Allegra Thatcher, Assistant Editor.
The 2020-2021 school year has certainly presented challenges for communities across the globe when social distancing is required for everyone’s safety and sports games are mostly cancelled because of COVID-19. Yet at Thomas More University, students and faculty are making sure authentic education still occurs, safely.
From an academic standpoint, a little more than 90 percent of students are either on campus in person or doing a combination between in person and online courses. President Joe Chillo said that since so much of the Catholic college experience happens in person, the students knew they wanted to come back for instruction.
“As we were planning for the fall back in April and May when we were in the thick of things, our students and their families overwhelmingly wanted this in-person experience,” said President Chillo. “This fall we opened up with the second-largest enrollment of the university, we had the third largest freshman class coming in. So I think those things speak to where the families and students were at in terms of coming back to campus.”
He said the experience during March of transitioning 500 classes from entirely in-person to entirely online challenged faculty, staff and students alike to greater innovation and agility that is being carried over into the fall semester.
“I think it gave our faculty and staff a taste and experience of what this was going to look like and it became clear that our faculty would have to continue to engage our students in that type of environment,” he said.
Thomas More is using larger spaces like halls for classes so that students can effectively distance. Smaller classrooms have been turned into Zoom spaces.
“It was really an effective job by our registrar and our academic leadership team in looking at space across campus and how we could effectively transform that space to work in this environment,” said President Chillo.
Michael Thompson, a senior at Thomas More studying fine arts (painting) and creative writing, said his classes are all in-person except for his senior seminar, which is being conducted with various professors over Zoom.
“From an art student’s perspective, it’s a lot more sterile because usually we’re very hands-on people,” said Mr. Thompson. “If another student needs help, we’re right there and are able to touch what they’re working on, show them how to do it … often we’re collaborating. Because of COVID-19, that’s very difficult to do because we have to keep six-foot distance in the studio. We can’t share supplies … it’s much more of an individual work area than the collaborative shared experience that I’m used to.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Thompson said he wouldn’t substitute the experience for anything. “Part of the reason I chose Thomas More in the first place was that I love the way that the liberal arts are taught here,” he said. “I love how the professors want to help you learn and how often classes are discussion-based experiences. Probably anyone that chose Thomas More because of the liberal arts Catholic education values that discussion-based experienced and being able to be in person with your professor or your peers because it’s a very different experience to look at someone eye to eye and have a conversation … it’s a lot easier to understand someone face to face than in a chat room or discussion board.”
Numerically, the university has had 31 students in quarantine or isolation as of Oct. 1, and only seven of those quarantined on campus. Students who could go home have done so. Reduced capacity in student housing has given adequate space for quarantining and isolation when students display symptoms.
One of the biggest changes this year, President Chillo said, was having to modify events based on social distancing requirements laid out by the CDC, the governor’s office and local health officials. The events themselves get few and far between, and the lesser numbers mean they “don’t really have the same feel as they’ve done in the past.”
Mr. Thompson said it’s been hard on students to not have those social experiences on campus, and he’s not alone with being less likely to attend when things are scheduled — even with safe distancing. Students value being in the classroom and, since the types of activities at events are so limited, students don’t want to risk getting involved if they think it might not be worth it. Even Mr. Thompson, who used to attend many events, is more skeptical, so he knows people who are more introverted will certainly be less likely to attend.
School spirit has also been challenged by lack of live sports games. While student athletes are practicing lightly right now, there have been no competitions to attend. The school has participated in events like cross country meets, but sports like soccer and basketball have been pushed back.
Yet through it all, President Chillo said students have come together to combat the pandemic extremely well. “I’m watching our students show resiliency, showing understanding and commitment to the policies that have been put in place to make sure we practice effective social distancing, and a good healthy and safe environment,” he said. “Our students are deeply appreciative and hard working. In some ways, when you don’t have that traditional school spirit through athletics, it’s coming out in other ways and I see the best of that coming out in our students and faculty.”
“I think that these clubs are really trying to make sure school spirit stays high and people stay involved, but I think more than anything, school spirit right now is just collectively trying to keep each other safe,” said Mr. Thompson. “That’s what we’re doing as a campus.”
Another change, Mr. Thompson said, is a lack of student presence in the work-study programs which normally involved students working in Admissions or Student Life, for example. He said many students don’t see the value in making minimum wage for those types of jobs if they’re in harm’s way, so the jobs aren’t taking place this year.
“It’s a loss for the university as well as the students because … there’s a close bond between administrators and students and professors here, and I think a lot of that is facilitated by student workers,” he said.
President Chillo sympathizes with the students, who aren’t experiencing college in the way most have in the past. “They want to have that university experience and right now they’re getting that in a very modified way. … We’re going to have to continue to think through ways to engage our students and create the sense of community that Thomas More is known for,” he said.
He’s looking ahead to future school years with hope, however, that some of the newly implemented practices will make the university experience even better.
“I think the agility we’re creating here at the university is something we’re going to put into place for the spring and we’re being mindful of the academic calendar and structure out the spring semester,” said President Chillo.