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Lyon College sees risk in fall return

Residential school’s trustees decide online classes best fit for students by Emily Walkenhorst | July 25, 2020 at 4:14 a.m.
This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes covid-19.

The residential nature of Lyon College was too much of a risk during the coronavirus pandemic for college leaders, who have decided to hold courses remotely this fall.

In a news release announcing the decision, the Batesville college noted that it's the "first" college in Arkansas to decide to be remote-only this fall because of the pandemic. Higher-education institutions in Arkansas are generally prepared to pivot from in-person instruction to online instruction, if need be, and already plan to incorporate more online instruction into their classroom courses and overall course offerings.

Arkansas colleges and universities announced in May and early June that they would return to in-person courses, with limitations, this fall. Since then, Arkansas' active cases of the coronavirus have risen dramatically, including thousands of new cases announced this week.

Lyon College trustees voted Thursday to continue remote instruction.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

In a campuswide message Friday, President W. Joseph King said college leaders were confident even a month ago that a return to campus classes would be possible in the fall.

"However, recent discussions with health officials at both White River Medical Center and UAMS North Central highlighted the challenges in bringing students back safely," King wrote. "In addition, the development of protective plans, involving many entities at the state and federal levels, was much more involved and took longer than expected. As cases increased across the state, we knew what choice we had to make."

The vote was unanimous but far from enthusiastic, Chairman Perry Wilson said.

"It was a very somber mood, to say the least," Wilson said.

In the end, leaders questioned how well campus residential living, with shared ventilation, could prevent an outbreak, Wilson said. He compared dormitories to cruise ships.

"We always put the kids first," he said.

Fellow Trustee Skip Rutherford, who is also dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, said he also was concerned about the potential of a community outbreak as people move around. The area's health care is great, he said, but has a small intensive-care capacity.

For Rutherford, the residential nature of Lyon made him think differently of the college's risk than his own institution in Little Rock, even as he prepares to teach a course outdoors for safety. The UA System has directed its campuses to do in-person instruction this fall.

The fact that students live on campus also was a concern for Provost Melissa Taverner. Students go out to eat, she said. They go to the gym.

"That's just how people behave," said Taverner, who is also a virologist. "That's not malice. That's just behavior."

That also means the college can't control potential exposure to the virus.

"We felt like the probability of transmission would be high," she said.

The private, Presbyterian college was home to 661 students last fall, and Taverner expects that to go down this fall, in part because of Thursday's decision.

But the college, whose motto is "perseverance conquers all, God willing," will continue its mission and attempt to give students as much as it can of the formative experience that characterizes higher-education pursuits, she said.

Taverner said the question she always asks people is why they're at Lyon College, specifically. College is where people get to know themselves and explore interests, she said.

"Is that period of discernment, that's only going to happen when you're on campus? No, we know that's not the case," she said.

The college can still ask students crucial questions to help guide them and show an interest in them, she said.

"It doesn't matter what method is used to communicate, it's that we communicate," Taverner said.

This fall, instructors are more prepared to teach remotely, Taverner said. More than 90% of faculty members have taken training offered by the college to enhance online instruction. That goes beyond basic use of technology and includes training on how to effectively engage students in an online environment.

To help with that, courses still will be conducted on a schedule, with video archived, if needed, Wilson said. But courses will be held live, when possible, with students tuning in at the same time to participate.

Taverner said she also wants to make sure students have access to the technology they need to do the work.

In the spring, after the college abruptly pivoted to remote instruction, some students dropped off the radar. For some, it was because they didn't have the technology they needed to keep taking courses, and they didn't let the college know.

Taverner said she's reached out to students to make sure she knows what they need.

The college has a program to lend Chromebooks to students, and students can cite technological needs as a reason to still live in a dormitory.

Taverner acknowledged that the cost of a computer and internet connection is likely lower than the cost of living in a dormitory, and she said the college can work out a plan with students who need to live on campus only because of their technological issues.

While the vote of the 15-person board of trustees was unanimous, the overwhelming opinion is that in-person instruction and the traditional college experience is preferable, leaders said.

"We are a residential liberal arts college," Wilson said. "That made this even more of a serious decision for us, because we're taking one of the elements we offer out of the picture."

As worsening coronavirus cases are projected, leaders finally concluded Thursday, with no previous formal proposal, that remote instruction continued to be in everyone's best interests, Wilson said.

"I hope we look back on this in January and know we did the right thing," Wilson said.

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