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Alert from Chancellor: Invoking Thanksgiving Option


Dear Red Wolves:

We have made it to November, and once again, I want to applaud you for your diligence over the past 10 weeks. I have never taken for granted how hard this semester has been on everyone. Every student and employee on our campus faced tremendous hurdles – first, by getting ready to Return to Learn and then, by following the plan. Several traditional campus events have been cancelled and everything else has been modified. Our classroom experience (something that we cherish so much) has been changed in a way that would not be recognizable a year ago.

In spite of the challenges, you followed your plan and because of that, your Return to Learn plan worked. You masked up and reminded others to do the same. You physically distanced yourself from others. You avoided large gatherings. You innovated to create events that limited the spread of coronavirus but also provided much-needed social experiences. You drained our hand sanitizer canisters all over campus. You complied with isolation/quarantine orders. You created alternative learning opportunities for our students and made accommodations for students who were in isolation/quarantine. After our initial peak of COVID cases at the beginning of the semester, you adjusted your habits and you reduced the rapid spread of the virus on our campus. You took on additional duties when your colleagues were not able to come to work. You made it work and the proof is in the relatively low spread of coronavirus on our campus for most of the semester.

Despite your hard work on our campus, I have grown increasingly concerned about what is happening beyond our campus – locally and statewide. COVID-related hospitalizations in northeast Arkansas, for example, more than doubled in October. The White House Coronavirus Task Force recently identified Jonesboro and Craighead County as being in the “Red Zone,” the highest level of COVID concern. In recent weeks, the number of positive tests in Arkansas has grown steadily. Just yesterday (November 5), for example, Arkansas had the highest number of people testing positive than any other day since the advent of the pandemic. Regrettably, our home county has been in the top five in the state for the past two weeks. Along with the Arkansas Department of Health, you can keep up with COVID statistics thru the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI) dashboard. Clearly, conditions have changed these past few months.

As you may recall, the Return to Learn plan we published in May included a faculty-designed proposal for optional post-Thanksgiving plans:

Recommendation #4: Thanksgiving Option

The Fall 2020 semester will begin as scheduled on August 25, with face-to-face courses planned for the entirety of the semester. However, we are recommending a contingency plan so that if there is a significant increase in coronavirus infection during the late fall, students may not return to face-to-face instruction after Thanksgiving. If this were to become necessary, the remaining lectures, study day, and final examinations will be delivered online. By making this recommendation now, faculty can plan their semester in case this scenario is enacted. As the decision regarding the Thanksgiving option would not be made until absolutely necessary, faculty should use the upcoming summer weeks to prepare for this potential need. Faculty will have the option to allow certain classes (i.e. laboratories, hands-on activities and/or clinical experiences) to continue after Thanksgiving or to advance them so that they are done before Thanksgiving.

Based on the all of the evidence in front of me, I have decided to invoke the post-Thanksgiving option as described above. That means that most classes and final exams will be offered through online delivery in the weeks following the Thanksgiving break.

Instructors who prefer to continue teaching classes in-person must seek permission to do so from the Provost. His decision to approve such classes will be based on pedagogy, and he has the authority to permit certain classes that are very difficult to offer online to be offered in-person (e.g., laboratories, hands-on activities and/or clinical experiences). This plan mirrors exactly what we did in the Summer Session II in July.

I understand that Thanksgiving is still two weeks away, and we all hope that conditions will improve quickly, but I have learned to be cautious when predicting the spread of coronavirus. With the growth of COVID-19 infections across the state (and beyond), it is logical to predict that students going home for Thanksgiving and then returning to campus 10 days later could increase the likelihood of spread on our campus. If that were to happen, then we could observe increased spread across the state (and beyond) as students return home for winter break. Given that our instructors have been planning for this possibility since May, I am confident that we will be able to make this transition to mostly online instruction at the end of this semester.

We will send out more information about our transition in the coming days, but here are a few answers to questions you may be asking yourself as you read this email.  

Campus is Not “Closed”
Unlike our transition to all-online instruction in the spring, we are not mandating remote work at this time. Campus will continue to be open and employees will continue to serve on campus just like before Thanksgiving. This is the model that worked very well during our Summer Session II in July 2020. All residence halls, the Acansa Dining Hall, the Reng Student Union, the Student Health Center, the Dean B. Ellis Library, student academic support services (e.g., The Learning Commons), and the Red W.O.L.F. Center will remain open until December 18, 2020.

Help for Transition of Classes
Instructors who need assistance with the transition to mostly-online instruction (especially the creation of online final exams) are encouraged to reach out to Antonia Jones in our A-State Online office (anjones@AState.edu). The Academic Calendar and final exam schedule will continue to be followed. The only change is that the modality will now be mostly-online. I ask that instructors reach out to their students as soon as practical to let them know how these changes will affect their individual classes.

In light of our shift to mostly online instruction, I have asked that the Faculty Senate consider re-instating the Credit/Non-Credit option for the Fall 2020 semester. I anticipate a decision on that very soon. Students need to exercise care when electing to use C/NC, so click here to see how it worked in Spring 2020. If it is recommended by the faculty, I would anticipate C/NC working similarly to last spring.

Late Semester Events
The university will not approve any new in-person and on-campus student/employee events post-Thanksgiving. I am aware of student events that have already been planned, so I have authorized Dean of Students Martha Spack to approve those on a case-by-case basis. We will also continue to closely monitor conditions, and if necessary, we will consider modifying or canceling events before Thanksgiving as well.

Teaching, Learning, and Research
Our deans have asked me to remind instructors that one of the biggest problems that we faced in our transition to all-online instruction last spring was without face-to-face interactions, communication with our students became more difficult to maintain.  In the online environment, it is vital that our instructors communicate clearly and regularly with our students. That includes timely grading and responding to emails. Also, faculty members and graduate students will continue to engage in their research endeavors (following our COVID-19 protocols) since campus remains open.

Fall Commencement
We are still planning to have an in-person commencement ceremony at 1 p.m. in Centennial Bank Stadium on December 19 following the same protocol that we used in August. Just like this summer, a graduates-only ceremony in the Student Activity Center is the inclement weather back-up location. Should conditions warrant it, we will consider postponing commencement ceremonies to a later date in 2021. Watch for more details at the Registrar’s Office website soon.

Spring 2021
Our current plan is that the spring semester will look much like the fall semester at A-State. That means we are offering a mix of fully in-person, hybrid, and fully online courses. Some instructors will offer online versions of their in-person class, but they are not be required to do so. Now is the time for students to make their plans for the spring, especially if they want to construct an all-online (or as online as feasible) spring schedule. I encourage students who seek a 100% online option to begin working with their advisers now about the potential for an online class schedule.

Spring Break
While some universities in Arkansas have already canceled Spring Break, our plan is to continue following the current Spring 2021 calendar. If conditions warrant a change, we will announce that in late January. Today’s announcement should reinforce to you that we will make adjustments when circumstances require it. We will have more details on our Spring Break options in the coming weeks.

* * * * * * * * * * *

I know that this is a lot to process. This has been a challenging semester.  In spite of all our efforts to keep things as normal as possible, our goal has always been to limit the spread of the virus while pursuing our teaching, research, and service missions. Your dedication to excellence this fall is inspiring, and I hope it will encourage you in the future as you face other challenges. Well done!

That said, now is not the time to let our guard down. Keep following the plan. Keep wearing your masks (you have done SO well with this!). If you are feeling ill, PLEASE get tested. I know that some of us worry about getting tested because we don’t want to be put in isolation or to cause our friends to be placed into quarantine. But not getting tested puts others at risk. Above all, if you feel sick, stay home. Let’s continue to do our part to keep everyone around us safe.

#MaskUp & #WolvesUp,

Kelly Damphousse