Since the middle of March, COVID-19 has put universities across the U.S. in some form of shutdown. Universities are now trying to figure out how to reopen campuses safely. It’s one area where smaller higher ed institutions may have an advantage. McMurry University has been among the first to pilot in-person classes, using summer sessions to figure out what colleges could soon look like.
When McMurry University first closed in March, sophomore Stephanie Campa decided to stay on campus. She doesn’t own a car and didn’t want to put her family at risk by taking a bus back to San Antonio. On her own, Campa had to do some creative problem-solving.
“So, I don’t have a pan or like anything, ‘cause a lot of my stuff ran out and I wasn’t able to go to the store. We made grilled cheese on an iron, like for clothes,” Campa said.
Though that inspiration didn’t extend to her newly-online courses.
“My friend, we both found it really hard to find any motivation to like, do anything other than classes, because there’s not really that like accountability,” Campa said. “I miss seeing my teachers and I miss like having stuff to do.”
So when she heard McMurry University was going to give Maymester students the option of doing in-person classes again, she chose to take extra classes towards her degree.
“I trusted the school. I trusted that they were going to take the precautions that we needed to. I really missed the social interaction so I just went for it,” she said.
Campa signed up for Visual Art Appreciation with Assistant Art Professor Tyson Terry.
“I was really ready to get back in the classroom,” Terry said. “I’ve taught online before but I really prefer just to have the students in the classroom with me.”
McMurry’s enrollment is just over 1,100 undergraduates and class sizes usually average 16 students. Stephanie Campa was one of just three students in Terry’s visual art appreciation class. University President Sandra Harper said starting small this summer will help them to prepare for more students later.
“If it all went well we could learn from what we did and then go on to a bigger number of students,” Harper said. “And with a smaller number of students starting at the very beginning, then we would be able to make some adjustments if we needed to.”
To make teachers and students want to return to classes on campus, the university implemented procedures to limit the potential for spreading COVID-19. In addition to smaller classes in larger spaces, both faculty and students took daily health screenings and temperature checks. Terry said the school provided plenty of gloves, masks and hand sanitizer to make his art classes safer.
Most of the 74 students registered for the Maymester attended online, but 13 took in-person classes, like Campa. She was grateful for in-person classes to start again, but was surprised by how the experience felt.
“It’s really strange when I was enrolled in the class,” Campa said. “I would leave my dorm room and there was just nobody out there. And I feel like we’re missing out on a lot of experiences.”
Still, she enjoyed Terry’s visual arts class.
“We did projects in there and learned good art history and got to present and had great discussions.”
While some areas of Texas have seen a recent increase in positive cases of COVID-19, Abilene’s number of active cases dropped into the single digits in early June.
McMurry University has now begun summer session classes with 64 students on campus in classes no larger than 10 students and one professor. Another 152 students are taking online courses in June. Those will end on July 6, followed by a second session of Summer classes. These sessions are the second and third steps of the school’s five-phase plan toward completely reopening in August.
Professor Tyson Terry feels optimistic and says the COVID-19 safety protocols didn’t negatively impact the learning experience.
“It felt like normal getting to interact with the students. There’s just a different energy when you’re in a room with your students and you’re getting to have discussions. I think it all went pretty smooth,” Terry said.
University employees will return on August 1 to prepare for a rescheduled graduation ceremony and McMurry plans to welcome back all employees and students by August 24.