Designing Institutions for the “New Normal”
This summer, as New Jersey colleges and universities prepared to start a new school year, many thoughts weighed on the minds of the institutions’ leadership, staff, parents and students. With the state still in Phase 2 of the reopening plan when schools were planning for the new school year, many questioned if facilities would be able to reopen in the fall, and if there was a safe way to do so.
Like many other businesses and organizations throughout New Jersey, higher education institutions have struggled over whether it’s possible to “get back to normal,” while having enough safety measures in place to combat the spread of COVID-19 cases. Some institutions have already changed course just weeks into the new semester, closing in-person instruction shortly after reopening the campus. As the information continues to evolve in an unpredictable and non-linear pattern, the response and recommendations to protect public health and well-being must also adapt.
Since March, Spiezle Architectural Group, Inc. has partnered with several of its clients to develop strategies to address the myriad of concerns, including its 18-year client, Rider University.
For Mike Reca, Vice President for Facilities and University Operations at Rider, one of the biggest challenges has been finding the “right” plan for Rider University to reopen safely. This task has been difficult due to the constantly changing information that colleges and universities are receiving from the state government. “Trying to make decisions in an ever-changing environment has sent us down a lot of rabbit holes,” he said.
With so many resources for information, Rider has looked toward OSHE (Office of the Secretary of Higher Education) to stay informed on the changing regulations. In addition, Rider University President Gregory G. Dell’Omo has been regularly participating in meetings with presidents at other local colleges and universities to compare notes and discuss the various tactics that institutions are implementing to enable them to reopen.
What Mr. Reca and his colleagues have learned throughout this process, is that above everything else, communication is key. Rider’s Marketing Department has been communicating with faculty, staff and students via the website, social media and email, to make sure that the entire campus community is continually informed about the situation. “We convey information as soon as we are able to, and its constantly a moving target,” said Mr. Reca.
In response to the current conditions and regulations in place, the University has decided to adjust their fall semester schedule so that classes start earlier, enabling students to go home at Thanksgiving and take their final exams online. This will allow the campus to remain closed during December and January, with on-campus classes tentatively scheduled to resume on January 27. All enrolling students are required to sign a “COVID-19 Shared Responsibility Pledge,” which outlines what Rider requires and expects of any student that returns to campus. In addition, students entering New Jersey from specific states will be required to quarantine for 14 days after arrival. To assist with the process, Rider has waived the housing fee for those that need to arrive on campus early.
As the long-time architect for Rider University, Spiezle has been working hand-in-hand with the institution to plan of all of these campus changes, including modifying seating arrangements and classroom configurations, finding the best ways to utilize all types of spaces on campus, and providing indoor/outdoor education options in accordance with the current regulations. More intensive building modifications and systems improvements are in process, as well.
“We are very reliant on our architects (Spiezle) to help us with the planning,” said Mr. Reca. “There is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that needs to go into planning a campus overhaul like this.”
Significant modifications have been made to space planning to incorporate social distancing considerations. At the time this was written, Rider’s reopening plan allowed for 50 percent of staff to work on campus, with reduced class sizes and additional cleaning protocols put in place. Only 1,500 students will be allowed to live in residence halls, with one occupant per room unless students submit a request to room with a specific roommate.
Curriculum and other program changes have been included in the plan as well. Classes that require six in-person sessions will be held on campus under tents until mid-October, when they will revert to online learning. All study abroad programs have been cancelled for the fall, and athletics will train outside, with no indoor training or competitions against other schools due to state mandates.
“We have had to reinvent ourselves over the last several months,” said Mr. Reca, adding that the school’s Latin motto, “In Omnia Paratus,” or, “In all things, go prepared,” has taken on a whole new meaning this year.
The institution has also gone to great lengths to put precautions in place for students who show symptoms of COVID-19 or have been exposed to someone with the virus. Conover Residence Hall will be closed to students so it can be used as a quarantine house for up to 102 students until they have their test results. Each room is equipped with a microwave and refrigerator, and meals will be delivered to the building for students to consume in their room. While the building does not have central air conditioning, the University has set aside 35 window units in case students are quarantined during warmer weather. There is also a regimented cleaning and laundry plan for those residing in the building.
According to Mr. Reca, so far Rider University has found that many students want to be back on campus this year, even if they end up taking all their classes online. “There’s an appetite for students to come back for some type of college experience, even if it’s not the same experience that they’re used to having,” he said, noting that students in their senior year don’t want to miss their last year of the “college experience.”
When reflecting on all the work that’s been done to prepare Rider to reopen, Mr. Reca feels this experience has brought the University together as a community to find the best plan for success.
“The collaboration of our leadership has really helped navigate the situation,” he said. “This has set a tone for us. We have been very pragmatic, and we now have a better process in place to deal with this if it happens again next year.”
Working with Spiezle to design the campus for the future, Rider is considering more significant long-term solutions, such as changing their classroom set ups, adding more permanent physical barriers, upgrading HVAC systems, and changing the use and layout of larger campus spaces.
“This entire experience has truly changed our thinking,” said Mr. Reca. “I’m optimistic that our society is going to adapt, accept the necessary changes, and make them a part of our daily lives.”
For more information on Rider University’s fall reopening plan, visit www.rider.edu/resolved-and-ready.
Spiezle is proud to be partnering with Rider University to support the institution through these unprecedented times in planning and responding to the ever-changing “new normal.” As a leader in higher education design and planning, Spiezle has recently hosted several “Think Tank” events that have brought together campus leaders from across the Mid-Atlantic region to exchange ideas and support each other. In working together, we look forward to supporting the higher education community to rise to this challenge so they can continue to provide higher level service to their campuses.