With Campus Changed by Pandemic, YSU Students Head to Class

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – For months, the questions loomed large over the campus of Youngstown State University: what safety measures needed to be in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus? And, perhaps a better question, would students follow them?

On Monday, after months of planning and several addresses by President Jim Tressel – including most of his State of the University speech – the campus community finally got the answer.

“Everybody’s taking it seriously and I’m impressed with that,” said freshman Trenton Kliner. “My first in-person class had every other seat blocked off and [my teacher] said if she caught anyone with their mask off, they’d be excused. People are pretty much forced to wear their masks, which is awesome. On campus like this, all precautions are good for everybody.”

Kliner was sitting at a table near the fountain just outside Kilcawley Center with a pair of friends. All around the area were other students taking advantage of the weather to enjoy time outside, usually sitting alone or in pairs. The most-occupied table had four students at it.

Walking around campus, the vast majority of students followed the university’s protocols on wearing a face covering. In a little more than an hour walking around campus, Business Journal reporters saw only a handful without masks – all walking alone – while slightly more had masks but didn’t have them covering their face.

Across campus, the university set up tables for students to pick up a free face mask and bottle of hand sanitizer. All they had to do was scan a QR code with their phone using the YSU app to check in. By about 1 p.m., sophomore Kyle Maher had handed out about 200 packs – emptying five boxes – while another table not far away had been through slightly more.

“I’ve rarely seen a student without a mask and they’re taking masks whenever they can,” he said. “I [was nervous] the day before coming [to campus]. But once I was here on move-in day, everyone had masks on and it was easy to calm down after that.”

Sophomore Kyle Maher was part of the team helping to distribute free masks to students.

Likewise, freshman electrical engineering student Jason Wilson said most of his anxiety was before he got to campus and once he settled in, he was more comfortable with the rules put in place.

“The most uncomfortable thing for me was getting everything in place so I could come here. I had to make sure I had all the right information from all my teachers. Everyone’s learning as we go about how to get used to this new normal,” said Wilson, an Honors College student. “It seems like everybody is trying to keep everyone else safe.”

Going into the first day of classes Monday, there was some concern after pictures circulated on social media of a large gathering Sunday night at The Edge, an off-campus apartment building, where few if any students were wearing masks.

“People have to keep it under control. That’s really all I can say about it,” Maher said.

In a statement, a YSU spokesman condemned the gathering, saying it “violates health and safety guidelines put into place by YSU to ensure the well-being of everyone at the university. Such gatherings are unacceptable and put the entire campus at risk. Students violating safety guidelines are subject to action via the Student Code of Conduct. Only by working together and taking responsibility for ourselves and others will we be able to keep YSU safe and maintain on-campus operations.”

Among the safety measures implemented by the university were the expansion of online and hybrid courses, which blend in-class and distance learning. While there seemed to be fewer students on campus than previous first days, the school grounds were by no means desolate. 

“It’s not as bleak and ghost-like as I thought it’d be. I met up with some of my friends and we all thought it’d be a ghost town, but we still see people outside going around,” said Aaliyah Morales, a first-year interactive graphic design student, who noted the format of some of her classes haven’t been announced yet. “My English class is going to be one day in person and another day online. Doing it online probably won’t be as fun, but I’m sure it’s something I can adjust to. It’d be nice to be in a classroom for psychology or some of my art classes just for the vibe. But we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.”

Freshman Aaliyah Morales says campus wasn’t as empty as she expected before classes started Monday.

For professional communications graduate student Presley Bowers, the shift from her first four years at Youngstown State is a stark one. All of her classes this semester are online — she never took online courses during her time as an undergraduate. Professors have their own platform of choice – usually Zoom or Webex, she said – and she’s still getting used to it, she said.

“For classes, I just hope there’s no technical difficulties. That’s my biggest concern,” she said. “With everything so different, it could be easy for things to get out of control. But Ithink YSU has done a good job of keeping everything locked down. I just hope everyone keeps wearing their masks so we can get over this thing and move in.”

Graduate student Presley Bowers, right, welcomed new Honors College students to campus and talked her about her experiences as an undergraduate. In her previous four years, none of her classes were online; now they all are.

Bowers was among the Honors College upper-level students greeting new students in the college on campus. During the semester-long program, new Honors College students take part in a course to acclimate them to campus and with the other students they’ll be working and studying with. The meeting on the first day – held in a tent outside Fok Hall, home of the college – kept students at least six feet apart and masks were required.

“Research tells us that face-to-face is really the best way for people to get connected. Next best is online,” said Amy Cossentino, dean of the Honors College. “These students are resilient and excited to be beginning a new chapter in their academic journey, so they’ve all been pretty well-adjusted and ready to learn and support each other.”

Getting the college’s programming ready for the semester was by no means an easy task; when asked what was going on behind the scenes over the summer, Cossantino laughed and said, “Oh boy.” Beyond the on-campus staff, the Honors College also received support from alumni, who often helped however they could.

“[They’ve] been providing us content so we can help give students an added layer of experience,” she said. “They’re helping [current students] in terms of helping them learn to manage time, build a personal brand, think about cognition and how to learn. We’re using every resource to help impact these students so they can have the best experience possible.”

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.