“Small and Safe:” How Newberry College Returned to the Classroom Amid a Global Pandemic
by Jay Salter, Communication Specialist - December 16, 2020
Newberry College freshman Jareed Raymond graduated this spring with honors from Estill High School in Hampton County, South Carolina. From one milestone to another, he was one of 305 students to begin their college careers at Newberry this fall. For Raymond and others like him, while the COVID-19 pandemic loomed, nothing could completely eclipse the significance of the moment, nor the benefits of returning to a small, safe, living-learning community.
“As a first-year student, my first semester at Newberry was pretty good, considering the fact that we were going through a pandemic,” said Raymond, a business administration and healthcare management double-major. “I feel like I learned a lot of new things, there were some great professors that actually taught me. Overall, it was a great learning experience and a great first semester for me to be introduced to college.”
Maintaining classroom instruction for all 73 days of fall semester exceeded all expectations, especially when so many large universities across the country were forced to revert to online instruction during the fall. The first day marked the end of a five-month separation that sent the latter half of spring semester online. The last day proved the resilience of the Newberry College community in the face of crisis, and the Wolves’ ability to turn obstacles into opportunities.
College President Maurice Scherrens said it best, in a virtual November town hall meeting with staff: “Every obstacle is nothing more than an opportunity in disguise.”
Small and safe
In preparation for fall, Newberry College reconfigured many aspects of its small residential campus to better curb the risks of the spread of illness. This effort included getting more out of the campus’ beautiful outdoor spaces and creating more space indoors.
A tent was erected outside the Alumni Music Center, which has since hosted weekly worship services, musical rehearsals and performances, and open-air class sessions. A new venue, affectionately called Ernie’s Porch after the retiring Campus Pastor Ernie Worman, now stands outside Kaufmann Hall’s west wing. The space will be available for more outdoor dining, class and study sessions, and more. The campus bookstore is also in the process of moving to a new building across Luther Street from its current location adjacent to the dining hall. This will also create more socially distant dining space.
Throughout the semester, the college saw a total of 116 positive COVID-19 tests, and the greatest number of active cases at any one time was 23. While the college was prepared for a potential outbreak, as seen in some larger universities, none came, and cases that did arise were handled quickly and effectively.
Students who tested positive and could not return home were provided isolated quarters in college-owned facilities near the main campus, which included meal deliveries and regular virtual checks with health care professionals and college staff. Most cases, however, isolated at home. Through the course of the term, each active case recovered and returned to normal activity.
“I would say the biggest asset in keeping our campus safe this semester was communication. We had a plan, and all key players were on the same page,” said Dr. Sandra Rouse, dean of students. “I would like to thank the Health Care Task Force – which included faculty, staff and community partners, specifically individuals from Newberry County Memorial Hospital and SCDHEC – for their hard work and expertise.”
While similar procedures were standard among colleges that did return to campus this fall, perhaps Newberry’s greatest advantage came in its size. The historical benefits of a small, close-knit campus showed in full form amid the global pandemic, when ease of communication and Newberry’s shared commitment to community health proved invaluable.
“We here at Newberry are known for our small size, our 13-to-1 faculty-to-student ratio, our personal attention,” said Scherrens. “But this semester, we proved that we are small and safe, and that our size not only enhances the college experience, but also safeguards the health and well-being of the college community."
Back to the classroom
As classes began online on Aug. 17, as scheduled, students were given the option of coming back for in-person instruction or remaining home and taking classes online. Most students elected to return face-to-face, and residential students were brought back in phases to better adjust to the newness of study amid a global pandemic.
Academically, classes were offered in a hi-flex format, with some courses available online, but most classes were taught in person, socially distanced and with face coverings. Through the changes and learning curves, though, students and faculty were able to maintain both academic rigor and an individualized education experience throughout the semester from start to finish.
“Academically, I felt like it was going very, very fast … I mean, yes, it was rushed a little bit, but at the same time, I was still able to learn the appropriate material for each and every class I took,” said Mikayla Miles, a business administration major from Clio, South Carolina.
Faculty, who in the spring transitioned from in-person instruction to virtual learning in a matter of hours as the pandemic began, voluntarily increased their course loads in the fall to meet the demands of hi-flex instruction.
“I thought the semester went as smooth as it possibly could have gone considering the circumstances,” said Dr. John Lesaine, assistant dean of academic affairs and a 2007 Newberry graduate. “The faculty had to step outside of our comfort zone and adapt to the new norm just like the students did. There was some confusion at first because of the phased move-in but once we got through that, we were able to get the train rolling.”
Traditions in unprecedented times
While many college events, such as athletic competitions, had to be curtailed or postponed to minimize the risk of the spread of illness, some traditions continued on, though in very different forms. Homecoming, a Newberry tradition since 1923, was held in October entirely online, offering alumni opportunities to engage with classmates and college faculty and staff from wherever they were.
Near fall’s end, the college recognized the achievements of two classes of Newberry graduates in respective ceremonies in Eleazer Arena. The spring class, which included graduates who earned their degrees in July, honored 163 graduates from 14 states and 14 countries, and set the record for the largest graduating class in school history. The fall graduates, who walked ahead of officially receiving their degrees in December, numbered 88, from nine states and three countries. This, too, was the largest class of its kind to graduate from Newberry College.
“During our journey at Newberry College, we have made lasting memories, overcome adversities, and learned how to be resilient,” said May 2020 graduate and former Student Body President Akio Brown, at his class’ Nov. 21 commencement exercises. “I thank God that you and I have made it to witness the greatness of each other.”
Whatever it takes
Looking ahead, plans are underway for a safe return for spring 2021. New to the college this year, students will have the opportunity to take a cost-reduced online course in January, at the height of flu season. Students will return in phases for spring semester, which officially begins Feb. 1, following submission of a negative COVID-19 test dated within five days of their return.
Following a fall athletic season largely postponed for members of the South Atlantic Conference, the Wolves look forward to a full return to intercollegiate play in the spring. Provided health and safety can be maintained, the first half of the 2021 calendar will be shaded scarlet and gray as 19 sports play at nearly the same time. Already, though, the same community-minded spirit that led Wolf Nation through fall semester is shining promise on the upcoming term.
“As a team, our motto is ‘Whatever It Takes,’” said senior Lauren Huffman, a member of the softball team from Granite Falls, North Carolina. “Our season was cut short last year, and it was a such a blow to all of us. This motto means that we are going to do ‘Whatever It Takes’ to ensure that we stay on campus, we follow the rules, and we get to have our season.”