Lessons Learned from the Fall 2020 Semester
Dear colleagues –
Regardless of our roles at the university, each of us are learners in many different ways. From the past fall semester, there are many lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic that we’ll carry forward as a community into the spring.
Resiliency abounded among all, and our extensive health and safety protocols and robust testing program showed that we could successfully move forward in our education and research missions despite the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Together, we responded quickly to changing conditions, which included instituting new support mechanisms to continue our path forward for the entire Vanderbilt community.
As we begin the spring semester, I wanted to share with you some of the lessons learned that have informed our planning for the spring.
- Multiple prevention mechanisms are required to slow the spread of COVID-19, especially face masks, physical distancing and limiting gathering sizes. Our campus COVID positivity rates remained below Nashville community rates, thanks to overall compliance with protocols and strategies that included hotlines and public health ambassadors. In the fall, we also showed how rapid, careful contact tracing paired with robust asymptomatic periodic testing is important. This semester we’ve updated our testing program with a new vendor and expansions in the frequency of testing in different populations. We’ve also expanded our infrastructure to include school/college-based testing coordinators.
- Compliance of our protocols was generally high, but, inevitably, we saw increases in positive cases as activities off campus had an impact. Student Accountability referrals increased, due to violations of COVID protocols. From the work of our incredibly dedicated and responsive Dean of Students office, we learned that enforcement and accountability must be coupled with support and outreach for the best result.
- Thanks to the efforts of dedicated faculty and staff, undergraduate academic performance remained strong and relatively unchanged compared to metrics from fall 2019. Average GPAs and teaching evaluations were on par with or higher than in past years. We heard from many students that in-person instruction provided a sense of normalcy amid the disruptions of the pandemic. We learned that meeting the needs of our students, both on campus and remote, took constant reimagination, and we will continue innovating to maintain the levels of excellence we are all committed to. Acknowledging the additional complexities of teaching classes with a mix of both in-person and remote learners, we introduced the Vanderbilt Strong Faculty Grant Program. The program is also focused on helping move forward faculty research projects that were delayed or paused due to pandemic working constraints. Thus far, we’ve awarded almost 100 grants across our rapid cycle and gap grant programs.
- Mental health and wellness remain a top priority this spring. With our fall return to campus, we all faced navigating a new normal that included new protocols and changing public health guidance, and we had to engage and interact in ways never experienced. A quick pulse survey of our students in October showed that many of our students are experiencing stress, anxiety and emotional challenges due to the pandemic. In the fall, we stepped up and added further well-being and support services and created custom programming. This spring, we will continue university-led social activities (ex: guided meditation, outdoor workouts and trivia nights) and mental health and services programming (ex: virtual community-building efforts, enhanced telehealth options and reformulated drop-in services). We are also continually searching for solutions to support faculty and staff. Vanderbilt launched the Employee COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund, expanded childcare options and resources and extended the “tenure clock.” The Faculty Development Committee is also focusing its efforts this spring on considering recommendations on how to account for the impact of the pandemic conditions on the processes for reappointment, tenure and promotion.
- New technology, pedagogies and training are critical for the “new classroom.” Faculty were incredibly innovative as they adapted their instruction modalities to include remote students and students learning in-person in a socially distant manner. Based on faculty input, even more technology support is being launched. Starting in January, VUIT expanded faculty access to support services including small groups and 1:1 technology assistance. The Center for Teaching also increased their instruction technology staff and are at the ready for training and evening and weekend phone support for Brightspace.
Our lessons learned from the fall semester will be our guide as we face another semester much changed from normal. This is due to the global pandemic, as well as the crises our nation faces in supporting social justice and democracy. For the spring semester I am hopeful, based on the countless stories of perseverance, adaptation and innovation across our Vanderbilt community. As we navigate the days ahead, we will be stronger together.
Susan R. Wente
Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs
COVID-RELATED QUICK LINKS
Faculty Return to Campus
Staff Return to Campus
Faculty Adaptive Teaching Resources
Public Health Command Center