Pioneers Together — How SMC is Adapting and Growing During COVID-19 By Robert W. Dalton This article appeared originally in the Fall 2020 issue of Frontiers Magazine.
In the spring, Spartanburg Methodist College was caught off guard when the COVID-19 coronavirus exploded.
That’s not a surprise. Most institutions were overwhelmed when the country began shutting down to slow the spread of the virus.
“When we left in March and unexpectedly didn’t come back from spring break, we went online,” said SMC President Scott Cochran. “But it wasn’t online learning, it was emergency teaching.”
When the initial shock wore off, SMC stopped playing defense and went on the offense to protect students, faculty, and staff as it prepared for the fall semester and reopening.
“We decided as a leadership team that we had to be excellent at delivering education despite the pandemic,” Cochran said.
Communication was the key to formulating a successful plan. In the beginning, SMC sent messages, almost daily, informing the campus of the latest developments. Cochran began holding a virtual town hall meeting every week for faculty and staff, giving the latest updates and taking questions. SMC utilized technology to keep our community updated on our campus plans – using email, our website, virtual meetings, and social media.
The College brought in three new team members to help with the digital transformation it needed to go from “emergency teaching” to “online learning.” The three worked to make sure faculty and staff members were up to speed on BrightSpace, the online learning management system the College selected.
Over the summer, SMC overhauled its curriculum to better serve students during the ongoing pandemic. Dr. Mark Gibbs, Provost and Executive Director of Academic Affairs, says many professors spent countless hours filming video lectures, navigating an unfamiliar virtual learning environment, and planning courses that students could access in-person, online, or in some cases, both.
“Our safety plan includes social distancing in our classrooms, and everywhere on campus, so we’re seating about half the normal number of students at any given time,” he said. “We have students learning in a traditional classroom on some days and online on others. And some students who are online for the entire semester. Our faculty have worked very hard to meet the needs of all students.”
“That was painful, especially when you normally have the summer off,” Cochran said. “I’m proud of everyone who made the sacrifice to give students their best chance at having a good semester.”
To prepare for in-person learning, SMC doubled the size of its custodial staff. Areas that, under normal times, were cleaned once a day are now cleaned twice, and sometimes three times. The Facilities Department installed 30 hand sanitizing stations and ordered 40,000 masks to be distributed to faculty, staff, students, and visitors. They also are providing cleaning supplies to students to use in their dorm rooms.
The College’s reopening plan is called Pioneers Together, which includes safety protocol for all campus behaviors. But Pioneers Together is more than just processes and procedures, it’s SMC’s new mantra for united together during a crisis. “We believe that all of us, working together, can prioritize the health and safety of our Pioneer community,” says Courtney Shelton, Vice President for Student and Professional Development.
Fall classes began on August 19 after a phased move-in to campus residence halls. Students, staff, and faculty follow a rigorous set of safety protocols that include required mask use, daily symptom checks, and social distancing. Resident and commuter students who opt for in-person instruction, and those who live on campus but chose online instruction, are to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. The College is paying for the testing.
“Given our resources and our size, testing weekly was a big decision,” Cochran said. “It also was a controversial decision. But if it keeps our students and employees safer and it does hurt the bottom line, so be it. We did not want to sacrifice anyone’s health and safety.”
When planning to reopen, administrators not only considered the needs of students who wanted in-person classes, but also those who might not want to return to campus due to fears about COVID-19, says Ben Maxwell, Vice President for Enrollment. “We knew some students would feel more comfortable staying home or might have no choice but to stay home due to illness or quarantine,” he says. “We didn’t want their education interrupted this semester and felt certain giving them the choice of in-person or online was the right thing to do. Students have the option of taking their fall classes either way.”
For sophomore David Hawkins of Spartanburg, living on campus is worth the safety restrictions. “It’s good to be back on campus again, and I’m glad SMC has guidelines to keep us safe while also giving us a bit of normalcy,” he said. “It’s easier for me and many others to learn in the classroom, so having some classroom time and being able to stay on campus to help me focus has been an immense blessing.”
Cochran said the overwhelming response by all involved has put SMC on the path to having a successful year during trying times. He said he didn’t want to look back and wish the College had done more.
“I think we’ve done everything we can to have a safe, healthy, and quality academic semester,” he said. “I’m proud of everyone – the faculty, the staff, the people who came up with plans, and the people who bought into those plans. The thing that makes me the proudest is that everybody is in this to serve the students.”