By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Fall 2020 was a semester unlike any other.
Smiling faces were covered by cloth face masks. On-campus activities and athletic events were disrupted. And classes were modified to ensure learning continued during a global pandemic.
It wasn’t a great semester, John Falconer admits, acknowledging the stressful situations University of Nebraska at Kearney students, staff and faculty faced.
“But given the context, I think it turned out pretty well,” he said.
Falconer, who serves as senior adviser to the chancellor for executive affairs, was pleased with the university’s ability to provide a safe learning and work environment for students and employees while operating “as close to normal as possible” under the circumstances.
After finishing the spring semester through remote learning, UNK officials committed to in-person instruction for the fall semester and began developing a COVID-19 response plan to support that goal. This in-person experience is a critical part of UNK’s mission.
“That’s what our identity is,” Falconer said. “We’re not a Phoenix or a Bellevue. What we do is really driven by the residential experience, and we do that because it’s more valuable for students in that 18- to 24-year-old age group.”
These students, who develop soft skills, gain self-confidence and build lifelong relationships while receiving a high-quality education, also wanted to be on campus this fall.
“Almost every student who I’ve talked to has been grateful that we were in-person this semester,” said Max Beal of Kenesaw, UNK’s student body president. “And I think the data suggests we’ve been pretty successful.”
It took a team effort to make that happen.
UNK Facilities Management installed plastic barriers, upgraded air-handling systems and distributed hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes across campus. Custodial staff implemented enhanced cleaning protocol. Student Health and Counseling conducted contact tracing and tracked COVID-19 cases on campus. And faculty adjusted their courses to promote social distancing and provide online options for students who couldn’t be in the classroom.
From dining services and the bookstore to residence life and athletics, every UNK department and office played a part in the plan.
“Everywhere across campus, everyone gave more. That’s what made it work,” Falconer said. “This commitment speaks volumes about the people who are here.”
UNK students demonstrated the same dedication.
“They desperately wanted to be here,” said biology professor Paul Twigg, who also serves as interim chair of UNK’s Department of Music, Theatre and Dance. “I didn’t have a day when I had students come into my class and not want to wear a mask. They were doing the work to be here.”
“We have really good students,” he said. “They’re resilient. They’re academically focused. They’re considerate of one another and of our community.”
“We couldn’t have done this without the diligence and dedication of students,” he added.
Although there were plenty of challenges, Beal said the fall semester “definitely beat my expectations.” He took a mix of in-person and online classes and was “really impressed” with how well faculty adapted to the situation.
“I think a lot of students had the same experience,” Beal said.
As part of its COVID-19 plan, UNK extended winter break and added a three-week intersession, scheduled for Jan. 4-22, that allows students to earn credit hours in an online course or pursue an experiential learning opportunity such as an internship or research project.
When the spring semester begins Jan. 25, students and employees can expect similar health protocols – face masks, social distancing and event restrictions – to be in place.
“With the vaccines coming out, that’s very hopeful, but we’re not in the clear yet,” Beal said. “We need to remain vigilant and continue making smart decisions.”
Falconer expressed the same level of cautious optimism heading into the new year.
“I’m more confident now because I know the policies that we put into place work,” he said. “We all have more experience and are better prepared.”