Las Vegas Sun

November 26, 2020

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How the pandemic will affect campus life at UNLV this fall

First Day of Class at UNLV

Steve Marcus

Students walk southbound in the quad area during the first day of the fall semester at UNLV Monday, August 23, 2010.

A normal day on the UNLV campus has students walking class to class, studying in groups at public tables, and waiting in line at the student union for a snack before heading to a packed lecture hall for class.

When the fall semester begins Aug. 24, that won’t be the case because of the coronavirus pandemic. The daily life will look and feel different with social distancing standards and sanitation protocols. Those include: pre-arrival temperatures checks, completing a COVID-19 assessment, wearing face masks, frequent hand-washing and staying 6 feet apart. 

Also, UNLV is installing hand sanitizer dispensers across campus, implementing COVID-19 best practices for air filtration systems and adjusting schedules for flexibility and social distancing. 

But at least there will be some form of student life on campus — of course, if there’s not another significant spike in virus infections.

“It’s conceivable that if the infection rate in the community spikes, that we would have to go even more online or perhaps even fully online, which nobody wants to happen. But we’ll continue to evaluate the conditions as we get closer to the semester,” said Chris Heavey, UNLV interim executive vice president and provost.

The spring semester ended with in-person instruction when the state closed in mid-March out of virus concerns. The beginning of the summer semester was online. A small number of courses will be offered in person the third summer session beginning July 13.

“It’s a little surreal to be on campus right now because usually when you’re on campus, it’s kind of this bustle of activity and energy and right now it’s largely empty,” UNLV communications professor Jacob Thompson said.

Roughly half of UNLV's courses will be taught online in the fall, and class sizes will be reduced to a goal of 50% classroom capacity, officials said. About 13% of classes were offered online before the pandemic.  

Officials are also working toward getting more laptops and better internet connections to students. If anything, professors and students eventually found a groove working remotely in the spring, meaning anything is possible moving forward.

“All the professors I’ve interacted with have been really understanding and almost heroic in coming up with curriculum that has to be online like within the span of three days,” Reese said.

Like in 2019, about 30,000 students are expected for the fall semester, although there’s a small dip in international students and an increase in locals. International student enrollment has decreased 15%, or about 100 students.

The students aren’t the lone daily occupants on campus.

UNLV has more than 4,000 employees, some of whom could be at high risk because of their age or health conditions. Whether a class is taught online or in person largely depends on an instructor’s comfort level, officials said.

“It’s a balancing act of trying to create a schedule that has a lot of flexibility built into it so students and faculty can teach or learn in the way they prefer to the greatest extent possible,” Heavey said.

All courses with 75 or more students will be moved from an auditorium to online. Instead, the halls will used for smaller-size classes because there’s sufficient space to spread students out in adhering to social distancing demands.

Officials are still working through how to safely teach courses such as physical therapy, which requires person-to-person contact. Also, Heavey expects lab courses will remain at nearly 100% capacity because of high enrollment and the equipment needed to teach these courses. 

“They’re not shoulder to shoulder, but they are interacting in moderately close proximity, so we’re looking at particular safety protocols,” Heavey said.

From a student perspective, Reese says there are some frustrations “because it has taken so long to even consider which classes would be online and which wouldn’t.”

Some instructors are planning curriculum with content relevant to current events — the pandemic, mass protests against police brutality and the economic downturn.

Thompson said these issues are significant to the political campaign debate class he will teach, with students reflecting on the possibility of 2020 debates without an audience. Thompson also coaches UNLV’s award-winning debate team that will compete solely online for the first time in the fall. 

“I think it will be an imperfect substitute for in-person debates, but far better than no debates at all,” Thompson said.

There’s more to attending college than the courses. UNLV has more than 300 student organizations, all of which have been impacted. University officials worry how the isolation will impact the experience, especially since some students are from out of state and in need of new relationships.

“The college experience is more than just the classes a student takes,” Heavey said.