As Classes Near, YSU Trustees Get Update on Safety Measures

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Fall enrollment at Youngstown State University is down just over 600 from where it was a year earlier as the university prepares to resume classes next week.  

Enrollment is 11,252, Eddie Howard, vice president of student affairs, told the YSU Board of Trustees during a special meeting Monday. 

“It’s always challenging getting ready for a new academic year, but this one has been beyond, and our people have stepped up,” YSU President Jim Tressel said. 

Tressel and members of his administration updated trustees on those preparations, with the launch of the semester coming amid the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. He expressed confidence in the preparations taken by the university community as it prepares for the start of fall semester in a week.

The board also heard from representatives of Take Charge of Our Future focus groups, the athletic department and other departments.  

“I’m pretty pleased in regards to where we are,” Howard said. “I was really fearful of what we were going to look like in the fall.”

He credited the enrollment numbers to efforts targeting students who had expressed interest but not committed or who had not responded to inquiries about coming to YSU. Of 500 in the “probably” or “maybe” category, the admissions staff got 121 to move toward an orientation program. Out of 1,355 who hadn’t responded, they got 458 interested incoming to YSU, he reported. 

“Everybody at the table got us to where we need to be today,” he said. 

“Back in May, we had to take a significant pivot to offering orientation completely online,” said Claire Berardini, associate provost for student success. 

The largest challenge was ensuring staff was doing everything possible to help students establish a connection to YSU. “We’re in a much better place than I thought we would be,” she said.  

Instruction during fall semester will be delivered through five modalities, provost Brien Smith said. Smith and associate provost Jennifer Pintar spearheaded the Creative Course Delivery for a Safe YSU focus group.   

The five modalities – traditional, agile hybrid, virtual, online live and web-based – were determined after students were polled in the spring. 

“At the end of spring semester, we knew that we could teach everything virtually but we knew that our students wanted to come back to campus. We knew that many of our faculty were eager to come back to campus,” Smith said. “So we wanted to determine ways that we could teach a high quality education and deliver a high-quality degree on campus,” 

New students living on campus began moving in Monday, Howard said.

Students are moving in by appointment and will have the whole week to move in to promote social distancing, Howard said. By Friday, more than 500 new students will have moved onto campus, while returning students will check in over the weekend.

More than 130 faculty participated in a Friday webinar conducted in conjunction with the Creative Course Delivery group, which he said alleviated anxiety among some faculty regarding their concerns about returning to class. 

In addition, the focus group emailed return-to-campus protocols to students and staff regarding dining, housing and the campus and general COVID-19 information, Howard said. 

By Tuesday morning, a “Penguin protection pledge” will be emailed to students, who will be asked to sign it to “agree to follow the guidelines that we put forth to ensure we have a safe and healthy return to class,” he said. 

Working with the city and Mahoning County health departments, YSU decided only to require symptomatic testing, but will support anyone on campus who wants to take a voluntary test, Howard said.

“This testing discussion changes every day,” Tressel said. “We’re very comfortable and our health department is very comfortable with a symptomatic approach to start with.”  

When students return to campus, there will be three additional student focus groups providing assistance on campus. 

The first will provide COVID-19 case support for the outreach services department and work with the Youngstown health department. The second, the “Penguin Patrol,” will work throughout campus to “positively reinforce” health and safety guidelines in public areas such as hallways including social distancing, washing hands and face coverings, she said.

The third group, “Pete’s Clean Team,” will assist janitorial and maintenance staff to ensure study lounges and public areas will be cleaned and maintained in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she said. The team also will help make sure the classroom sanitation stations will be supplied. 

The federal coronavirus relief bill provided funds to assist YSU with covering additional expenses related to reopening during the pandemic, Tressel said. “Unfortunately, who knows how long this situation will last,” he said. 

In addition, a contract tracer hired by Youngstown will work with YSU and the city, she said. “Because the campus creates unique situations for contract tracing, the city agreed to hire a specific employee to work with the campus as well as the surrounding counties,” she said. 

The Missouri Valley Football Conference, the conference in which YSU plays football, has moved conference games to the spring, director of intercollegiate athletics Ron Strollo told the board. The Horizon League, in which YSU fields teams in basketball and other sports, has delayed all fall sports to Oct. 1, though that could change, he advised. 

Starting with 60 student athletes on campus as of June 1, some 200 are on campus now, Strollo reported.  

The athletic department has been working with student athletes since June 1, he said. Part of that effort is a weekly questionnaire that assesses how they are doing in the classroom, in their sport and in terms of mental health. Those assessments have been used to put together frequently asked questions documents.    

Student athletes also were informed that they had the opportunity to opt out without any retaliation or any loss of scholarship, he said.  

Tressel briefly previewed his State of the University address, which will be streamed on Facebook and YouTube at 10 a.m. Wednesday. 

Tressel told the trustees that he would tell the university community that YSU “would become better than we’ve ever been through this adversity.” He plans to send the message that YSU would be “a safe place” this fall but emphasize that everyone will need to work together for the university’s plans to succeed. 

“We can’t come back to campus and think that it’s going to be college as usual,” he said. “We’re going to have to work together to do it the way that this moment calls for.”   

Before the pandemic, YSU trustees recognized there were going to be “significant challenges” in the fiscal 2021 budget, and “urgent changes” would need to be made. The pandemic intensified those challenges, said board chairwoman Dr. Anita Hackstedde. 

“I think we can all say, and I speak on behalf of the trustees, that I’m very impressed and proud of all the hard work and dedication that we’ve seen from our entire Penguin family, from our administrative team and leadership to our staff and to our faculty has been outstanding,” Hackstedde said.

“We know that you’re ensuring the safe return of our students and to others to our campus and that you will make this academic year a successful year and contribute to the viability of our university. And it’s important to note that you’re the reason why we’re all Y and proud and why I know that we’ll stay Y and strong.” 

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.