Catholic Universities and Colleges Ready to Respond to COVID Threat This Fall

Special Report: Institutions of higher learning detail their response to coronavirus in a Register survey as they prepare to open classrooms and dorms this fall.

Christendom College and The Catholic University of America, and other Catholic colleges, are taking precautions on campus this semester.
Christendom College and The Catholic University of America, and other Catholic colleges, are taking precautions on campus this semester. (photo: Courtesy of Christendom College and Mehdi Kasumov / Shutterstock.com)

Students attending Catholic universities and colleges this fall will be facing a number of challenges in the first post-COVID19 school year.

New students will be adjusting to collegiate life while returning students will be making new discoveries as they continue their academic and spiritual formation.

But freshmen and upperclassmen will all face a unique situation as their schools respond to the coronavirus pandemic, seeking to ensure the safety and health of the entire campus, students, faculty and staff alike.

The Register reached out to administration officials at 30 Catholic universities and colleges with a survey asking for information about how the schools fared last year during the spring semester in response to the pandemic and how they were responding to the virus in their preparations for the 2020-2021 school year, seeking to balance the intellectual, social and spiritual life on campus with an effective response to the ongoing pandemic.

The Catholic universities and colleges that responded represented a fair sampling of large and small, urban and rural campuses, each indicating both the challenges they faced in their own particular circumstances and how they prepare to respond to these challenges as classrooms and chapels begin to fill with students. This report comes as the University of Notre Dame suspended in-person classes for two weeks, effective Aug. 19, as campus COVID cases climbed.

 

Catholic University of America

Mid-sized Catholic schools of higher education, such as The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., have raced to meet the pandemic head-on for the upcoming school year.

The concerns for COVID reached deep into CUA’s administration, as President John Garvey tested positive for the virus last March. Since then, among CUA’s 3,332 students enrolled for 2019-2020, two students also tested positive in late spring, after the school shut down in-person classes while students continued their studies remotely from their homes or other locales, CUA officials said in a statement to the Register. The students, the officials noted in their statement, were both priests.

“One of the priests resided off campus with his order,” the statement to the Register noted. “Another lived in Curley Hall on campus with other priests-in-residence and isolated in his personal room while he was ill.”

Over the summer, CUA submitted a proposed reopening plan to the District of Columbia.

In its statement to the Register, CUA noted, “Some of those details have changed since the July 31 decision to bring fewer students back to campus, but the general cleaning, health and safety guidelines will still be in place.”

Classes at CUA begin on Aug. 24, with freshmen living on campus required to comply with the D.C.-area’s quarantine mandate, which means, according to the CUA statement, that “in-person classes will not commence until Tuesday, Sept. 8. Upper-class students and most graduate students will study remotely through virtual instruction.”

Campus ministry will continue to livestream Masses for the CUA community on its Facebook page. “The pandemic has complicated our fall-enrollment planning because both new and returning students have continued to contemplate taking a semester or year off,” said Christopher Lydon, vice president for CUA’s Enrollment Management and Marketing Services. “We have been responding to inquiries about gap years (or semesters) throughout the summer. The changing nature of the national health emergency, and our own planning for the fall semester, have caused many more students than normal to consider other options.”
Lydon told the Register that the school expects new student enrollment to be 7%-9%, “smaller than we originally planned; and a larger-than-normal number of returning students have planned to take a leave of absence.” Graduate enrollment at CUA, Lydon added, will most likely remain the same or comparable to past years.

Jonathan Sawyer, CUA associate vice president for student affairs, spoke in early August directly with many of the concerned parents about the school’s COVID safeguards and guidelines, telling the Register that only two of the calls had been negative. 
“My reaction is that when parents get to hear the depth of what we are planning, why we have taken the actions (to limit the number of students on campus), how this helps us better densify and then better minimize spread, they are more than happy with what we are doing,” he said. “Those that we reach with personal messaging are comforted by what we are doing.”

 

University of Mary

Another mid-sized Catholic university, located in a more rural setting, the University of Mary (UM) in Bismarck, North Dakota, was COVID-free last semester, as well, Jerome Richter, UM’s executive vice president, told the Register. Last year’s enrollment numbered 2,534 undergraduate students. Classes at this Catholic institution are slated to start on Sept. 8, Richter said, who added that the school has sought to conform to the Peace Garden State’s official response to COVID-19 as it begins welcoming students back to campus.

“The University of Mary to the best of its abilities complies with the directives from the North Dakota Department of Health and the Diocese of Bismarck regarding restrictions,” Richter said. “Our own ‘Returning to Campus Guidelines, Protocols, and Monitoring System’ were modeled after the state’s ‘ND Smart Restart Protocols’ and include details on the appropriate precautionary measures that need to be taken depending on the current risk for COVID-19. These risk levels are progressive and include information on restrictions for aspects of campus life, such as classroom sizes, resident halls, in class/online classes, etc.”

The protocol manual, Richter noted, works on a graduated or progressive risk-level assessment process.

“Each progressive risk level involves increased precautionary measures and actions for every aspect of life on campus,” he said. “For example, at lower levels, in-class instruction will continue, but if the risk for COVID-19 increases, then the university will shift to a hybrid model and, if necessary, to online classes until the risk level decreases.” 

But the process also relies on the UM community, Richter added.

“Faculty, staff and students have also been asked to sign an ‘Honor Code,’ in which they agree to act out of concern for others by practicing behaviors designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” he said. “By signing, students acknowledge their personal responsibility to take preventative measures like social distancing, handwashing and isolating if sick.”

Because the school is located in the Diocese of Bismarck, UM also complies with diocesan guidelines on how to celebrate Mass and the sacraments.

These guidelines, Richter said, “involve seating every other pew, constant cleaning, and restrictions on guests at sacraments such as marriages and funerals. The University of Mary will abide by these guidelines for all liturgies.”

Despite the challenges that COVID-19 has posed around the country and around the state, UM’s officials began focusing on the upcoming fall semester even before the end of the previous school year.

“Since the early spring of 2020, the University of Mary has been dedicated to opening and allowing students to return to campus,” Richter said. “At this time, the University of Mary will open on time and without a reduction in the number of students admitted.”

“While some of the university’s long-standing traditional ‘Welcome Week’ events will be more complicated due to social distancing and other precautions,” Richter added, “the university is confident in its plans for reopening.”

According to Richter, UM “has been blessed to have enrollment remain steady for this coming fall,” with an 80% retention rate, “which is good even in non-pandemic times,” and a class size for incoming freshmen “similar … to past years.”

“It is hard to know exact numbers on which of the students who have declined to either return or come due to COVID-related reasons,” Richter added. “However, it is reasonable to assume it is a concern for most students in general. One impact this concern has had on the school is a tremendous increase in work to assure potential and current students that our campus will be safe and to make sure the concerns of parents are heard and met to the best of our availability.”

The rural locale of the campus will put the school in good stead this fall, Richter told the Register, noting that “our rural campus allows us to, in a sense, limit contact of our students more than an urban campus in a big city. We also are privileged to have a fully functioning student health clinic on campus that can administer COVID-19 testing as well as many other necessary services.”

 

University of Dayton and Fordham University

One of the largest Catholic universities to respond to the Register’s survey was the University of Dayton (UD) in Dayton, Ohio. With an undergraduate enrollment of 8,617 students during the 2019-2020 school year, UD reported zero cases of the virus among its students, faculty and staff.

With classes set to resume on Aug. 24, University officials who did not wish to be identified but responded to the Register’s request for information said that the school sought outside consultation in preparing for the new school year. 

“University leaders and working groups — with more than 100 faculty and staff, as well as student, members — have worked tirelessly with outside experts, including county public-health officials and a panel of local medical experts, to develop comprehensive return-to-campus plans,” UD officials told the Register. “Plans for fall include safety measures, such as COVID-19 testing protocol for students, an on-campus contact tracing team, mandatory training, face coverings, physical distancing and other topics.”

“Currently,” the officials added, “Ohio has a statewide mask mandate as well as other safety policies in effect. See more information from the state here.

The student body will be affected by the preparations for the new school year, UD officials acknowledged, noting, “Over 80% of undergraduate courses will be offered either fully face-to-face or in a blended format, while the remainder will be delivered through remote learning.” 

Likewise, UD campus life — and especially the faith life of its students — will see a change.

“Masses in the university’s Chapel of the Immaculate Conception will have a capacity of 50,” UD officials said. “Everyone must RSVP via an online portal in order to attend. The 10am Sunday Mass will be livestreamed as well. Safety measures will be in effect, including a dedicated entrance and exit procedure, suspension of congregational singing, and an amended Communion procession.”

UD officials said that the planning and consultation has paid off, at least if the response from students is any indication.

“We have been carefully planning, in consultation with public-health officials and our panel of medical experts, for fall semester,” officials told the Register. “There have been no delays or reduction in students [enrolled].” 

In their responses, UD officials said that “parents and students have expressed support for our safety precautions and are most appreciative of the university’s efforts to bring students to campus for fall semester.”

While the school does not comment on enrollment numbers before the school year (enrollment counts are not made official until the 15th day of classes at UD), officials contacted by the Register noted that “course registrations and students signing up for move-in days indicate that enrollment will remain strong.”

The largest Catholic university to respond to the Register’s survey, Fordham, in New York City, boasts an undergraduate enrollment last year of 9,645 students. The university also reported zero COVID cases during the 2019-2020 school year.

In a request for information about Fordham’s plans for the fall semester, Bob Howe, assistant vice president for communications, noted that the school is resuming in-person classes on Aug. 26; and for further information, he referred the Register to the university’s COVID-19 updates on its website.

“There is a lot of [information],” he told the Register, “and it changes rapidly.”

 

Christendom College

Small Catholic colleges are also preparing for the first school year begun in the shadow of the pandemic.

For Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, the new school year is full of promise, according to Zach Smith, associate director of marketing and communications for the school. Encouraged by a clean bill of health for its 493 students from the previous school year — Christendom reported zero COVID cases — Christendom begins classes on Aug. 25.

The virtues of a small college are part of the reason for the healthy status of the student body at Christendom, Smith told the Register, with few if any complications in either school opening or classroom logistics.

“We are blessed in having a small, rural campus at Christendom, so our class sections are much smaller than is typical in most institutions,” he said. “Even so, we are scheduling all classes at two-thirds capacity to facilitate social distancing and are equipping all classrooms with self-cleaning items for students and faculty to use before each class session. Assigned seating will be required, as well. We are also expanding serving times for dining and will be offering additional Mass times as well to meet distancing requirements in the state of Virginia.”

However, Smith added, these same state requirements have added a few wrinkles to the usual way of conducting classes and maintaining campus life at Christendom.

“Due to our smaller size, our opening has not been complicated by COVID,” he said. “We will not be holding a fall break this year, however, and will be ending in-person instruction by Thanksgiving in order to limit student travel.”

Integral to Christendom’s plans for the new school year, Smith said, was the taskforce that the college formed in May, “made up of professors, staff and medical professionals” and designed “to develop a robust response to COVID-19 for this fall.”

“In addition … the college has also expanded our [campus] nurse’s hours for this year and implemented additional measures for the health of students,” he said.

For parents and students, both returning and first year, Christendom’s COVID response action plan has been a success. Smith told the Register that the school is “expected to exceed our enrollment goals for the fall.”

“Rather than see a decrease in students due to the circumstances,” he added, “we are seeing the opposite occur, as new and returning students eagerly await to begin their education at Christendom.” 

 

Wyoming Catholic College

Out amid the Wind River Mountains, Wyoming Catholic College (WCC), which reported zero cases last year, is preparing to begin classes as originally scheduled before the pandemic on Aug. 25 with the customary convocation Mass and matriculation ceremony taking place on Aug. 23.

WCC President Glenn Arbery told the Register that restrictions are in place at the school, but he hopes that these restrictions will be temporary at best and “allow the college and especially the experience of the sacraments to be as normal as possible.”

“We will have restrictions in place,” Arbery said, “symptom checks, temperature checks, distancing, masks where necessary, and so on — until we are confident that no one in the student body has the virus. We will follow the state and diocesan guidelines when it comes to food service (masked servers, distance between tables of different households) and Mass attendance (masks and distancing).”

Arbery also said that while the pandemic hasn’t delayed the college’s academic schedule, the restrictions have “complicated it somewhat.”

“We have compacted the semester by omitting most days off and having classes on two Saturdays in order to end the semester by Thanksgiving,” he told the Register. “Second semester will start at the beginning of February.”

Despite the complications, Arbery said, the school is moving forward and expanding its numbers. In fact, he said, 2020 will serve as a historic marker for the school: welcoming the largest freshman class in its history — 60 incoming first-year students — and WCC’s overall enrollment is the highest in the school’s history, with neither students nor parents showing any great concern for how the school has addressed the pandemic.

“We are not aware of any students who did not come because of COVID,” he said. “As far as I know, the few students who did not return had other reasons than COVID.”

In responding to questions and feedback from WCC parents, Arbery said, the school takes a pragmatic and faith-filled approach to the pandemic.
“As I told the parents who accompanied freshman to WCC for the beginning of the 21-day backpacking expedition, we try to follow the advice of Msgr. Charles Pope in the National Catholic Register, who reminded Catholics to have courage because people in the past have been through far worse pandemics than this one,” he said. “We believe that, unless circumstances actually forbid it, we have a moral obligation to carry out the crucial work of education in person.”

Register correspondent Joseph O’Brien writes from Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.