HPU makes it through year of in-classroom learning amid COVID-19

Paul B. Johnson, The High Point Enterprise, N.C.
·5 min read

Apr. 18—HIGH POINT — College students Joe Maronski, Julia Velasquez and Sam Carr arrived at High Point University last August with a goal that would seem ordinary for any other school year: Make it through both semesters while remaining on-campus and taking classes with professors in person.

Despite the threats of the coronavirus pandemic swirling eight months ago, Maronski, Velasquez and Carr remained hopeful about having a full school year at HPU. But they eyed developments at other campuses where students were sent home shortly after arriving because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Now, as the final day of classes at HPU approaches on April 28, the three realize how fortunate they are.

One figure that Maronski, a sophomore from Long Island, New York, came across recently in a college student survey about COVID-19 brings home how unusual his experience has been this school year. Among several thousand college students surveyed across the country, only 5% said they ended up taking courses in person for the full academic year.

"I had this sort of 'aha!' moment," Maronski told The High Point Enterprise. "5% — we really are lucky."

HPU's ability to hold in-person classes throughout the school year reflects the university's financial commitment to counter COVID-19 and intensive planning for all contingencies, President Nido Qubein said. The university has spent $21 million on pandemic-related measures out of an annual university budget of $350 million, Qubein told The Enterprise.

"As difficult as this year has been, we have come through with an extraordinary performance," he said.

The university's planning for this school year began not long after students were sent home in March 2020 to finish that academic year remotely as the pandemic took hold locally. A COVID-19 task force was formed, meeting daily to address the hundreds of steps and details that would have to be ironed out to bring back students for the 2020-21 academic year.

Qubein said HPU followed the guidelines of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the N.C. Department Health and Human Services. The university tripled its health clinic space and secured area hotel rooms for students who had to be quarantined.

Crews converted spaces in buildings that weren't designed for instruction to become socially distanced classrooms. The university created a "Clean Team" — its members adorned in bright T-shirts — to cover the campus cleaning surfaces down to doorknobs.

Strict limits were placed on who could come through the gates to reach the campus, and mask mandates were placed on anyone on university grounds.

Qubein said the university addressed every possible contingency through the summer, with a goal of holding in-person instruction during both semesters of the 2020-21 school year.

"We did not panic, which means we prepared well," Qubein said. "We are a case study in how to adjust. Out of adversity can emerge abundance."

Another factor has played a key role in allowing HPU to have a full school year on campus, Maronski said: positive peer pressure.

"Everybody understood that it was all of our responsibilities to step up and make sure that everybody was doing what they were supposed to be doing," he said.

The positive peer pressure extended beyond personal appeals to the larger implications if HPU had to revert to online instruction, Maronski said.

"There are so many people employed by this university," he said. "If one student messes it up, then there are hundreds of people without a job. And I really do think that specific message hit home with a lot of students."

The university had only one period near the start of the school year when COVID-19 cases spiked. In early to mid-September, the university reported 160 active cases, about 3% of total students on campus at the time.

When the campus had that spike, many students shifted their attitudes as they saw the specter of having to go home, said Carr, a senior from High Point and president of the Student Government Association. The positive peer pressure made it socially unacceptable to hold unauthorized gatherings on campus.

"And now here we are, second semester, getting ready to end the year," said Carr, who attended high school at Wesleyan Christian Academy.

HPU's active COVID-19 case counts remain low as the school year nears an end. On Friday, the university's daily tally showed seven active student cases, representing 0.13% of all 5,600 undergraduate and graduate students. There were no cases among faculty and staff.

No one wanted their behavior to be the reason everyone had to go home, said Velasquez, a sophomore from Chicago.

"I think people really took that message to heart," she said. "We wanted to be here because we know we learn best in person."

Moranski said the university has kept students busy with regular outdoor activities, such as food trucks and an ice rink this past winter.

"You didn't have to gather indoors in small settings," he said.

Carr said as vaccines became available during the second semester, the university held a clinic so students could get inoculated.

HPU is scheduled to hold outdoor commencements May 7-8, though students will be limited to bringing no more than six guests. The ceremony will include a service for the class of 2020, whose graduation was held online last May.

Valesquez said she hopes HPU can serve as an example to other colleges.

"I think we showed the country it can be done," she said.

pjohnson@hpenews.com — 336-888-3528 — @HPEpaul