Since in-person classes were suspended in March, Ron Portwine has remained one of the few members of Saginaw Valley State University’s staff working at the campus. There – like so many higher education institutions in the nation that shifted the college experience to online and virtual environments in response to the pandemic – the vibrancy of student life at SVSU’s admired facilities was replaced by empty hallways and vacant classrooms.
This week, that vibrancy seemed to stir back to life in the eyes of Portwine, who has spent months working with colleagues preparing the campus for students’ return in August. On Tuesday, freshmen participated in orientation sessions that placed them in classrooms and campus spaces re-configured with features designed specifically to keep students safe from the COVID-19 virus.
“We have been working on this plan for a long time, and now we’re seeing how it looks with students here on campus,” Portwine said. “It’s exciting and provides an opportunity to receive student feedback on the changes we’ve made.”
As SVSU’s associate vice president for Administration and Business Affairs and its chief business officer, Portwine has taken a leading role in adapting SVSU to the pandemic. While the university announced masks were required to enter campus, ensuring a safe fall semester also meant reimagining the physical makeup of classrooms, cafeterias and other spaces while also providing resources and signage that encourages other safety-based practices. It has been a massive undertaking involving consultation with local health experts, modified ventilation practices, an emphasis on frequent sanitation, lots of stored furniture, and plexiglass.
Plenty of plexiglass.
“Students will notice the changes when they come back in the fall,” he said. “Safety is our priority. We also want them to enjoy the college student experience.”
Compared to many university settings, SVSU was uniquely suited to maintain a safe environment that defends against the spread of COVID-19. Historically, SVSU has maintained a reputation as an institution where students enjoy cozy classrooms. While other universities sometimes sit hundreds of students in a single room, many of SVSU’s classrooms traditionally hosted less than 30 people. That population-per-room this fall will be reduced further – by about 50 percent in most cases – to allow for even more room to safely practice social distancing, Portwine said.
“Preparing for this involved a lot of spreading-out of tables and removing chairs so that no one is sitting closer than 6 feet apart,” he said.
There will be exceptions to that 50 percent reduction rule. SVSU will utilize some of its larger spaces – typically reserved for events and conference gatherings – to host courses with larger numbers of students. The size of the venue, however, will allow for social distancing.
Next week, the university plans to begin installation of plexiglass shields positioned at classroom podiums and transaction counters, adding another layer of security that reduces the likelihood of disease transmission when adequate social distance can’t be maintained. Portwine said the setup will resemble the use of plexiglass material utilized by grocery and retail stores during the pandemic.
Hand sanitizer and environmentally-friendly cleaning agents also will be available in classrooms. Students will be expected to clean their classroom work surface as part of a shared responsibility to maintain a safe campus.
Other campus spaces that will be noticeably changed are SVSU’s dining locations. Using largely the same approach as the classroom changes, the removal of chairs and the spreading of tables will encourage social distancing, Portwine said. Students can eat in privacy or at a table for up to four people.
“We’ll have plenty of residential students who live together in groups of four and we want them to be able to dine together as part of their college experience,” Portwine said.
The cafeterias also will follow the practices of many restaurants. While the menu will remain largely the same, the way students gather food will change. Staff will serve food and beverages to students, with some plexiglass separating customers from cooks. The elimination of self-serve salad bars and beverage dispensaries reduces the number of touchable surfaces on which people can transmit diseases.
Plexiglass will be installed in other transactional spaces including where students pick up and drop off documents from the Registrar’s and Campus Financial Services offices. Plexiglass also will protect people visiting offices for counseling or tutoring services, although staff will encourage most of those appointments take place online or at locations on campus where 1-on-1 interactions can be most safely practiced. The same approach will be encouraged when students visit their professors. In the past, those visits happened within the professor’s office, where social distancing practices will be challenging.
Not all changes to the campus will involve rearranged furniture or installed plexiglass.
Portwine said few physical changes were planned for the residential halls. Instead, the room capacity will be reduced in common spaces to encourage social distancing. Shared bedrooms that traditionally utilized a bunk bed to house two students have been converted to single occupancy. The amount of space available to residential students already was a treasured feature that led to SVSU’s No. 1 ranking among public universities in the student survey-driven “Best Dorms” list from the website Niche. Now that space-per-residential student will widen for the 2020-21 academic year.
Signage across campus will limit the number of people that can enter smaller spaces such as laundry rooms and elevators.
Custodial staff will be deployed regularly to clean surfaces people often touch, including door handles and hand railings.
Portwine said the university also will employ a 2-pronged ventilation strategy designed to address the circulation of shared air that could potentially transmit diseases.
“We will increase the amount of outside air brought into the buildings and exhaust conditioned air outdoors to the extent possible, based on weather conditions and occupant comfort,” he said.
“When we are unable to bring outdoor air into a building, we have to rely on filtration. We will run air handlers for longer periods of time when buildings are occupied for increased air circulation and filtration.”
Portwine said he expects the changes to the physical setup of the campus as well as the implementation of smart practices will encourage a culture of safety that students will accept and champion.
“We’re creatures of habit, but we’re constantly learning how to adapt to the pandemic,” he said. “We’re going to continue to adapt, but this is still going to feel like SVSU.”