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How to Thrive in a Pandemic

In comparison to the majority of colleges across the nation, Bethel has been able to provide a unique, on-campus experience for undergraduate students during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

By Gail Terry Grimes, contributing writer

March 25, 2021 | 10:45 a.m.

Student wearing mask at Bethel University

Last fall, College of Arts & Sciences students returned to campus for face to face instruction, and Bethel’s efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 have overall been successful at keeping students together in person.

When COVID-19 struck in early 2020, Bethel leadership felt the university was called to thrive in the face of it. Since then, the on-campus experience Bethel has provided undergraduate students has stood out in comparison to other close-knit college communities, where the virus loves to surge.

In March a year ago, Bethel’s 247-acre campus shut down, just like the rest of us, but by then the university’s COVID-19 response teams were already working on a plan for a safe but still lively fall (and now spring) semester. So far, the plan has worked.

Since last summer, just one person out of 5,300 in the Bethel community is known to have been hospitalized for COVID-19, and that was only overnight. All other known positive cases (507 at last count) have been mild to moderate, and there have been no known deaths.

Around the country, only about one third of colleges and universities even attempted an on-campus presence. Many tried but then gave up and went totally virtual, especially after Thanksgiving—but not Bethel.

Well into the spring of 2021, two-thirds of students from the College of Arts & Sciences are living safely and comfortably in the residence halls (two to a room, cut back from three). In the fall semester, students had the flexibility to attend class in person or online, but now in the spring semester most students—with the exception of those with medical exemptions—show up for face-to-face instruction while following the necessary precautions.

As expected, a few students are taking time off, but a majority are participating in classes and activities. Furthermore, Bethel students say they still feel deeply connected to the Bethel community and thoroughly engaged in their own education.

Parents can take heart from research that shows little or no difference in learning outcomes when the faculty has technical support and training in how to keep learners engaged at a distance. Bethel has provided all that, and people have adjusted, on campus and off.

Is it ideal? Of course not. Nothing can replace a packed stadium for a Homecoming football game or a hands-on chemistry experiment (though those are happening, with precautions), but Bethel has made this new reality work for now.

 

Monson Dining Center at Bethel University

Furniture across campus has been reconfigured to meet social distancing requirements.

Restructured Infrastructure

So far, Bethel has invested $1.8 million in its COVID-19 response, with the money going in two directions:

Campus Safety. All furniture in lounges, classrooms, labs, and dining facilities has been re-configured to meet social distancing requirements. Campus-wide enhancements to the air handling systems reduce the risk of transmission indoors—and, thanks to enhanced filtration, special face masks, and other adjustments in the music rooms, Bethel’s choirs, orchestra, and bands haven’t missed a beat.

Distance Learning and Communication. A significant investment went for new video cameras, wireless microphones, and other technology for classrooms. The entire Bethel community is now acclimated to Zoom and Google Meet. Employees routinely convene that way, and when Bethel donors and their scholarship recipients gathered online in February, the experience was so moving for some of the donors that they ended up giving again. The investment in technology is paying for itself.

 

Bethel University health check at the gate

When coming to campus, visitors pause at the entrance for a health check.

The New Normal

Much of traditional college life at Bethel looks the same as it ever did—but it’s also different.

Screening and Cleaning. When coming to campus, visitors pause at the entrance for a health check. (Students and employees have transitioned to self-monitoring for symptoms.) Hand sanitizer, plexiglass barriers, face shields, masks, and cleaning crews are everywhere. Residential students have their own protocols and cleaning supplies.

Testing and Tracing. Mass testing happens before and after every school break. In Athletics, Bethel is coming up on 4,000 COVID-19 tests for student athletes, coaches, and other employees just since the beginning of 2021. A trained team traces the contacts of anyone who tests positive.

Worry-Free Food. The Monson Dining Center is open, with extended hours and reduced seating, but simplified choices, online ordering, no-cash purchases, and boxes-to-go are all on the menu too.

Stress Busters. Every residence hall has indoor areas (“Shacks”) set aside where 10 students or fewer may gather to talk, spread out but still together. Resident assistants track who comes and goes. Outdoors, employees shoveled an ice rink, built a fire pit, and brought out lighting and chairs.

 

Bethel University Students

Bethel community members were asked to sign a community agreement, which includes key behaviors like wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing, self-monitoring for symptoms, and reporting health concerns.

Whatever It Takes

The decision was made early on to give the virus no chance to take hold.  

Isolation/Quarantine. When students test positive or get exposed, they move quickly off campus or into designated on-campus space, where their meals are delivered while they recover or wait. Whatever they need for their physical, emotional, and spiritual health, they get.

COVID-19 Hotline. Last August, the Student Life deans took turns answering this special phone line for the first month while a more permanent crew was trained. Since then, close to 3,000 calls have come in from students and employees seeking answers and advice.

Eyes on the Data. To track trends, Bethel’s IT department adapted existing software last summer for this new purpose. Their creativity saved the university thousands of dollars.

In October, one residence hall showed a sudden uptick in cases and hotline calls. The residence hall quickly locked down, and in-person classes were canceled for a week while everyone got tested. (So far, no virus has been traced to classrooms.) The swift response slowed the spread and allowed the campus to return to its “new normal.”

Agreements. All employees and students were asked to sign and abide by Bethel’s COVID-19 community agreement, which includes key behaviors like wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing, self-monitoring for symptoms, and reporting any health concerns.

Festival of Christmas 2020

Chapel, Vespers, and even Festival of Christmas have been made available for Bethel community members and broader audiences through live streaming.

Faith at the Center

This much has not changed. Bethel community members still gather to pray; they just do it six feet apart. Chapel and Vespers still allow some worshippers to attend services in person, while many more watch the livestream. The annual Christmas concert was streamed live to an audience of thousands and recorded for later viewing. The faculty continues to guide students toward the standard of Jesus, just as professors have done at Bethel for 150 years.

 

Bethel University students wearing face coverings

The community’s commitment to social distancing, contact tracing, face covering, testing, screening, and sanitizing have allowed students to remain on campus—while some other schools have had to roll back their plans.

Beating the Odds

Last summer, skeptics bet that Bethel’s plan would only proceed for two weeks before the campus would be forced to go fully virtual, but the university has succeeded where others with a lot more resources have not. Of the 30 percent of American colleges that tried a face-to-face component in the fall, only a fraction kept it up. Outbreaks raced through dorms and infected thousands of students and employees around the country.

After Thanksgiving, few schools took a chance on bringing students back to campus. At Bethel, December may have been scaled back, but the community had a festive month all the same, and seniors especially were glad to have completed the term together and on time.

According to a recent survey of 2,000 colleges by the New York Times, the holidays led to surges at campuses nationwide. Since the new year, the number of cases at U.S. colleges has increased by about 31 percent compared with all such cases since the beginning of the pandemic. At Bethel, the rate of increase has been half that.

 

Bethel students

Going totally virtual may have been easier—but students choose Bethel largely for the experience of living and learning together in a Christ-centered community.

Not That It’s Been Easy

There is no roadmap for safely maintaining a residential campus with in-person classes. Bethel’s almost two dozen COVID-19 teams have had to solve problem after problem, redeploying resources, quickly assessing real-time data, and making hard choices almost every day. Going  totally virtual would have been much easier, but students choose Bethel in large part for the experience of living and learning together in a Christ-centered community. Team leaders say giving them that kind of education has been worth all the hard work. 

Visit Bethel’s COVID-19 response website to learn more about the university’s COVID-19 response and view the COVID-19 dashboard.  

Support Bethel's COVID-19 response.

Bethel’s response to COVID-19 is working, but it does take money, likely $2 million by the end of 2021. The pandemic has provided a unique opportunity for philanthropic donors. To make your gift to support Bethel’s COVID-19 response, visit the link below. 

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