FSU leaders take charge during COVID-19 crisis

The FSU executive team has been communicating diligently on a daily basis over the past three weeks in an effort to stay informed about the COVID-19 pandemic and craft policy responses for the school.

President F. Javier Cevallos said, “Many people are involved in the decision-making process. We have a COVID-19 Emergency Working Group that meets for one hour every morning to review all aspects of our response.”

He added the group is comprised of 20 people representing all major operations of the University including Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, Facilities, Communication, IT, Health Services, the Business Office, Human Resources, University Police, Residence Life, Dining Operations, Athletics, Study Abroad, and Legal Counsel.

Dean of Students Meg Nowak Borrego said many of her responsibilities are prioritized by the fact that she is the leader of the COVID-19 Emergency Working Group.

She added she also gives guidance for multiple “offices and individuals working to implement required changes due to this public health emergency.”

Executive Vice President Dale Hamel said this team discusses issues that arise in order to ensure a coordinated response.

“Individuals, informed by the coordinating team’s guidance, have been working diligently to respond, as necessary, to ensure continued services provision and to support remote instruction,” he added.

Cevallos said FSU is also consulting with external state and federal agencies, as well as sister institutions.

Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Ellen Zimmerman said Academic Affairs, Deans, the Office of the Registrar, and the Director of CASA have been meeting at 10:30 each morning to “make sure we have everything in place for what students will need” for the online academic advising process. She added CASA services are now online as well.

Zimmerman said navigating during the pandemic has been difficult for everyone.

“I don’t think a situation like this could not be a challenge. It adds a layer of challenge for me and everyone else,” she added.

Hamel said “everything has changed” in regards to daily executive operations.

“We continue to provide administrative support remotely where possible … as best as possible. This is occurring while faculty and staff are having to respond to significant disruptions in their own lives,” he added.

Hamel said some staff will be on-site at times for functions that cannot be addressed remotely.

Zimmerman said her day-to-day responsibilities include overseeing all functions of academic affairs. She said she is attending many meetings via Zoom with administrators and deans to facilitate the transition to online classes.

She added this system is the “same structure, just virtually.

“Everyone is still working. We’re just not doing it in the same way,” Zimmerman said.

Vice President for Enrollment and Student Development Loretta Holloway said her department has been busier since the switch to working remotely since she is “in a Zoom or Microsoft Teams meeting constantly.”

She added the department is consistently staying up-to-date with executive orders given by Gov. Charlie Baker.

“We always try to be as flexible as possible. … The presidents [of state universities] will get together, make plans, and try to stick with them as much as possible, but things change.

“No day is ever the same. Things can change within an hour and a half,” Holloway said.

The cleaning and food service staff have “shifted their approach to service significantly” during the pandemic, according to Nowak Borrego.

“Our staff in SILD, Student Government, and our student organizations are actively developing ways for student organizations to continue to meet and socialize while taking classes remotely,” she added.

Cevallos said there have been several challenging decisions that the cabinet has been forced to make due to the pandemic, including the decision to send students home for the remainder of the semester.

Cevallos said he is “so sad for the Class of 2020, who miss out enjoying their final semester on our beautiful campus.”

Zimmerman said FSU followed directives issued by the Board of Higher Education, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), as well as Gov. Baker when making the decision to transition to online learning.

Cevallos said he is confident the executive team “made the right and necessary decisions to protect our community.”

Holloway agreed, saying the move to online instruction was a difficult decision due to logistics.

“It’s one thing to move an entire office remotely – it’s another to move 3,800 students remotely,” she said.

Zimmerman said more than 100 faculty members attended workshops on remote teaching strategies on the Thursday and Friday before spring break.

She added there were two more workshops held during spring break, and two others held the week after via Zoom. These workshops were held to ensure faculty had as much training as possible to “put their classes online.”

Holloway added there were many factors to consider to ensure student success in virtual learning, including making on-campus services available to students while they are home. All on-campus services are now provided online.

She said the Office of Enrollment and Student Development will remain open to allow students who do not own laptops loaners so they can learn online.

Holloway started the laptop loaner program several years ago because some students were unable to afford laptops.

She added her office has worked with IT to test various internet capabilities and options for ordering hotspots for students who may have limited access to the internet. The office is able to ship laptops out to students who are unable to get to campus to pick them up.

“We could have people who think they have internet at their house, but then they can’t get on,” Holloway said.

She added virtual learning may also be affected in crowded homes with high internet traffic.

“That’s still a concern – we are still trying to figure that out,” Holloway said.

IT is also working on ensuring Zoom meetings are secure and there is no threat of hackers.

According to Holloway, some universities have had issues with hackers who “break into these Zoom rooms and start cursing, or put stuff up with laptop share [feature], being disruptive and threatening.”

The Financial Aid Office also faced challenges figuring out how to communicate with students remotely, according to Holloway.

The office worked with IT to switch over their software that was originally confined to the office computers through VPNs to ensure financial aid processing while working remotely.

Student housing insecurity was also an issue that was considered, she added. Students who are unsafe while living at home are still allowed to reside on campus during the virtual learning period.

Holloway said she believes FSU avoided some of the backlash some schools that previously announced their decisions to send students home received.

“They weren’t as clear. … They didn’t provide the option to stay for people who had no place to go,” she added. She said FSU was “more focused on logistics.”

Zimmerman “has faith” in students’ transition to online learning, and believes they “are going to do a really good job.

“We are instituting policies that will be announced in the near future that’ll make everyone feel more comfortable and confident as they navigate these online classes,” Zimmerman added.

Holloway said FSU was focusing on students travelling abroad “before the issue of remote learning was raised.

“My concern was the students abroad, and how we can help those students,” she added.

Holloway said she worked with Office of International Education Director Jane Decatur in finding students in areas that were affected and bringing them back to the United States.

Cevallos said every member of the faculty and staff, as well as facility maintainers and IT professionals, have played some role in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

“It has literally been all hands on deck, and everyone has been working very hard to keep our community safe while preparing our move to remote operations.

“I’m extremely proud of the work people have done to get us this far. There are many more challenges ahead, but I’m confident we can get through them,” Cevallos said.

Holloway said the feedback she has received during the move to remote learning has ranged from “relief” to “frustration.”

“We did get some concern from students” about remote learning, she added. 

“People were worried for a couple of reasons, particularly if they were seniors. How’s the rest of the semester going to go?” Holloway asked.

She added the executive board recognizes the struggles students may have with remote learning.

“It’s harder for a lot of students because you have to be present all the time. You are home with your kid – or your cat – it can be hard to concentrate,” Holloway said.

She acknowledged most of the FSU community has been “pretty thankful” for the decision to move to remote learning.

“It’s a different scenario than other kinds of emergencies because it is a sickness,” Holloway said.

Cevallos said one of the most difficult decisions the executive board made was to postpone Commencement, which was originally scheduled for May 24.

“We are working hard to reschedule Commencement and will update the community as soon as we know more,” Cevallos said.

He added it is unknown whether the rescheduling could impact the scheduled Commencement speakers.

“If they are still able to make our new date and time, it should have no impact, but that may not be the case,” he said.

The previously scheduled Accepted Students Days have been canceled. Cevallos said the Admissions Office is currently working on providing an “enhanced online experience” for accepted students due to the event cancellation.

“We could not safely hold them given the current state of things, as they draw large numbers of people to campus,” he said.

Holloway said she encourages all students to set up a direct deposit account in order to receive their university-issued refunds. Administrators also advise students to check their university email for official updates.

Cevallos said he wants the FSU community to know how “grateful” he is for their response to “this challenge.”

He added, “In a matter of weeks, our entire world has been upended. Rather than complain or pack it in for the semester, people have stepped up and taken on the monumental task of moving the entire University to remote learning.”

According to Cevallos, even though the next few weeks “will be challenging,” he believes FSU “will come out of this as a stronger community.”

Hamel said faculty and staff are working “hard and in good faith” on students’ behalf, and everyone should be focused on being “safe and considerate of others’ wellbeing during this unprecedented event.

“That is the primary objective at this point,” he added.

Zimmerman said, “The faculty and staff have been working together closely with a remarkable level of good will and good cheer.”

She said everyone is focused on getting the education students need and staying safe.

“We all share that common goal.”

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