle). Please note that new state legislation has reinforced the necessity of wearing masks in public. 

The only way we will stay open until Thanksgiving is if everyone shares in this responsibility.  If you see someone without a mask, offer them a gentle reminder and send them to the nearest PPE station (Buley circulation desk, Student Center Information Desk, Wintergreen Information Desk) if they have forgotten theirs. 

You’ll find more information about health and safety protocols and other aspects of our campus reopening plan in two downloadable summaries that we have created for students and faculty-staff in our Reopening 2020 website. Please take the opportunity to read them and stay informed as we commence a semester like no other in our institution’s 127-year history. I will continue to keep you updated with new information during the coming weeks.

While new developments and potential challenges still await, I am confident – based on the experience of the last few months – that our community has the resilience and dedication to overcome any obstacles.

We must acknowledge, however, that this remains an unsettling time, and we will need to check in on each other more, acknowledge differing emotions and anxieties and refer others to sources of support, such as our Employee Assistance Program, offered through Human Resources.

So with this in mind, I encourage you to approach the new semester with a spirit of kindness and compassion, as we work to build a better community on campus and beyond.

To paraphrase from my Virtual Commencement remarks to the graduates: Years from now, I hope that we will recall 2020 as more than the year when our lives were disrupted, but rather as the year when everything began to change, and we played a role in ensuring that it did – for the better.

Stay well, and stay Southern Strong.


Joe Bertolino