Sentinel Op-Ed: Committed to Safe In-Person Start

This piece was published in the Holland Sentinel. View the original post HERE.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, educational institutions around the country have wrestled with how best to provide students with the outstanding education that they deserve and assure the safest possible environment. We here at Hope care not only for the campus community but our cherished hometown of Holland. We’re writing to you, neighbor to neighbor, to share some of our thinking and preparation for in-person instruction, including an innovative approach to COVID-19 testing developed by our very own faculty experts, as we approach the start of classes on Aug. 17.

The college has created a comprehensive, three-component testing plan specifically tailored to the Hope community and informed by the expertise of public health officials and our own faculty and staff.

Our goal is to start the academic year with zero cases of COVID-19 on campus. Every student and employee coming to campus is being tested for COVID-19 through a pre-arrival kit sent to their home. They complete it with online supervision, send it to a laboratory and then quarantine at home for two weeks if they test positive.

Second, we will test 1 percent of the students every weekday, in a strategy developed by Dr. Ben Kopek, an associate professor of biology with expertise in virology. The sample size reflects a commitment to conducting successful surveillance while saving enough tests for clinical care of individuals.

Third, we will conduct wastewater testing to determine if the virus is present in specific residential zones on campus. This innovative project is being led by faculty members Dr. Aaron Best, Dr. Brent Krueger and Dr. Mike Pikaart, who have long led water-quality research. If the levels of the virus rise in a particular zone, we will conduct follow-up testing of residents. This will allow us to stay on top of, and mitigate the risk of, a potential outbreak.

While we have confidence in our testing plan, we realize that we’ll likely have cases on our campus this semester. We are prepared to respond, with testing available as soon as any student recognizes symptoms of COVID-19, and with quarantine space available for those who test positive.

We’re also taking many of the sorts of steps that you might expect. For example, we’re promoting physical distancing by spacing desks in all classrooms six feet apart. On campus, we’re all to wear masks, complete a daily screening form, and regularly sanitize our hands and spaces.

But as we look to the future with hope, our prayer is that we see not just the challenges but also the opportunities.

We’re undoubtedly signing up for a harder semester than if we continued the fully remote instruction that we implemented in March, but we see four compelling reasons for prioritizing in-person instruction.

First, our students want to be back! The vast majority (we believe over 90 percent) want to be on campus.

Second, an in-person education, with students living and learning together, is the best education. It’s why Hope has been committed to being a residential liberal arts college for more than 160 years. That said, remote learning isn’t a poor substitute when done the Hope way. We’ve been offering courses online since 1999 and infuse them with the same individual attention and character that we provide in person.

Third, an in-person experience is more equitable. Some students have good learning environments in their homes, while others do not.

Finally, while this may be counterintuitive, bringing students on campus is actually safer and more responsible. Since a large percentage will be living in the region regardless of the teaching modality, it’s better to have them on campus participating in our testing and monitoring.

These are trying times. But as we look to the future with hope, our prayer is that we see not just the challenges but also the opportunities. As an institution of higher education, this is an unparalleled opportunity for teaching moments! It is an opportunity for innovation, as we explore new modalities of teaching and think deeply about the future of learning. Most importantly, it’s an opportunity for growth. As we are shaken out of old ways of thinking, we can look at the world with new eyes, insisting that destruction and disappointment is not all there is. With this mindset, there is no better place to cultivate and spread hope through the world than a college for which true, biblical hope is a foundational identity.

— Matthew A. Scogin, President of Hope College, and Jennifer Fellinger, Chair of the college’s COVID-19 Steering Committee and VP of Public Affairs and Marketing.

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