Section: Features

Working groups ease transition as fall semester begins

With in-person classes resuming for the fall semester, members of the Kenyon community have been collaborating all summer to mitigate the issues — big and small — brought about by COVID-19.

Joseph Klesner, senior advisor to the president, was asked by President Sean Decatur to establish working groups in order to design a safe reopening plan and, according to Klesner, “develop answers to specific questions that the COVID-19 pandemic has posed to the College.”

Each working group forms a list of policy recommendations that senior staff will ultimately accept or refuse. “To my knowledge, [senior staff] took basically every recommendation,” Bradley Berklich ’22, a member of the Social Gatherings Group, noted.

Currently, 14 working groups and 15 subcommittees have been established to address the challenges posed by COVID-19. Composed of students, faculty and administrators, their scope extends to various corners of Kenyon’s community. Some working groups concentrate on adapting the logistics of campus life, while others focus on devising a safe dining agenda. One group, for instance, assesses how the College can support its employees who, because of COVID-19, must now manage child and elder care in addition to their regular responsibilities.

Director of First-Year Experiences and Student Success Lacey Filkins, chair of the Campus Move-in subcommittee and member of the Programming Throughout the Year working group, explained that critical thinking was crucial to their plans.

“Both [Move-in and Programming Throughout the Year] groups started by asking the question ‘what makes Kenyon, Kenyon?’ Filkins wrote in an email to the Collegian. “Then, how do we recreate that in a socially distanced and/or virtual way? … The biggest challenge for both groups has certainly been thinking creatively so as to maintain the integrity of the Kenyon experience,” she added. Filkins stressed the importance of students, faculty and staff to experience that “Kenyon feeling” of community despite the obstacles posed by COVID-19.

The Campus Move-in subcommittee coordinated a safe move-in system that satisfies state and local social distancing guidelines; an oversight in this phase could have made an in-person semester impossible to complete safely.

As a member of three working groups, Delaney Gallagher ’23 attended a meeting almost every weekday during the summer. “Every single aspect that you could possibly think of that went into student life and how college works had to be reevaluated and there were people dedicated to talking about it,” Gallagher explained.

Students experienced the results of the Public Health and Campus Move-in working groups from the moment they arrived on the Hill at the beginning of the fall semester. Upon arrival, every student went to the Kenyon Athletic Center to self-administer a COVID-19 test with Everlywell Labs. Director of the Cox Health and Counseling Center Chris Smith, who chairs the Public Health working group, was finding some comfort in life’s uncertain moments responsible for researching which COVID-19 testing options would be best for students, faculty and staff. A subcommittee also formed from the initial Public Health working group with a specific focus in wastewater testing, which allows administrators to determine if COVID-19 is present within the community. Smith dubs this a “novel approach” to other colleges’ testing techniques.

Smith also serves on the Communications working group. Its various subcommittees strive to inform students and staff of public health measures through social media and foster a healthy culture that prioritizes community safety. While interacting with his colleagues, Smith has noticed an “underlying spirit of collaboration,” which he believes reflects the campus-wide ethos. “We all have collectively lifted a very heavy weight of trying to operate a college in the middle of a pandemic,” he said.

Student members reported that their contributions to committee discussions were valued. Biochemistry major Ryan Nader ’21 is a member of the Research Re-engagement working group, which has set protocols for reopening laboratories and other means of re-engaging research. Nader works alongside faculty and administrators to ensure that on-campus science labs are safe and accessible while following COVID-19 guidelines.

The Research Re-engagement working group made an extensive Google Sheet that details guidelines for every single lab on campus. The sheet includes information such as how many square feet the lab is, how many people can be accommodated at one time and which disinfection protocols the lab requires after use. The group also devised a Google Calendar where students and faculty inform one another when they will use the labs and for how long in-between, the spaces can be cleaned.

“Obviously it’s not going to be perfect,” Nader said. When more than one student uses the lab, it is likely that they will need to use similar equipment simultaneously. Despite this, Nader remained optimistic about the process. “We talk about it, we brainstorm, and we find different ideas that work,” he said.

It would be easy for many aspects of college life to become impersonal during the pandemic, so to the extent that they can, working groups have spent time ensuring the adjustments to students’ routines more comfortable. Some faculty and staff from the Communications group spent an hour touring the Science Quad and other academic buildings on South Campus to review signage inconsistencies across the buildings. Gallagher also spent an afternoon this summer asking fellow students about the furniture they would prefer in a study space via Instagram direct messages. This work, while less overt than matters of public health, has eased the semester’s transition.

So far, the working groups have achieved a successful move-in, COVID-19 testing agendas, dining protocols and research lab procedures, among other accomplishments. Administrators and student representatives have been resourceful in overcoming the difficulties of navigating a semester during a global pandemic, but they both acknowledge that their work is not over.

“It has been and certainly will continue to be an evolving process as safety guidelines and recommendations continue to evolve,” Filkins wrote. “While certainly a challenge, the positives have been the way the entire campus community has rallied and worked together to think creatively — and that, in my mind, is what makes Kenyon, Kenyon!”

 

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