Since March, an on-campus experience at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has felt uncertain. But, with the help of campus leaders, the UNL community can look forward to a safe return.
The Forward to Fall committee, a subgroup of faculty, staff and students under UNL’s COVID-19 Task Force, formed in early May to focus on how UNL would reopen in the fall.
Chancellor Ronnie Green charged Forward to Fall with working with preexisting COVID-19 Task Force committees to create a task list for a safe and effective return to an in-person culture, according to co-chairs Amy Goodburn, senior associate vice chancellor and dean of undergraduate education, and Bob Wilhelm, vice chancellor for Research and Economic Development.
“That’s our No. 1 priority: Making sure that all the university’s missions of teaching and research and engagement can carry on as safely as possible and really protecting all of our community members — students, faculty, staff — while still delivering on our mission,” Goodburn said.
Since NU President Ted Carter made a commitment in April for an in-person return, faculty, staff and students at UNL, including those on the Forward to Fall committee, worked daily to make that commitment a reality.
“We recognize that our classrooms and our campus will be much changed; we also know that some of our students will not be able to join us on campus, and we are planning for that,” Green said in a statement on June 18. “But being open for students is important right now, more so than ever. We have heard very clearly from them that this is what they expect and need.”
Trying to solve problems brought on by the coronavirus pandemic is an experiment, Goodburn said, but one she is excited to participate in.
“That’s what a research university does best,” Goodburn said. “It’s to create new knowledge and to solve problems, and this is one of those grand challenges that we’re all trying to solve.”
Through the summer, the committee met several times each week via Zoom and combined expertise from multiple entities in its decision-making to provide a layered approach, according to Wilhelm.
Among these entities were other COVID-19 Task Force committees, campus leaders, University Health Center doctors, experts at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other local, state and national leaders, according to Wilhelm.
“There’s just a big network of expertise that we depend on,” he said.
The committee consisted of 22 faculty, staff and students who Wilhelm said brought different types of experience on how the UNL campus operates. Committee members were divided into multiple subcommittees to coordinate different efforts, such as designing UNL’s face covering policy or determining how to incorporate public health approaches.
The committee released its “Forward to Fall Guiding Framework” on June 18, prioritizing what would have the most impact on UNL and what the committee could control, according to Wilhelm.
The framework summarizes changes for the upcoming fall semester and incorporates ideas from several guiding documents, including UNMC’s “Higher Education Pandemic Mitigation and Response Guide.”
Wilhelm and Goodburn said the framework will be a living document that will be updated as new information is made available.
“New research is coming out all the time around COVID,” Goodburn said. “Our ears are always to what’s new, how can we update, and so this document will be updated as frequently as we have new recommendations or new research comes in if it shifts our practices.”
Roni Miller, Association of Students of the University of Nebraska president, served on the Forward to Fall committee and said she approached each conversation with an open mind.
The committee, she said, worked to recognize the need for equity among faculty, staff and students while utilizing health and safety information to ensure a high-quality, educational experience for all students.
“Had we not had these core principles guiding us, I think it would have led to a more challenging time period in terms of coming to decisions,” Miller said.
As the undergraduate student representative on the committee, Miller said her role was to ensure student voices and needs were adequately addressed. Whenever a concern was brought to her or raised before the committee, she would try to find an answer.
The committee answered multiple frequently asked questions on June 24 that were raised by the UNL community.
“I think Forward to Fall has really made a conscious effort as a committee to bring ourselves back to those concerns students, as well as the concerns that faculty and staff, have raised,” Miller said.
For the fall semester, Goodburn said she wants all students, whether returning or new to UNL, to have a rich, engaging and transformative experience.
In response to changes on campus due to the coronavirus, Goodburn said faculty, staff and students at UNL continue to create opportunities through new summer courses and virtual events and by reopening some campus facilities, like the Nebraska Unions and Campus Recreation.
Through these opportunities, Miller said involvement can continue, though safety must always be considered.
“It’s a balancing act of making sure that we have a safe experience, but also it’s a high-quality, full experience for students,” Miller said.
Goodburn and Wilhelm both said that, in addition to physical guidelines for safety, the UNL community must care about one another for UNL’s safety efforts to succeed.
“When it comes right down to it, we can spread out classes, we can go to all these lengths, but unless people take responsibility for hygiene, our efforts will fail,” Goodburn said. “It’s basic, it’s important, it’s critical.”
Though the fall semester will look different, Miller said it is necessary for all members of the UNL community to stay informed, get involved and join the community effort toward safety.
“At the end of the day, we all need to recognize that this is going to be a community effort to ensure that everybody is safe,” Miller said. “That means respecting the rules and honoring the changing processes that [have] been developed in response to this pandemic … and being a good Husker to all of our members on campus, whether that is a faculty, staff or student.”