Preparing for a Fall Semester Like Never Before

professor in front of class

Preparing for a Fall Semester Like Never Before

While the spring 2020 semester abruptly moved to online learning due to the pandemic, the Whitman School, along with the entire University, had the opportunity to learn from and improve upon that experience as it put plans in place to make sure that the fall 2020 semester could move forward successfully in terms of providing a healthy environment and the highest standards of education.

While Central New York’s coronavirus statistics remained low over the summer and into the fall, the reality of students coming to campus from “hot spots” in other parts of the U.S. was of great concern, as was the ability of faculty and staff to support the Whitman School effectively and safely.

Members of the Whitman School’s planning team, including Associate Dean for Undergraduate and Master’s Education Alex McKelvie, professor of entrepreneurship; Anna Chernobai, associate professor of finance, who was recently named the school’s academic director of pedagogical innovation; and Kevin Bailey, assistant dean of marketing/communications and chief information officer, spent much of the summer preparing for a successful fall semester, where hybrid classes (some students in the classroom; others online simultaneously) dominated the curriculum.

Tackling New Technology

One of the priorities was preparing the Whitman School faculty to teach in a hybrid format, according to Chernobai, who led virtual training sessions over the summer months to teach the technology and methods needed to be successful in the classroom. Adding to the challenge was the need for this faculty training to be done online, primarily through Zoom. One advantage, according to Chernobai, was that many Whitman faculty had already taught online when the spring semester pivoted to virtual learning during the onset of COVID-19. Those who did not teach in the spring benefitted greatly from the willingness of their peers to help them quickly adapt to this new method of teaching.

This fall, the composition of students “required careful consideration of how to structure a course in a way that on-campus students and online students (some of whom were not able to come to campus due to health or travel concerns) received a comparable learning experience,” says Chernobai.

While preparations went on throughout the summer, McKelvie sent a memo to all Whitman faculty specifically outlining teaching techniques and guidelines for adjusting classroom technique to accommodate the hybrid format. Each Whitman faculty member was tasked with figuring out a rotating schedule of in-person and online learning, depending on class size and the number of students who could safely socially distance in assigned classrooms. The goal was to maximize classroom usage, so that students could be in the classroom as frequently as possible.

Faculty were also asked to do their best to accommodate students who could only attend classes virtually throughout the semester, particularly those who were unable to return to campus and were living in different time zones around the world.


Planning Had to Remain Fluid

Despite the school’s best efforts, plans remained “a fluid situation,” as officials from the University, Onondaga County and New York State closely monitored the number of COVID-19 cases on a daily basis. (In fact, the day after McKelvie released faculty instructions, New York State’s mandatory quarantine list grew to include individuals from 34 states, in addition to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. This sent the University scrambling to be sure returning students could meet the quarantine requirements in order to start classes on time.) Other complications included international students visa restrictions, particularly for the large student population from China, and pandemic-related financial struggles for families forced to consider whether the private university tuition was still an option.

According to McKelvie, the Whitman School worked diligently to assist students facing pandemic-related financial challenges, including adding two scholarships to help families for whom a few thousand dollars made the difference in their ability to continue to afford a Syracuse University education.

And, So It Began

When the semester began, only four Whitman classrooms had enough capacity to hold more than 20 students at once. Still, Whitman faculty successfully managed to teach 242 sections, including 64 graduate courses, primarily in a hybrid format. A synchronous — real-time — approach was a priority for the majority of undergraduate courses, while some asynchronous learning was deemed appropriate for a number of graduate courses. Ultimately, only 15% of classes were scheduled to be taught online only, due to large numbers of students or faculty with health issues.

The Whitman School was pleased to welcome approximately 600 first time students in the fall, according to McKelvie, including 120 internal transfers from other colleges within the University. Other new students included approximately 150 MBA and master’s students. Overall, Whitman had nearly 2,300 students eligible to be on campus and about 1,000 graduate students in online programs.

The University shortened the semester for all its colleges by one week, ending classes before the traditional week-long Thanksgiving break in order to limit student travel. This required some Whitman classes to be held over Labor Day weekend and three other weekend dates, with final exams planned to be given online at the beginning of December. The accelerated academic calendar kept the University in compliance with the New York State Department of Education’s requirements of at least 2,250 contact minutes for a 3-credit course.

Due to the unusual teaching format, Chernobai recommended to faculty that students’ course grades not depend only on a mid-term and final exam but “be composed of several, diverse assignments carrying varying weights, such as homework, quizzes, groups projects and exams.”

All in all, Whitman faculty and students were generally receptive to the change in schedule and the need for hybrid or online course work, as well as the rules put in place for social distancing and safe health practices. In the end, those at the Whitman School understood that the planning, additional work and necessary changes required were the best chance of remaining on campus and in the classroom — not to mention healthy — for the entirely of the fall 2020 semester.