Saint Francis University Returns to On-Campus Classes This Fall

In April, I published a two-part interview with Father Malachi Van Tassell, T.O.R., President of Saint Francis University, and Dr. Karan Powell, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Saint Francis University. Like many colleges and universities, Saint Francis had cancelled its on-campus classes and converted to online classes for the rest of the semester (read Part I and Part II of the series).

Dr. Powell and I spoke recently, and I discovered that Saint Francis elected to return to on-campus courses this semester. I asked her if she and Father Malachi would be willing to update me regarding their preparations for the fall. My questions and their responses are below.

Related article: Read St. Francis University’s coverage of this story

Dr. Boston: When did you decide that a return to on-campus operations would occur this fall?

Father Malachi: By the end of March or the beginning of April, the President’s Council began discussing options for the fall semester. At that point in time, we were actively navigating the day-to-day issues relative to the pandemic and its uncertainty, spending many days in crisis mode. We were anticipating the worst regarding the summer session (i.e., no one on campus and everything virtual).

Both in terms of the university mission and economics, we realized the imperative of being on campus and in person in the fall. The vice presidents and I began to brainstorm different options for the fall semester.

In a communication to faculty and staff on April 17, 2020, we told our folks we were working towards being on campus and in person for the fall semester. Despite day-to-day uncertainty, not knowing when or how the pandemic would end, we began messaging our intention to return face-to-face in the fall. For the record, this was not lip service or a statement to give hope, but a commitment to our campus community to return to our mission of educating traditional undergraduate students in an on-campus community.

By April 20, senior staff, along with deans and faculty representatives were developing options for the fall semester. These options included starting and operating on the previously published calendar, opening one week early and ending with no breaks, by Thanksgiving, or being completely virtual, our doomsday scenario.

On April 27, in a communication to the university community, I stated in no uncertain terms our firm intent to open in person for the fall semester. Simultaneously, the Governor of Pennsylvania was rolling out his plan to reopen the state. We in higher education were awaiting detailed guidance for reopening.

On May 4, I named our Opening Team. The team was a broad array of campus employees who would operationalize our reopening plan. I indicated to this group that we would begin the fall semester one week early, have no breaks, and be done with finals by Thanksgiving. I instructed the group to “spread the word” to colleagues. I asked for input, ideas, and feedback from them regarding our opening plans.

On June 2, I formally announced that, barring a decree from Governor Wolf, we would be opening in the fall semester for on-campus, face-to-face residential instruction.

Dr. Boston: When were faculty and students notified?

Dr. Powell: Faculty and students were notified in a university-wide announcement on June 2, 2020. The Academics Contingency Planning Group was established by the VPAA in April and met weekly through April and May and then reconvened in July, and it continues to meet weekly as we have launched the fall semester. This group of about 30 chaired by the VPAA consists of several faculty members, Executive Council of Faculty Senate, Deans Council, Registrar, Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Dean of Student and Academic Success, and multiple department chairs.

This group worked through issues related to moving to remote learning, changing the length of the term including the decision to start early and end at Thanksgiving. They provided input and guidance on ways to achieve the goal of returning to campus for fall, and now provide guidance and input on achieving our goal of completing the semester on campus at Thanksgiving.

Dr. Boston: How did you divide the responsibilities for planning for your return to on-campus operations? Did the Pandemic Response Team that you created for the spring continue to review and assign responsibilities for a fall semester by incorporating social distancing and other precautions?

Father Malachi: The Pandemic Response Team had begun meeting sometime in January, and was actively directing the cleaning, health, and safety operations of campus by the end of February. The group was meeting almost daily at the beginning of March. Academic Affairs and Residence Life had representation, as did student health services.

From mid-March until April 3, a Pandemic Response Team co-chair was included as part of the Situation Room (crisis management meetings). After April 3, when the Situation Room ceased meeting daily, the Pandemic Response Team met and routinely advised the President’s Council. The Pandemic Team is co-chaired by the University Safety Officer and a medical professional from UPMC MyHealth@School.

The Opening Team was an ad-hoc group, comprised of an array of employees. They offered input and suggestions for improvement on our opening plan. The group quickly sunset, and vice presidents operationalized and monitored the opening plan in their area. Throughout, the Pandemic Response Team updated the plan based on ever-changing conditions and guidance from the state.

The Academic Contingency Planning Committee provided input and guidance for safe standards and expectations for the learning environment, and this guidance was shared with the Pandemic Response Team and President’s Council.

Dr. Boston: Can you highlight some of the ways in which you have reduced the risks for COVID-19 transmission and infection on your campus this fall?

Dr. Powell: Guiding all decisions was an underlying assumption and principles that the safety, health, and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff is of paramount importance to the university. That SFU would be in compliance with CDC, Pennsylvania, and Department of Education guidelines and use them to inform and direct how we return to campus. The Pandemic Committee proposed and the President’s Council approved a COVID Response Plan.

Some of the highlights from our response plan designed to reduce the risk for transmission and infections on our campus included:

  • Implementation of Four Public Health Pillars
    • Face coverings required in all buildings and in all classrooms; signs placed around campus as a reminder.
    • Practice social distancing (six feet) with guidelines regarding particular spaces.
    • Practice proper hand hygiene: hand sanitizer was placed throughout the campus on portable stands for access and use.
    • Monitoring of health:
      • Students, faculty, and staff take their temperature daily. Students were instructed to return to campus with a thermometer.
      • Temperature scanning stations are set up on campus at main building entrances. For example, entry to Torvian Dining Hall requires a temperature scan prior to entry.
      • Faculty, students, and staff report daily through a Rave alert app and are required to respond.
      • Guidelines for monitoring health including decision trees in place for those who go for testing, who have been exposed to someone who tested positive, etc.
    • Contact tracing: This is conducted through Rave participation; when/if a case is reported, University Wi-Fi is used to identify spaces where a member of the University community who reports positive has been on campus when connected to the Wi-Fi, and conversations are held with Student and Employee Health and/or Student Affairs in the event of a reported positive testing.
  • Space Analysis and Adjustments to Classes: The guidance from the PA Department of Education is that while indoor gatherings are limited to 25 maximum; the guidance is that safe distancing of 6 feet is needed and if less than 6 feet, face coverings are required at all times. The Director of Physical Plant and his team did a room-by-room assessment of capacity for 6 feet as optimum and 4 feet if fully masked and marked each room with a capacity sign indicating such. The Registrar then assigned classes to each space consistent with the room capacity, enrollment in the course, and the mode of delivery determined for that class (fully face-to-face or hybrid).
  • Space Analysis and Adjustments to Non-Classroom Gatherings: The guidance from PA Department of Education is that indoor gatherings for other than classes are limited to 25 maximum indoors and 250 outdoors. We changed our orientation and our convocation for new students to spread the event across campus and deliver content by pre-recorded or streamed events, rather than face-to-face. This is happening for all student activities and events.
  • Strategies for Maintaining Safe Distancing and Health Across Campus Placed Limits on Certain Spaces and Activities: (i.e., Fitness Center maximum capacity of 10 and scheduled times for use of the facility; Residence Halls guidelines for shared space use; Dining Services guidelines for space and cleaning of spaces between individual use and new protocols for food service and distribution; and expansion of the space for dining by building a pavilion adjacent to Torvian, etc.).
  • Academic Calendar Adjustment: By starting one week early, ending at Thanksgiving, and scheduling no breaks, we hope to bring students to campus and limit their travel to and from campus limiting their exposure and exposure to the campus due to travel.
  • Cancellation of University-Related Travel: We canceled all study abroad and travel learning excursions for Fall 2020 and are evaluating Spring 2021 no later than November 1, 2020. We have a commitment to community engaged learning and service, which places our students in the community for service. All service will be done remotely for the fall term. Again, we are limiting exposure to those outside the SFU community and thus exposure to SFU.
  • Colored Wristbands: We distributed green, yellow, and red wristbands to students, faculty, and staff to provide an indicator to others by the individual wearing it, the need for adequate space, face masks, etc. If someone wears RED, they are asking you to keep a safe distance from them, always wear your mask, and please don’t touch their personal belongings! For a YELLOW bracelet, this is an indicator that they are cautious or concerned, but would be OK with limited contact, such as an elbow. GREEN indicates they are comfortable with reasonable contact. They still need to follow the same mask and distancing rules in public zones. The colored wristbands do not negate the need to follow guidelines.

Communication and commitment are key to our success at SFU. The Office of the President, the Pandemic Committee, Vice President of Academic Affairs, Student Government, all send regular messages and videos to faculty, to students, to staff, to parents, and to the University community as a whole, reminding everyone we are in this together. Impressive is the fact that student leaders have taken to communicating student-to-student about safety practices and individual student responsibility.

Examples include a welcome back message from Father Malachi and SGA to all students and this clever feed from the football team. Student peer-to-peer support and leadership is making a difference.

Dr. Boston: Are students or faculty members who believe themselves to be at a higher risk allowed to attend classes or teach class online?

Dr. Powell: Saint Francis University is first and foremost an on-ground, face-to-face university. Students were surveyed during the spring term and affirmed the preference for face-to-face instruction. In our return to campus, one of the guiding principles has been that we provide an in-person, face-to- face transformational learning experience. To that end, faculty and students are expected to be on campus.

For those not feeling safe and for those with medical conditions requiring a modification process, accommodation approval processes were created for both faculty and students. The faculty process consists of obtaining doctor’s notes on the return to campus, which are submitted to HR.

The VPAA, HR and University Nurse meet to review and determine a reasonable accommodation. This accommodation is provided to the dean and department chair and to the faculty member for implementation. Only two faculty members sought such an accommodation.

The student accommodation process consists of an application submitted to the Dean of Student and Academic Success. Approximately 50 students have sought accommodations this semester to take classes fully online or via remote learning. The Dean’s office has worked with Financial Aid, Athletics, the department chair, the respective faculty members, and the student to determine whether this is workable and to develop a solution for this student.

Students were informed that if the request to study remotely is approved, they are not to be on campus or at University functions off campus during this semester. All interaction is remote. Approximately 50 students have sought such an accommodation.

Dr. Boston: It’s my understanding that your athletic conference cancelled all fall sports schedules. Are athletes and coaches still practicing as a team? Are there any special policies or preventative practices for athletes?

Father Malachi: Sadly, the Northeast Conference Council of Presidents unanimously voted to postpone all fall sports competition and championships. The Council agreed to reconvene again by October 1 to evaluate the public health crisis and competitive options. If the landscape has changed for the better, we will attempt to play a modified season. However, even that option may be impacted by directives pending from the NCAA.

Presently, our student athletes and coaches are on campus. We anticipate them beginning practice, conditioning, and team meetings on September 1. Athletics is a vital enrollment driver and retention tool, so we want to offer as robust of an athletics experience as we possibly can under the circumstances. Most of all, athletics is an integral part of the student experience, and plays a role in providing social outlets for the university community as well as the players.

Dr. Boston: Did you designate residence halls that will house quarantined students or students with an active COVID-19 infection who are to be isolated?

Father Malachi: We have dedicated space for quarantine in the residence halls as well as university-controlled off-campus housing. We also secured an agreement with a local hotel should the need arise for expanded space for isolation housing.

Dr. Boston: Is there a targeted threshold of infection either on campus or in the surrounding area that will cause you to reconsider your decision?

Dr. Powell: There is no targeted threshold of infection. The University has a quarantine facility for those who may have been in contact with a suspected positive person. An isolation unit is also in place for those who may test positive. Processes for providing meals, etc. are in place for students in these circumstances.

Faculty have all classes active in Canvas, and we have a University license for Zoom. It is connected into all classes, so that students who may find themselves in a quarantine or isolation situation may continue to fully participate synchronously in their classes. Technology is in the process of being upgraded in each classroom to enhance the hybrid learning experience via Zoom (cameras, microphones, video monitors, etc.)

Our goal is to complete the semester on campus together. The Pandemic Committee monitors state of cases and exposures and our capacity to manage this on a weekly and as-needed basis. We aim to remain open unless guided by State authorities to do otherwise.

Dr. Boston: Are there more online courses offered this fall as a way to reducing COVID-19 expenses?

Dr. Powell: We did not change our strategy for scheduling and offering courses this semester. Our students pay flat tuition for the semester, and we provide them a learning experience consistent with our mission and goals. We did not make changes to offerings regarding mode of delivery as a cost reduction strategy.

Our planning has been guided by the principle: “Agility, flexibility, and responsiveness are keys to our success in managing amidst all of the unknowns of the virus and the impact of it on our return to campus. In other words, we know what we know and can do today. Unpredictability characterizes our reality. While we have contingency plans, we may be adjusting these day-to-day or week-to-week throughout the semester.”

We have modified our classroom methodologies to ensure safe distancing in the learning space. As previously stated, during the summer our Director of Physical Plant and our Registrar conducted an analysis of every space on campus. Each space was evaluated for 6-feet safe distancing space and a maximum capacity space where face coverings would be required in the room at all times.

Classrooms were assigned based upon course size, mode of teaching, and room capacity. Classes were assigned to buildings and rooms. which have not been the same as in the past.

Faculty redesigned their courses to provide for multiple SFU Faculty Senate-approved modes of teaching, moving from purely face-to-face and purely online. Only a handful of courses were scheduled to be online, and this was done during the spring when academic departments were planning the fall schedule.

This change did not occur as a result of COVID-19. The two modes of learning that faculty have developed and implemented include a hybrid model and web-enhanced learning. The definition and expectations for each of these formats on campus is as follows:

  1. Face-to-face (F2F) Classes: Traditional, 100% face-to-face instruction occurs when the instructor and students are in the same place at the same time on a regular schedule. At a minimum, the LMS (a Learning Management System like Canvas) is used to provide access to the course syllabus and schedule, to conduct course-related communication, to post grades, and to track attendance.
  2. Web-Enhanced (WE) Course: This blended course is a 100% face-to-face course, utilizing sufficient online technology to enable students to remain on track in a course (like Zoom lecture recording) should they have to miss class. In addition to the minimum requirements, the institutional LMS is used to provide access to all or nearly all course materials, course assignments, course assessments, and communication tools.
  3. Hybrid (HY) Course: A hybrid course is one in which 25%-75% of the face-to-face meetings are replaced by online learning activities and engagement. The combined face-to-face meeting time plus the estimated time spent in online learning activities and engagement meets credit-hour expectations. In addition, online components of the course must include at least one “participation” event per week (e.g. a graded submission requirement such as a discussion post, an assignment submission, or a quiz).
  4. Fully Online (FO) Course: Distance education technology is used for 100% of course content and activities when the instructor and students are not in the same physical location, and all course activity is conducted online. A fully online course may include requirements for virtual synchronous meetings including live streaming, etc. The estimated time spent in online learning activities must meet credit-hour expectations.

On campus, the implementation of modes of teaching has varied by school. The Shields School of Business has maintained primarily face-to-face with some hybrid teaching (at about 50 – 60% face-to-face) due to safe learning space constraints. Only a handful of about 8 classes are online, and these were scheduled during the original fall planning time prior to COVID-19.

The School of Health Sciences and Education remains face-to-face with some hybrid offerings. The School of STEAM is primarily face-to-face (more than 70%) with another 30% hybrid (with majority being 50% face-to-face) of some form or another. Hybrid for both of these schools means 50% of students attend online one day, while the other 50% attend simultaneously online and then swap modes for the next class meeting.

Dr. Boston: Can you provide an example of a change that was made in your classes?

Dr. Powell: Our Department Chair for Biology, Dr. Justin Merry, has written about his hybrid class in Biology and I share this with you here:

“One hybrid model involves splitting the class in two, and then conducting the course with half of the class face-to-face and half of the class present virtually via a Zoom stream. In the biology department, most of our faculty were concerned that this model puts the students at a substantial disadvantage whenever they are remote.

They will have a harder time asking questions, engaging in discussions, participating in activities, and understanding new course material than the students who are in class. Therefore, many of us felt that this mode would result in inferior student learning opportunities and that it was not up to our standards.

Instead, most of the biology department decided on a “flipped classroom” hybrid model. In this model, our weekly face-to-face meeting with each student is designed to be as interactive, productive, and high-impact as possible. Students will discuss homework questions, explore case studies, and engage in activities designed to help them engage with and learn the material at a deeper level.

Typically, classes are split into two groups (Mondays and Wednesdays, or Tuesdays and Thursdays), and the two face-to-face meetings would have redundant content. Therefore, students do not miss anything by not attending the other meeting. The equivalent class time is structured as an intentionally designed set of asynchronous lecture videos, homework assignments, discussion board activities, and other technology-assisted assignments (e.g. social annotation with Perusall, or video exchanges using Flipgrid) that are delivered each week.

Students will spend time at the end of each week learning the core material, and our meetings at the start of the next week will be designed to help them apply and assimilate that knowledge. Our faculty are also available to students for one-on-one help, including routine synchronous Q&A review sessions, office hours, video conference, and Google chat, in addition to traditional email.

This approach takes more work by faculty to implement than a simple streaming approach. Nevertheless, we chose this teaching model because we firmly believe that it will result in the best learning by our students, because of the high-quality opportunities for each student to interact with the material, with other students, and with the faculty member.

We can be intentional about what parts of the course are delivered via asynchronous video recordings or readings, and maximize the effectiveness of the precious face-to-face time we have each week. In many cases, this approach has actually added new opportunities for student activities and engagement beyond what we’ve been able to do in the past in our traditional face-to-face classes.”

The increased effectiveness of the flipped classroom pedagogy has been supported by many research articles. An article by Pierce and Fox concludes that the flipped classroom “resulted in improved student performance and favorable student perceptions about the instructional approach.” The biology faculty at Saint Francis are excited to use the model this semester, gather student reactions to the learning model implemented, and compare learning in the course to previous semesters.

Dr. Boston: Was there additional faculty training for online teaching over the summer? Was it required or just available if a faculty member was interested in learning more about effective online teaching?

Dr. Powell:  The Center for Effectiveness in Teaching and Learning continued to offer classes through the spring, the summer and what we call Community Development Week (the week prior to classes beginning for fall). Below is a table of what was offered and the enrollments in each. We have 113 full-time faculty on campus and multiple numbers of adjunct faculty who teach either/or or both online and on campus. Nothing was mandated except for those who teach fully online.

All of this was made available to faculty who were interested in learning about teaching effectively in this new reality of online and hybrid higher education offerings. Highlighted in yellow are the most frequently attended sessions by full-time faculty, including Zoom training as this was newly implemented on campus and newly integrated into Canvas. No surprise that it had the most enrollments across the campus. Highlighted in green is the only required course for certification of faculty to teach online.

Title of Workshop Number of Times Workshop Was Offered Sum of Number of Full-Time Faculty Attending Sum of Number of Adjunct Faculty Attending Sum of Number of Staff Attending Sum of Total Number Attending
10 Tips for Ensuring Accessible Content in Online Courses 2 12 2 3 17
Administering Online Exams with Respondus Lockdown Browser and Monitor 1 4 1 0 5
Can We Curb Cheating in Online Assessments? 1 3 1 0 4
Canvas Quizzes 2 1 2 0 3
Create Canvas Quizzes Faster with Respondus Test Generator 1 1 1 0 2
Delivering Exceptional Customer Service 1 0 0 3 3
Distance Education Instructor Certification Course 4 44 39 83
Effective Teaching Strategies when Some Students Need to Be Remote 2 26 4 2 32
Engaging Activities for Live Online Classes 2 27 6 4 37
How to Create and Grade Assignments in Canvas 2 0 2 0 2
Providing Effective Feedback to Student 1 12 0 1 13
Revitalizing Online Discussions 2 20 5 2 27
Stories from the Online Trenches 3 11 2 2 15
Tips for Effectively Using Canvas Modules 1 1 1 0 2
Tips for Preparing Your Canvas Course for a New Semester 1 0 2 0 2
Using Mail Merge for Letters and Labels 1 0 0 0 0
What Tools Can I Use to Create and Share Videos? 2 6 1 2 9
Where’s My Instructor? Creating Instructor Presence in an Online Course 4 24 10 4 38
Working with Canvas Groups 2 22 5 5 32
Zoom 101 – Settings and Scheduling Meetings 8 68 25 71 164
Zoom 102 – Host a Zoom Meeting 10 72 31 66 169
Grand Total 49 310 101 165 576

Dr. Boston: Are some of the spring services implemented like “Help in a Flash,” the 24-hour help desk, still operational?

Dr. Powell: In March, we implemented a 24-hour help desk through Collegis Education. They jumped in to assist us and within less than three days were operational. During academic year 2019 – 2020, we evaluated our IT strategy and future direction. On June 1, 2020, Collegis Education signed on as our IT partner in higher education delivering all IT services for the campus.

So yes, the help desk 24 x 7 continues. Access to technology to meet the needs of our campus has increased, and we are excited about his new partnership and the direction it provides for serving us during the pandemic and for advancing the campus for the future.

Dr. Boston: Was there a final decision about an in-person graduation ceremony to replace the ceremony cancelled last spring?

Father Malachi: I hesitate to call anything ‘final’ these days (except final exams), but yes, our plans are evolving for an in-person Commencement. Our Class of 2020 graduates expressed by survey an overwhelming desire for an in-person, on-campus experience. We wanted to hold an event on October 11, complete with Baccalaureate Mass, reception, and commencement ceremony.

However, because of Pennsylvania Governor Wolf’s restrictions, we are unable to do so. We are now determining when we can hold an in-person, on-campus ceremony, likely in 2021.

Dr. Boston: Much has been written over the summer about the potential for enrollment shortfalls this fall as students concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic opt for a gap year. Did your campus meet its enrollment targets, or were you impacted by students opting for a gap year? What did you do to encourage students to return?

Father Malachi: As to whether or not we met our enrollment goals, the answer is “yes and no.” We had been tracking to enroll a freshmen class well in excess of 400. After March 13, we modified our expectations, developing budget models with freshmen headcount down by 10%, 15%, and 20% from our original goal. By July, we were anticipating 390 total new students (freshmen and transfer students combined.)

We built our budget on a head count of 385 students. We in fact welcomed 385 new students as of August 26!

As far as upperclassmen were concerned, we did not offer any financial enticements to return. We did raise tuition, room, and board as previously planned. We did issue a room and board credit for the spring semester. We strongly believed that our students would return. Results of a late Spring survey indicated students’ overwhelming desire for in-person on-campus experience.

Our housing deposits for fall-returning students were the main indicator — over 90% of returning students submitted a housing deposit for the fall, much higher than historical averages. This indicator alone gave us great hope and encouragement that we could weather the pandemic.

The concept of a gap year does not seem to have impacted us. Our non-returners chose not to return for economic reasons (unemployed parents(s)) or out of a desire to remain close to home.

Dr. Boston: Campus tours for prospective students are usually part of the summer experience for rising juniors and seniors in high school. Many colleges and universities cancelled those tours this summer. Did Saint Francis do the same? Are you planning to open campus for prospective student tours this fall or are you limiting access to campus from outsiders in order to minimize the chance for COVID-19 infection?

Father Malachi: Early on in the pandemic, we deemed our admissions counselors to be essential staff (and, of course, they are!). We allowed them on campus to record virtual tours with their smartphones and later with more sophisticated hardware. By mid-June, we were hosting on-campus tours.

Our families visiting campus are expected to follow the same health and safety guidelines as our students and employees. As late as the beginning of August, we still seemed to be in the minority group of campuses who offer on-campus tours. Several families indicated that they were visiting, in part, because we, unlike competitor schools, were offering on-campus tours.

Dr. Boston: Thank you again for your thoughtful responses. I look forward to hearing about your campus’ success at keeping this serious coronavirus away from your students, faculty, and staff.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence