While public school systems and university campuses across the nation wrestle with the notion of returning to the classroom this fall, Lee University is among those dedicated to a restart.
Dr. Paul Conn, Lee University president who is scheduled to transition to the new chancellor role in August, with Dr. Mark Walker assuming the presidency, issued the update Monday.
Emphasizing the school's commitment to a full schedule of in-person classes and activities in the fall semester beginning Aug. 19, Conn stressed faculty, staff and student safety will remain foremost among the university's concerns.
“We realize the course of this pandemic is fluid, and safety will be our highest priority, but we are optimistically preparing to do everything possible to welcome students in person for the fall semester," Conn said.
The announcement followed the president's meetings with the Lee Board of Directors last Thursday and a general meeting of the faculty and staff via Zoom technology.
Conn announced the appointment of a new task force to develop detailed plans for Lee’s re-opening in August. The task force is being chaired by Dr. Debbie Murray, provost and vice president for academics, and includes 15 senior administrators. Summer school sessions are currently being taught through an online platform.
“An earlier task force has done excellent work to get us to the end of the spring semester, and to make plans for summer school, but that group is now being expanded and given a specific mandate to prepare the university to plan a return to normal operations, or as close to that as possible with the health and safety of our students, staff and community foremost in mind," Conn said.
The longtime president added, "Dr. Murray has performed admirably in leading our faculty through a very difficult spring semester, and I know she’ll be effective in leading this group to prepare the Lee family for the complex circumstances ahead.”
According to Murray, the task force is currently planning a multi-phase opening of campus, culminating in a return to full, in-person classes for the fall semester.
“Going from our current status of 100% virtual instruction and sharply reduced staff on the campus to full on-campus operation will require a series of small steps, all while monitoring the state of this crisis across the country and in our region," Murray said.
The university suspended in-person instruction following its spring break week, at which point faculty began using Zoom to provide instruction and advising. The spring semester was finished in this manner, in part so that would-be May graduates could complete their degrees on time. The graduation exercises normally held in early May were postponed and merged with the summer graduation for the weekend of Aug. 1, although May graduates were officially declared on May 9 to have earned their degrees.
Summer school courses have been delivered over Zoom, with the intent to allow a few graduate courses to take place on-campus in the June session. The delivery mode for the third summer school session in July has not been determined yet, but the task force is reviewing what precautions would need to be in place for on-campus instruction to happen.
Various summer camps offered by the university in July may also be a proving ground for safe in-person activities on campus. Camps and conferences originally scheduled for May and June have been postponed or cancelled.
As information about the virus continues to evolve, the task force will make the necessary adjustments, and continue to update Lee constituents through the process.
“We are hard at work on Plan A, which is to welcome all our students back to campus, with the hope that circumstances will allow for it and a commitment to consider everyone’s safety,” Murray said. “But we will do the work to thoroughly develop a Plan B, should the situation require it.”
Tennessee is one of several states considered most “open for business” as measured recently by the date of lifting of restrictions, the capacity businesses are currently operating with, and the ratio of tests administered per confirmed case (17).
“While we are determined to vigilantly protect our students, faculty and staff according to prudent estimates of the level of risk in Tennessee, we realize that many of our students are coming to us from other states where the circumstances are very different," Murray stated. "We are determined to make every decision carefully, with not only the Lee family in mind, but also others in our community."
According to the most recent information from Tennessee.gov, Bradley County, with a population in excess of 100,000, has had 83 confirmed cases to date, with 67 considered “recovered” and one fatality. This means, at present, Bradley County has only 15 active cases of COVID-19.