On March 12, 2020, BYU-Idaho issued an Official Notice canceling all face-to-face classes, with classes to be resumed remotely a week later because of COVID-19. Since then, and amidst a pandemic, the university has continued to adapt to current circumstances to carry out its mission of building disciples of Jesus Christ.
Vice President of University Operations Brett Cook oversaw the many changes made to university operations and custodial procedures to ensure campus was safe for employees and students.
“BYU-Idaho behaved very differently from other universities as we continued to offer classes throughout 2020,” Cook said. “We remained extremely cautious through the process, to the point that when we did welcome students back, we had overestimated our numbers of returning students and cross-traffic predictions with those physically on campus. We were more than prepared.”
Despite overestimating the initial number of on-campus students, BYU-Idaho's enrollment has continued to increase.
“Across the United States, enrollment for higher education has been dropping, while at BYU-Idaho—with online and on-campus students combined—we’ve had our highest number of students enroll!” Cook said.
Since first implementing the school’s COVID-19 safety protocols including mask-wearing in buildings, sanitizing rooms and hallways hourly, and limiting the number of students per classroom, campus has proven to be one of the safest places for students. While many in the campus community have contracted COVID-19, no transmission of the virus has been traced back to campus classrooms or Student Activities events.
“The consistency with the protocols has been key to our success,” Cook said. “We wanted to avoid bouncing between different protocols, which would only cause confusion. Our safety measures have been working, so we can expect those to continue going forward.”
The university continues to tentatively plan for each consecutive semester.
“We have high hopes for future semesters, but we don’t plan too far in advance,” Cook said. “We are beginning to see more and more labs opening again, the number of student activities is increasing, and more faculty are wanting to return to campus to teach.”
The time it takes to get COVID-19 test results has also picked up. Students who are tested for COVID-19 at the Student Health Center’s drive-through testing site are now able to receive their test results as early as the next day. Plans are also in place for the Student Health Center to become a distribution point for the COVID-19 vaccine for campus and the community, with the vaccine having already become available for first responders, safety officers, health care workers, the school’s nursing program, and individuals over 55 years of age.
When the country began to shut down last spring, Associate Academic Vice President for Curriculum Van Christman says he was initially intimidated by the task of transitioning curriculum to a virtual platform. “Because we had to jump off the cliff, we learned how to parachute,” Christman said when describing the school’s abrupt transition to virtual learning.
“We can’t say enough about how much the faculty have sacrificed and worked to keep the quality of education high,” Christman said. “They have put in a tremendous amount of effort to continue helping students meet learning outcomes and fulfill their potential.”
Christman partially attributes BYU-Idaho’s success in helping faculty and students adapt so quickly to remote learning to the university’s investment in online tools over the past decade.
“Because of BYU-Pathway Worldwide and the school’s emphasis on students taking online classes during their flex semesters, a good amount of curriculum and infrastructure was already set up for an online platform,” Christman said.
Despite this advantage, many employees found the transition a challenging adjustment.
“BYU-Idaho has learned to embrace technology in a much deeper way because of the pandemic,” Christman said. “It’s pushed us to advance in years by forcing every class and faculty member to adapt. We have heard faculty members say again and again that they have tried things that they never would have tried had they not been put in this position. While not every course style is perfect, we continue to address challenges between modalities and improve them for the following semester.”
One successful aspect of remote learning Christman highlights is that students have seemingly been more likely to meet with their instructors during virtual office hours than braving Rexburg’s winter weather and visiting in person. Through both the successes and disappointments experienced during this pandemic, the focus has remained on how to effectively achieve the mission of BYU-Idaho.
“We never want to rest on our successes,” Christman said. “We can continue to improve. We are taking every opportunity to look back and say, ‘What gems did we learn from this challenging time that we use to bless students even more? What ways can we increase our teaching aids and utilize technology and present information?’ The lessons we are learning now will bless BYU-Idaho students for years to come.”
With the need for social distancing and quarantining, the university’s student outreach efforts, led by Student Life Vice-President Amy LaBaugh, changed drastically to meet the increased demands for personal connection among students. “Student Activities on campus have completely changed,” LaBaugh said. “While we miss being able to gather in traditional ways, what we have been able to do is offer smaller group activities.”
LaBaugh explains that many of these revised activities are working even better to connect students than they had before.
“In the past, it was sometimes easy for students to become ‘lost in the crowd’ at our events,” LaBaugh said. “As a result of our only holding smaller activities, closer relationships are developing because we can more easily take care of ‘the one’ and make sure no one is overlooked or lost. A second aspect that
has changed for the better is student outreach. It is so easy for students to fall into the same routine of going every day and that can become very isolating. During COVID-19, our Student Support mentors have been needed more than ever and have played a very important role in reaching out and connecting to isolated students.”
One dynamic completely new to the university because of the pandemic is finding the best way to support students or students with roommates who tested positive with the virus and needing to quarantine. The university organized meal deliveries to such students in need, as well as offering support emotionally, financially, and educationally.
Press Forward with Faith
Vice President Brett Cook mentioned the university-wide “Break-the-Fast” meals that were held during the Fall 2020 and Winter 2021 Semesters as a large contributing factor to the university’s overall success. “We did everything we knew how to do, and then asked for the blessings of heaven,” Cook said. “That’s what really has gotten us through this bit by bit.”
“We know from what Church leadership has said that this pandemic will end—there is light at the end of the tunnel,” LaBaugh said. “It has been a tremendous amount of work, and hopefully, the lessons we have learned during this time of COVID-19 will continue to matter when this is well over.