By Gayle Guynup / Illustrations by Don Brandes
Ringling College leverages creativity to tackle the Coronavirus pandemic.
On March 13, 2020, spiraling numbers of COVID-19 cases in Florida and across the country led Ringling College of Art and Design to do the unimaginable. The campus of the prestigious college was closed, and, for reasons of health and safety, everybody who could be sent home, was sent home.
With spring break extended by a week, faculty and staff had two weeks to figure out how to successfully navigate the remainder of the spring semester, which officially ended May 5 – two weeks to transition from in-person to remote instruction. The administration quickly decided that everyone who was not considered essential personnel (with jobs that could only be done on campus) would work remotely to reduce density on the campus.
Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students Dr. Tammy Walsh remembers that “in the beginning, there was so much that was unknown. We had to wrap our heads around so many things with no time to spare. It became very apparent that our first goal was to finish out the spring semester in a safe manner, and get as many students home as we possibly could.”
Once the spring semester was behind them – including a virtual graduation celebration and Best of Ringling event celebrating student achievement – faculty and staff then turned to a new mission: To resume in-person delivery of classes and services in the fall, in what might – or might not be – a COVID-impacted environment.
There were three months, June through August, in which to pull everything together, as the fall semester was scheduled to start on September 7, two weeks later than usual.
The first step, after sending all faculty and staff members home with Zoom accounts, laptops, and the other tools and guidance necessary to support remote work – which had never before been a work model used at the College – was the establishment of a Recovery Coordination Team supported by six area-specific subgroups. Those groups were Academic Delivery, which included Institutional Technology (IT), led by Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Peter McAllister; Student Experience and Enrollment Management, and Community Outreach, both led by Tammy Walsh; Risk Management and Safety, led by Director of Public Safety Don Strom; Finance and Human Resources, led by Vice President for Finance and Administration Dr. Tracy Wagner; and Communications, headed by Special Assistant to the President Raelyn Lincoln.
According to Tracy Wagner, when students, faculty, and staff were sent home in March, the assumption was that by fall things should be pretty much back to normal. “But as we got further into early summer, it became apparent that the virus was not going to go away quickly. Everything was not going to be fine, at least not for the foreseeable future,” she said.
“Ringling College of Art and Design has always been an institution that places a high value on the learning that happens in between the formal lessons,” explained Dr. Larry R. Thompson, president of Ringling College of Art and Design. “These informal interactions among students, faculty, and staff, the organic collaborations that occur when students get together with each other, and the community that emerges from all of those experiences has long been a hallmark of a Ringling College education. In planning for a fall semester impacted by COVID, my charge to the Recovery Coordination Team was to figure out if and how we could safely bring the students, who were comfortable being here, back to campus while continuing to serve all of our students with excellence and distinction,” Thompson said. “That goal meant finding creative ways to recreate that community our students experience at Ringling, regardless of where and how they were learning.”
The Recovery Coordination Team subgroups began their work with one basic question in mind: If we had students on campus, would the basic safety protocols – wearing face coverings, physical distancing, reducing density, and hand-sanitizing – keep everyone safe?
According to Peter McAllister, “One of the first tasks was to assess the teaching spaces and make the necessary changes needed to support appropriate physical distancing. Once we understood the impact of taking seats out of instructional spaces, we could then figure out how to ensure we could serve all of our students.” Toward that goal, one of the first decisions made was to move the liberal arts program to remote instruction. Those courses were already poised to be delivered in a virtual format while keeping the quality of learning experience at a high level. That move opened classrooms to be used for additional teaching space in the majors to help ensure physical distancing.
Tammy Walsh, meanwhile, was tasked with ensuring that this residential campus would be safe for the students living and dining here. Knowing that they would have 800 students living on campus in the fall, Walsh said they took a variety of steps to reduce student density in spaces on campus. Fortunately, there was a brand-new residence hall that was opening in the fall that added 270 beds to the Ringling College footprint. The College also rented a facility off-campus to further increase housing capacity. “That helped us immensely as we also had to be prepared to potentially take spaces off-line to be used for isolation and quarantine, should it become necessary,” she explained. “Additionally, most seating was removed from within our dining facilities, a large tent was installed on Scott Plaza for outdoor dining, and mobile ordering was introduced to help manage dining density during meal times.”
The College learned early on that it would have to do something to support its international students who, because of circumstances outside of their control, would not be able to travel to the United States. Therefore, one of the earliest plans involved offering the remote learning option for international students. “By mid-summer, we realized we were going to need to offer that same flexibility to all of our students,” Wagner said. Working diligently throughout the entire summer, department heads, program directors/coordinators, and faculty determined the five best delivery modalities for optimal learning experiences. The Recovery Coordination Team recommended to President Thompson that these five instructional methods be offered to all students for the fall semester.
- In-person: Classes meet in-person as usual. Classes could utilize two rooms to spread students out in order to achieve physical distancing.
- In-person with remote teaching: Class meets in person as usual, with the instructor in another location, appearing on-screen. Opportunities for students to occasionally connect in person with faculty would occur.
- Hybrid: Class has an assigned room and the instruction will take place with a combination of in-person meetings and online sessions.
- Remote (liberal arts): Classes meet virtually only. Both synchronous format and asynchronous deliveries are possible. No room would be assigned.
• Remote (studio): Classes meets primarily virtually and may have several in-person meetings scheduled as needed. No room would be assigned.
PLAN, AND PLAN AGAIN
“For me, if you were going to boil this whole situation down to one word, it would be flexibility,” said Tracy Wagner. “We had to do a lot of planning, while being aware that information was constantly coming in that would likely make it necessary for us to adjust our plans. We based our plans on what we knew one day, knowing that it might change the next. And it often did,” Wagner said.
“Everybody came to the table, not just in their institutional roles, but in their role as the parent of a college student or the parent of a child who works in a grocery store or the parent of school-aged children themselves dealing with remote learning. We brought our whole selves to the table,” Wagner explained. “What would it be like if we’re creating a situation where I am exposing my family or my elderly mother to the virus? What would it be like if we’re asking people to work remotely with children at home and no access to child care? We really tried to get everyone to think about their decisions from multiple points of view. I think that was really helpful. A lot of us would stop and say, ‘OK, that makes sense. But when I think about it as a mom, or some other role, here’s how I would feel.’”
Wagner notes that they also were not shy about scanning the landscape to see what other colleges were doing that was working and not working. “There was no playbook for how we were going to do this. One thing we learned was that when other colleges had decided to offer choices, it really seemed to lower the temperature and the anxiety. It became more of a partnership. We weren’t just delivering a solution. We were asking parents to be part of the solution.”
“All of the decisions we were making were two-fold,” Wagner said. “There were the factual reasons we were doing things, and then there was the emotional response to those reasons. It wasn’t just about creating safety. It was making people feel safe and valued, as well,” she said.
FACULTY DRIVEN BY SUCCESS
Academic Affairs leadership was responsible for empowering faculty to deliver outstanding student experiences. One of the major goals as planning continued was that there be the same high-quality standards of instruction no matter which modality students chose.
“Giving students these choices enabled faculty to optimize their teaching to achieve the desired competencies and student learning outcomes,” McAllister said. “We – Academic Affairs and IT, led by Dr. Mahmoud Pegah – partnered closely together to support faculty as they prepared for the fall,” he said. “This collaboration helped us feel ready as we came into September,” he added.
A big question for the team was how students would be able to access the College’s incredible computing power to do their work, particularly in programs like Computer Animation, Motion Design, Game Art, and Virtual Reality that rely so heavily on the institution’s cutting-edge technology. IT Director Mahmoud Pegah and his team came up with a solution that enabled students to remotely access the high-powered computers in the labs to use their capabilities and software to do their projects. This approach was incredibly unique, providing a remote learning experience unlike any other.
One challenge to overcome was a learning curve – not just for the students as they learned to access the vast resources the College was now offering remotely and figure out how to handle a remote classroom, but for the faculty. “The IT Department came up with some very innovative solutions that involved new technology tools for faculty to utilize. These new tools required some learning on the faculty’s part, so they would be able to engage with the students right away when they returned,” McAllister said. “Our faculty is stellar. Those teaching remotely really embraced this change, making sure the quality of our programs would not be diminished.”
Keeping students, staff, and faculty safe was all about care and preparations, according to McAllister. “We had the physical campus, classrooms, studios, and labs all prepared for physical distancing. A lot of hand-sanitizer stations and signage went up. We had remote learning options available for those students and families who felt that selection best suited their needs during this time. It was all about the details and thinking things through from different points of view. It really was a team effort,” he said.
Dealing with family and parental concerns was one area shared by every department. Moving into the summer months, Florida had become an epicenter of the virus. Students from all over the country and the world, along with their families, were concerned about whether it would be safe to be in Sarasota for classes.
“Faculty and staff were in constant contact with parents and families, keeping them aware of our plans,” McAllister said. “The secret to our success was deciding to give students and families options. We listed all of our courses on our website by method of delivery so parents and students could sit down together and make informed decisions,” he said. “It helped them feel like part of the process.”
“We kept parents and family members informed about what we were doing every step of the way through multiple Zoom meetings, social media, emails, and our website. Our communication tools included a lot of personal emails, a lot of information available through the website, but it was mainly through Zoom meetings that we were able to give parents the opportunity to express their concerns one-on-one – even if it was through a computer screen,” Walsh said.
Ultimately, 600 students ended up opting for the remote learning option for the fall semester, while 1,000 students (200 commuter and 800 student residents) ended up returning to campus.
One of the most critical decisions made over the course of the summer was how to get the students to buy in to all of the new protocols that would have to be in place to make the plan work. “We were concerned about how we were going to manage student behavior with respect to the safety protocols,” said Wagner. “Of course, if you are approaching it from the viewpoint of control, you have lost the game already. So, even the selection of words became so important. What words would make students feel like part of the process, like they were a crucial piece to the overall health and safety of the entire campus community?”
The word they finally decided upon was “promise.”
“On the front end, we did so much work to educate the students and let them know what our expectations were going to be. Every student returning to campus signed the Ringling College Safe Community Standards Promise,” said Walsh. “And I have to say, the students were phenomenal. We had only three positive student cases during the fall semester. The students want to be here, and they don’t want anything to interrupt their education,” she said.
Wagner agreed. “To me, what has been most heartening has been how well our students have complied with all of our protocols. It’s been amazing,” Wagner said. “I remember leaving here on the weekends or in the evenings, and students would be in small groups, all wearing their face coverings. They kept their promise,” she said.
“They followed the guidelines,” McAllister added. “Not only did they agree to do it, they wore their face coverings all day, every day; they stayed six feet apart, and they all washed and sanitized their hands. They took it seriously, and made the plan work,” he said.
A NEW WAY OF DOING THINGS
The overriding concern for each and every department was how to open in the fall while keeping students, faculty, and staff healthy and safe.
Department heads and program directors/coordinators gave credit to the Ringling College IT Department for its contribution to the plan’s success. “The remote access that they set up is unlike what most distance-learning is like, especially with the software tools that our artists use,” Wagner said. “They worked really hard to re-create the experience of being in one of Ringling’s high-tech labs while sitting at home. We were also able to use this technology for our on-campus students, as we all felt that it was really important to not give our students a reason to congregate, which is what they would typically do in the labs. IT set up terminals in all of the residence halls and even in the apartment housing so that students could use the larger monitors and have remote access into the labs literally 24/7,” she said.
Tammy Walsh’s main concerns were how students would live safely on campus, eat on campus, attend classes, and socialize safely. What would student life even look like? “One of the first tasks we undertook,” Walsh said, “was taking many areas of student life from in-person to virtual in a very short time frame. Programs transitioned to this new format included advising appointments, student activities, student government, leadership development, wellness programming, diversity and inclusion types of programming, career services, meetings with recruiters, counseling and other support services, and the list goes on and on.”
There was also the question of community engagement. “We are, at heart, an in-person campus. We want prospective students and family members to come and see the campus. We have so many events where we interface with the public – our Galleries, the Sarasota Art Museum, and other special events. We had to decide how we would modify those opportunities for public engagement, and if we could do so without jeopardizing the safety of the campus community,” Walsh added.
Although there were a few students still residing on campus over the summer (those who could not safely travel home), the campus was basically closed to the public, except for extremely limited special exceptions. The in-person tours of prospective students and their families were replaced by scheduling multiple Zoom sessions, and reworking the online campus tour. Accepted Student Day was moved to an incredibly successful virtual event. The College found that prospective students who may not have typically attended this event under normal circumstances were able to participate, increasing overall attendance significantly. As a result, the event will likely continue to have a virtual component even after in-person events can resume.
Community events went virtual, as well, such as the College’s annual Evening at the Avant-Garde. Here too the College saw incredible response to the live-streamed event, so much so that it too will likely retain some virtual element in the future. The College’s Galleries and Sarasota Art Museum, both of which had closed for in-person visitation (although the Sarasota Art Museum reopened to the public in October 2020 and the Galleries are now open on a limited, by-appointment basis), also offered online and virtual events, keeping the community engaged with Ringling while also providing some much-needed opportunity for connection during this time of physical distancing from friends and family.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
There was tremendous concern about student wellness for those who were going to be on campus in the fall. The semester was a long time, after all, to have very little in-person interaction. “We made repeated efforts to be sure that students knew how to reach staff for support, participate in the virtual programs and activities, and knew what to do if they felt ill,” Walsh explained. “We did approve some small events in the fall once we could do it safely, requiring face coverings and physical distancing,” Walsh said. For example, the College hosted some outdoor movie screenings and a Fall Fest that included various student organizations. “We are a creative institution after all,” she said, “and we put that creativity to work.”
Still, with 800 residential students returning in the fall, the greatest challenges were still to come. Once they found ways to minimize the density on campus, they turned to other protocols that would have to be followed.
Every student living or coming to campus was required to provide proof of a negative COVID test on arrival. “Then we did random testing every other week – of students, faculty, and staff,” Walsh explained.
“We had lots of conversation about whether we should baseline test everybody, and whether we needed to do random testing and wastewater testing. Sometimes, we couldn’t say for sure that a certain method would actually reduce cases. The science just wasn’t there yet. But I kept saying that if we create layers of security, it will show people that we are committed to doing everything that we can,” Wagner said.
The wastewater testing came about because several research colleges and universities were already doing it. The theory is that people sometimes shed virus before it is even detectable with a test. One thing the committee was really worried about is that this college-aged group tends to be more asymptomatic than other age groups. So, the question became: If students are not showing symptoms, and we were not testing 100 percent of them, how would we catch those asymptomatic cases? The wastewater testing seemed to be one way to do that. “A positive result would give us a clue as to where to look for the problem,” Wagner explained.
“We believe that things in the world are going to get better, and we are definitely going to see that as we move into 2021,” McAllister said. “We are prepared to offer several instructional modalities, although we hope we can move to increased face-to-face instruction as time goes by. We know that we may not be 100 percent face-to-face in the fall. But whatever the percentage, we will be prepared to support our students’ educational journeys, no matter what happens,” he said.
Asked what the institution has learned from this experience, Walsh said, “I know we have all learned resiliency, and our ability to manage what looks like an unmanageable situation. It really speaks to the strengths of our College community. Having our plan work as well as it did was dependent on everyone doing their part – the faculty, the staff, and the students, who really held up their end of the bargain,” she said. “We have a great team and it showed. It was simply a matter of everyone doing their part for the greater good.”
“I think that helping to keep everyone focused and calm and believing that nothing was insurmountable was perhaps our biggest challenge,” Wagner said. “We knew it was a huge challenge, an unprecedented challenge, but we also knew that we had the talent and creativity to figure it all out. Now we know that we can leverage that creative power of the Ringling College community to overcome any obstacle.”
“I could not be more grateful to all the people here at Ringling College – the faculty, staff, and students,” said Thompson. “But I especially want to recognize our leadership team. They innovated, created solutions to incredibly difficult problems, and worked tirelessly to provide a vibrant Ringling College experience for all of our students, wherever they happened to be in the world.”