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Classes amid COVID

Calvin University students come together as a covenant people

As I write this column, Calvin University is in the first week of classes. After rapidly pivoting to online instruction with the outbreak of COVID-19 last spring, the university worked on a plan for returning to in-person classes for the fall of 2020. These efforts stem from the fact that a Christian, undergraduate, liberal arts education is a many-splendored thing, an experience which is difficult to replicate online. The question in the minds of many staff, faculty, students and parents, however, is whether in-person classes can be done safely.

The fall semester began with an uptick in COVID cases throughout the U.S., prompting many universities to go fully online for the semester. Even those that had hoped to meet in person reversed their decisions as cases surged among local and student populations. In a rare move, football games and sporting events, which are sacrosanct in many places, have also been canceled due to the virus.

In the midst of this, Calvin University resolved to offer in-person classes by developing a “safe return playbook” for reopening with a variety of precautions. Each student, staff and faculty member was tested for COVID-19 prior to the start of classes. All students and staff are also required to report daily on their health status using a smartphone app. Moreover, everyone was asked to sign a “Love Your Neighbor Covenant” which requires each member of the Calvin community to promise to observe a variety of precautions to protect oneself, one’s neighbors, and the community. This includes mandatory mask-wearing (something that has become more politicized in the U.S.). Calvin also offered a variety of summer courses based on the theme of a “Christian witness in a COVID-shaped world.”

Mixed learning styles

Throughout the summer, classrooms and computer labs were reconfigured to ensure physical distancing. One of my classes was moved to the basement of a dorm in order to make use of the larger space available there. The basement room has windows open on one end with fans exhausting air at the other to maintain a steady flow of air, reminiscent of the ventilation in my father-in-law’s chicken barns. I have also moved two computer science seminars outdoors, taking advantage of one of several large tents that Calvin has erected in different spots on campus.

In addition to in person classes, all lectures are streamed and recorded for remote learners who are not able to join in person. My own classes have learners joining us from Japan, South Korea, China, Cambodia, India and Hungary. Some professors with pre-existing conditions or other risk factors are offering all their classes online, while others are managing a blend of in-person and online content. After the American Thanksgiving break in late November, all classes will move online for the remainder of the semester to avoid the added risks which come with the annual flurry of travel accompanying this holiday.

Calvin continues to monitor the health of the community, publishing a “dashboard” showing the number of active cases of COVID. As of the first week of September, the dashboard showed four active cases of COVID in the Calvin community, all of whom are safely isolating.

How will this semester end? Returning to in-person instruction is not without risk. The campus of Calvin is comparable to a small town – with thousands of students and hundreds of staff and faculty coming and going.

Many are skeptical of in-person classes, suggesting that young adults are cavalier about COVID. It would be a wonderful witness if Calvin’s communal covenant to show love for one’s neighbour could restrain the infection trends which have plagued many other post-secondary institutions. In the meantime, I am grateful, for now, to be able to see my student’s faces in person (albeit covered in masks) and enjoy the opportunity to meet as an embodied community of learners.

Watch Calvin’s We Will Love Our Neighbour Video.

  • Derek C. Schuurman is a Canadian currently living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is professor of computer science at Calvin University. Prior to arriving at Calvin he taught for many years at Redeemer University College and was a visiting professor at Dordt University. He currently holds the William Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar-in-Residence chair at Calvin. Besides his technical interests he is interested in faith and technology issues. He is the author of Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology (IVP, 2013).

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