President Book, panel share planning process for the fall during virtual Parents Town Hall

The online event featuring the co-presidents of the Elon Parents Council and campus leaders covered a range of topics largely related to the university's plans in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

President Connie Ledoux Book and other campus leaders highlighted the steps Elon is taking to ensure a healthy and safe return to campus and in-person classes this fall during a virtual Parents Town Hall Wednesday.

“I have made a commitment to be here in the fall,” Book said during the hour-long online event. “I say that with 100 percent certainty.”

That path to that return to campus and in-person learning is now be paved by a task force that is mapping out protocols and changes to help ensure it can be accomplished safely, Book said. The university is building upon what it learned from a mumps outbreak on campus last fall and in its quick and effective transition to remote learning this spring in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, she said.

“It’s going to require some adaptations and some adaptive leadership,” Book said.

Book was joined for the discussion by Toni and Michael Brown P’20, presidents of the Elon Parents Council, as well as Vice President for Student Life Jon Dooley, Vice President for Enrollment Greg Zaiser, Vice President for Access and Success Jean Rattigan-Rohr and Assistant Provost Paul Miller.

Michael Brown asked the panel about the biggest challenges the university has faced during this disruptive time, with these campus leaders offering insights from their positions within the university. Zaiser explained that with the cancellation of campus visits this spring due to the pandemic, scores of accepted students were unable to come to Elon. During March and April, typically 2,000 accepted high school seniors visit Elon and this year that number was 39.

“This is a terrible situation for everyone everywhere, but in this work, it has been fascinating to see that you can actually recruit a class thanks to this kind of community and the work to make it happen,” Zaiser said.

MIller underscored the challenge in planning for a return to in-person learning given how many unknowns there are at this time. “It’s planning the steps forward that embrace the things we do well — engagement with our peers and students, supporting deep learning — but knowing with each step forward, there is uncertainty in the environment that is beyond our control,” Miller said.

Rattigan-Rohr said her conversations with students during the difficult time, many of whom are graduating this month but doing so away from campus, have been uplifting as she has seen the spirit with which they are navigating uncertain times and supporting each other. “They were making me feel hopeful,” Rattigan-Rohr said. “I was really, really taken and feeling hopeful because of how resilient these young people are.”

The town hall also included questions from viewers, with more than 1,300 tuning in for the live stream. One question was how Elon was altering classes to accommodate social distancing requirements as well as the possibility of some students not being able to attend in person. President Book noted that the task force is charged with devising methods for students to participate virtually in classes that will be held in-person. That can help the university respond if a student or faculty member were to become ill, or need to leave campus because a family member is ill. “We need the ability for people to isolate and then come back to class when they’re healthy,” Book said.

Dooley noted that from a residence life perspective, the university will be dedicating rooms on campus that will allow students to be isolated if they contract COVID-19 or have come in contact with someone who has COVID-19. Elon has an advantage over some much larger institutions due to the relatively small size of its residence halls, with fewer students coming in and out and having contact with one another.

The panel also fielded questions about plans for an in-person, on-campus celebration for the Class of 2020, which will participate in an online degree conferral ceremony on Friday, May 22. Planning for that celebration is now underway with input from students, faculty and staff, and it will be held once it is safe to host large gatherings on campus, but the details for when that will occur are not yet set.

“I think the future event in the fall or whenever the time presents itself will be a great time for students to be able to honor their relationships with one another as well as with the faculty and staff who have been a big part of their lives for four years,” Miller said.

President Book said until the university is confident that it can safely host a gathering that would draw thousands of people, she’s reluctant to declare a date for the celebration, and then to have to change it. “We will give families plenty of time to mark their calendars,” Book said.

All the panelists stressed the importance of communication going forward so that everyone on campus understands the importance of protocols such as wearing masks and social distancing. “If you want to continue to be on campus for the entire year, then everybody has to act responsibly,” Toni Brown said.

Rattigan-Rohr said she has seen students become creative in how they interact with each other, but that everyone must remain vigilant. “Communication is going to be key,” she said. “We can’t stress that enough.”