Lehigh Leadership Discusses Fall Semester in Third ‘Community Conversations’

President John Simon noted that Lehigh has made significant investments in remote teaching and learning to ensure a rigorous academic experience.

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Mary Ellen Alu

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Lehigh President John Simon opened the third in a series of “Community Conversations” Tuesday by addressing the many changes that will be in place for the fall 2020 semester, one which will limit the on-campus experience to first-year students and those granted an exception for campus access because of unique or personal circumstances.

“I asked to join today's meeting, so that I could briefly discuss the process of our decision-making,” Simon said. “Our goal since we went remote last March was to bring all students back to campus as soon as conditions would safely allow. I, like you, am disappointed that this cannot occur this fall. “

He said faculty, staff and administrators had worked diligently to prepare for a safe return to campus, as they explored how to safely hold a large number of in-person classes and house students, effectively clean spaces and assess how much space would be needed for isolation should a student test positive for COVID-19. Overriding the planning was a hope that the arc of the pandemic would improve over the summer, but that did not occur, he said. 

Another key factor in Lehigh’s decision to limit the on-campus experience was a lack of assurances that COVID-19 tests would be sufficiently available and that test results would be received in acceptable turnaround times. All that led to the “difficult decision,” Simon said, to offer on-campus housing predominantly to first-year students.

While it’s disappointing that the entire Lehigh community cannot reconvene on campus in the fall, he said, “we strongly believe it is the right decision for Lehigh and our campus community.”

Simon said he’s in regular discussions with university presidents in the region and across the country, in which they share ideas, best practices and information on how institutions are positioning themselves to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

“Our decision at Lehigh is informed by this landscape, the latest health guidance from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and other agencies, advice from health professionals, conversations with state and local governments and motivated by our highest priority, the safety of our community,” he said.

Simon was joined in the 75-minute online discussion by Provost Nathan Urban, Vice President for Student Affairs Ric Hall and Dean of Students Katherine Lavinder, who answered questions that were submitted both live and in advance. A second, hour-long discussion followed on housing.

Simon assured those attending the webinar that Lehigh has made significant investments in remote teaching and learning over the past several months.

“We are committed to providing the rigorous academic experience Lehigh University is known for,” he said. “I often have employers tell me that Lehigh students are really well prepared for life after graduation. That won't change. The value of a Lehigh degree will be undiminished during this time.”

Urban reiterated that the academic experience will be “outstanding,” whether students opt to participate in classes in-person or remotely. Those who opt to be fully remote will receive a 10% tuition reduction. 

But even for those who will be living on or near campus, Urban said, the fall semester will look and feel different, with students required to wear masks and to social distance, with access to campus facilities limited, and with no fall sporting events. All events in the Zoellner Arts Center have been cancelled.

“It's really a community of responsibility that we have to undertake in order to prevent the virus from spreading within our community,” Urban said. He also cautioned that the situation with the virus could change again, depending on government mandates, potential outbreaks on campus or limited access to hospital beds in the region. 

“There are many things we will be tracking,” he said. 

Hall, vice president for student affairs, said students will see physical changes to campus, such as fewer seats around tables, limitations on the number of people in elevators and taped-off couch sections to ensure social distancing. Informal study spaces will not be accessible. Signs will remind people to wear masks and to social distance. 

Lavinder, the dean of students, said staff will take on a broader role in planning events, as clubs and organizations will be limited by space restrictions, in terms of what's permissible and what's safe to do on campus. 

“Our staff [is] really taking a look at what events they can program, both virtually and in person, to make sure that students are having opportunities to engage,” she said.  

First-year orientation, which introduces students to campus life, and family orientation also will be virtual. Lavinder said the goal of first-year orientation is to help students connect to each other and expose them to resources on campus. She said the Office of First-Year Experience is working on building orientation groups to help students to navigate Lehigh. Programs such as Lehigh’s 5-by-10 programs also will continue, as well as movie nights and painting activities.

Greek life will be impacted, as the fraternity and sorority houses will not be operational this fall. Most of the groups’ activities will be conducted virtually. Lavinder said the Office of Fraternities and Sororities are thinking about what virtual experiences and recruitments could look like. 

“The chapters will continue to function,” Hall said. “It will just be different.” 

Hall said that while students will be able to move on and off campus, the hope is that students will be responsible regarding issues of health and safety around COVID-19. Expectations are that gatherings be limited in size to 10 people or less and that students will follow the Lehigh University Code of Conduct. 

Faculty, students, and staff who are coming to campus will be also trained in university policy on mask wearing, social distancing and other requirements. They also will need to provide information via an app about any symptoms that they might have. 

Lehigh will provide guidance to faculty and staff in how to have conversations with people not wearing a mask. Health and safety will take precedence. Also, the administrators said they don’t anticipate an increase in police presence on campus, as members of the Lehigh community will be holding themselves and each other responsible for a safe campus. 

Learn more about this series and find helpful information and resources on Lehigh’s COVID-19 Information website

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Mary Ellen Alu

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