KU community works to adjust to new normal during COVID-19 pandemic

photo by: Conner Mitchell/Journal-World

On the first day of fall classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, a class takes place outside of Budig Hall at the University of Kansas on the morning of Aug. 24, 2020.

The campus of the University of Kansas looked and felt far different last week compared with the beginning of a normal fall semester.

Students who hadn’t elected to take online-only classes because of the COVID-19 pandemic were masked, even outside. Some classes were held outside of their buildings with chairs 6 feet apart — or in giant white tents to promote better airflow. And small white kiosks greeted students at the designated entrance to every campus building so they could scan a code affirming they didn’t have symptoms of the respiratory virus.

Chancellor Douglas Girod remarked earlier in the week that the Lawrence campus’ atmosphere felt more like a summer semester than the beginning of a new academic year because of how much KU has had to reduce density on its physical campus.

This, for now, is the new normal for higher education in the middle of a global health crisis.

KU so far has outlasted other schools — the University of North Carolina, Michigan State University and Notre Dame, to name a few — that began their semesters in person but had to abruptly reverse course shortly after.

photo by: Conner Mitchell/Journal-World

A kiosk sits at the indoor entrance to Bailey Hall on the University of Kansas campus. Those on campus are required to scan into the kiosks using a QR code generated on the university’s CVKey app which screens for COVID-19 symptoms.

The breakneck rate at which policies and rules have changed over the past weeks have caused some headaches for both students and instructors in the early days of KU’s fall semester, which began Monday.

Megan McQuinn, a student at KU’s Edwards Campus in Overland Park, said many parts of the return to in-person instruction have been frustrating.

For example, McQuinn had issues getting her mandatory COVID-19 test registered during the testing process and didn’t have her results by the time her first in-person class came around. She works full time in addition to going to school, and she didn’t see an email telling students not to come to campus if they didn’t have their test results until 15 minutes before her first class started — and she lives 20 minutes from the campus.

“It sucked. It was frustrating, especially because many Edwards Campus students do work during the day,” she said. “We are working adults, so I’m glad they made that decision, but I just feel like that decision should’ve been made a lot sooner.”

When McQuinn spoke with the Journal-World, she hadn’t been able to make it to campus yet for a class because of the testing issue and had taken all of her initial classes online.

“The online environment, some of it works, some of it doesn’t,” she said. “Even one of my professors remarked that ‘I built this class to be fully online because who knows (whether) we’re actually going to be in person.'”

After ultimately attending her first class in person, McQuinn followed up with the newspaper to say that only four people attended the physical class (Edwards Campus courses are usually smaller than those on the Lawrence campus) and her professor informed students of a policy that if anyone showed up without a mask, class would be immediately canceled and the course would move online for two weeks.

That’s a policy KU has made in the interest of protecting communities from the respiratory virus.

photo by: Conner Mitchell/Journal-World

A tent equipped with tables and wi-fi sits on the lawn of Stauffer-Flint Hall at the University of Kansas campus.

Joe Harrington, a professor in KU’s English department, told the Journal-World in an email that this semester was the first he had ever taught all of his classes online — a decision he made based both on public health guidance and how his classes would be set up.

“I’m teaching two relatively small, discussion-based classes,” Harrington said. “The thought of having everyone in rows, desks pointing the same direction and six feet apart, then trying to talk through a piece of cloth or plexiglass — well, that was even more depressing than Zoom.”

In July, KU administration gave instructors — for the most part — the ability to decide whether they wanted to teach remotely or in person, and in August the university released a final schedule of courses that were a mix of online-only, hybrid and in-person. KU has not confirmed what the ultimate breakdown was of the three instructional methods.

“It would’ve helped if the administration had let us opt for online from the outset, but that didn’t happen until around July 1. Then each of us had to figure out what we wanted to do and what platform or platforms to use. So, it left about five weeks to prepare,” Harrington said. “They say you’re supposed to start designing an online course for the fall in May, and I believe it — (especially) when you’ve never done it before.”

“It’s been a real sprint to try to put something together that approximates real online courses, in a short period of time,” he said.

KU officials did not offer a comment for this story when asked about their impressions of the first week of fall classes during the pandemic.

Contact Conner Mitchell

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