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HENDERSON, Tenn. — When students returned to the Freed-Hardeman University campus in August, the Christian school’s administrators knew balancing safety with “normal” student life would be a challenge.
“We’re not an online university, and we do not want to be one,” said Dave Clouse, FHU’s vice president of community engagement. “There are a lot of places where you can do online education, but the value of Freed-Hardeman University is being together on campus, being part of a community and having that experience.”
The faculty and staff at FHU — like leaders at other universities associated with Churches of Christ — were committed to delivering an outstanding in-person education during the COVID-19 pandemic, no matter the challenge.
The West Tennessee school’s goal was to find the right balance in allowing students back on campus while doing what the university could to avoid an outbreak.
“We knew we were going to have to be very effective with quarantine and isolation. We didn’t come into the school year thinking there wouldn’t be a case on campus,” FHU President David Shannon said. “We came into it saying we have to be ready to properly and carefully manage the virus.”
When classes moved online this past spring, university officials immediately began work on guidelines for the fall semester, including masks and social distancing.
Shannon said he listened carefully to the governor of Tennessee as well as the state Health Department and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. FHU also asked students, parents, faculty and staff for their input.
In September, there was a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases on campus. There were 100 positive student cases, and an additional 259 students were quarantined.
“It caused a lot of stress and loneliness for most people,” said Abigail McCain, a sophomore whose home congregation is the Bella Vista Church of Christ in Bentonville, Ark.
Students who tested positive were instructed to isolate in specific dormitories for 10 days. Those who had only been exposed were instructed to quarantine for 14 days, in hopes of reducing any further spread.
“We didn’t come into the school year thinking there wouldn’t be a case on campus. We came into it saying we have to be ready to properly and carefully manage the virus.”
“It’s not easy having all your freedom whisked away from you for even just a few days,” said Madeline Carter, a sophomore whose home congregation is the Green Hills Church of Christ in Nashville, Tenn.
The outbreak was mostly contained to students. Only a handful of faculty and staff members tested positive for the virus.
For students, quarantine proved challenging, both physically and mentally.
“The fear of missing out became a real concern for students,” said Jud Davis, an associate professor of art.
“As I Zoomed with my students, it seemed that the virus was just a nuisance and the least of their worries,” Davis added. “Their biggest worry was missing out on activities with their friends. They wanted to be on campus enjoying the experience that FHU provides.”
Navigating classes during this confusing time also has been stressful.
“It is a lot to adjust to,” said Hannah Young, a junior from Queens, N.Y., where she attends the Long Island Church of Christ. “But when you are under an administration like the one at Freed-Hardeman that has done the absolute most to provide a healthy atmosphere, your fears dissipate, and you end up thoroughly enjoying your semester with people you love and cherish.”
Cases on campus dropped quickly after the spike, said LeAnn Davis, associate vice president of academics. As cases dropped, she became a proponent of letting students resume many of their club interactions.
“Students come to this institution not only for the in-person classes but also for their friendships and social lives,” LeAnn Davis said. “Just cutting off the socialization activities is so unhealthy. I was glad (that) when our cases subsided we were able to relax some of the policies initiated during the spike to allow for more of that.”
While campus officials are trying to maintain some levels of normalcy, the changes are hard to ignore.
“Life on campus is much quieter. The flow of students has been one-directional due to the regulations of people having to enter on certain doors,” said Nathalie Brumback, director of retention. “Large groups of students are smaller … but most of all there are no hugs, and I miss that.”
While professors are grateful to have students on campus this semester, they are looking forward to the day when they can interact with students without masks.
“Life on campus is much quieter.”
“I think the faculty are going to be glad when this COVID-19 issue is behind us and more manageable,” LeAnn Davis said. “The students can use facial expressions, and I think they are going to be more comfortable when talking in class without masks.”
FHU administrators say the response to the virus and plans for the future are in line with the school’s mission to provide a godly environment for students.
“Our life is always going to be measured by how we respond to things, not by what is happening to us,” Shannon said. “This virus is no exception to that. The question I ask myself (is), ‘When all of this has subsided … where am I going to be spiritually?’”
NATALIE CORBELLI is a sophomore majoring in photography and digital media writing at Freed-Hardeman. She is from Jamestown, N.Y., where she attends the Jamestown Church of Christ.
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