Fall 2020 FYE Planning Task Force Final Report

Fall 2020 FYE Planning Task Force Final Report


On April 23, 2020, Provost Carbajal convened a planning group to study options and if possible make a recommendation regarding course delivery for Fall Quarter 2020. This group generated a useful set of guiding principles and five Primary Conditions that need to be fulfilled for some on-campus activity to occur. The conclusion of The Fall 2020 Planning Group Final Report included the following statement about a first-year experience (FYE):

Also, we believe some type of on-campus experience for all first-year students is desirable, if it can be designed.

In addition, the report recommended special consideration of the possibility of an on-campus experience, and an opportunity to attend classes on campus, for “targeted populations” including Honors students.


In response to this statement, Provost Carbajal charged VPUE VanderStaay to convene a task force for the following purpose:

Please proceed to convene a planning group that will undertake the work associated with ensuring a positive, productive, engaging, and effective first-year experience for students entering Western in Fall Quarter of 2020. When we discussed this initially we outlined a number of important elements of this planning, but please know that you and the group should feel free to consider any and all issues associated with the unique challenges that Fall 2020 presents for first-year experience. If the work of the group could be delivered prior to May 22, 2020, it would be optimal, but I acknowledge the tight timeline and would understand if the work requires more time. This group will operate outside the ICS and this letter will serve as my charge to the group once and as convened.


In a clarification to this charge, Provost Carbajal added the following by e-mail:

The on-campus experience part of the FYE is a critical piece of this effort and exploration.

In addition, the VPUE understands that the May 22nd Deadline is driven largely by the desire to be able to announce to admitted students whether they may be able to participate in some form of extra-curricular on-campus experience, even if their courses are online. Admitted students must declare an intention to enroll by June 1.

Associated Questions

The work of the task force includes guiding recommendations concerning two related questions:

  1. Can Viking Launch continue as planned? As a planned, 1-week, immersive on-campus FYE experience, Viking Launch would provide one option for new students to have an FYE. Viking Launch runs from Sunday to Saturday the week before classes officially begin.
  2. Can new Honors students be accommodated on campus such that they can take classes for at least one term?

Task Force Members

Steve VanderStaay, VPUE and Chair                              Sheila Webb, Journalism and ACC

Adah Barenburg, Associated Students                            Bidisha Biswas, Political Science

Matt Bryant, Enrollment and Student Services               John Furman, Facilities Management

Scott Linneman, Honors                                                  Cezar Mesquita, Admissions

Vicki Vanderwerf, University Residences                       Stephen Wadsworth, Dining Services           

Danielle Smith, Center for Community Learning           Molly Ware, Secondary Education

Bruce Boyer, Environmental Health and Safety             Casey Hayden, Student Activities

Sargun Handa, Associated Students

Structure and Process

In response to its tight timeline, the Fall FYE 2020 Planning Task Force (FYE TF) adopted the process used by the previous Planning Committee. This process included smaller meetings of subgroups, occasional meetings of the larger committee, and frequent sharing of its draft recommendations and other documents. The TF also adopted, with slight modifications to reflect the extra-curricular nature of our goals, the guiding principles established by the Fall 2020 planning Group. These principles included goals, a constraint and a guiding set of conditions:

Goals: To protect as much as possible the health of students, staff and faculty.

To provide an experience as close as possible to the Western experience our students seek.

To be able to reach as many students as want to participate.

Constraint: To be financially viable.

Absolute Condition: The Planning Group called the “absolute condition” the state of the pandemic at the time of fall quarter, acknowledging that “only under relatively benign conditions—a declining rate of infections and deaths in the nation, the state of Washington, and Whatcom County—could we consider face-to-face activity in Fall Quarter.”

Primary Conditions:   

  1. Adequate testing capability, including availability of tests and testing facilities and prompt response times;
  2. Adequate numbers of trained contact tracers;
  3. Adequate capacity (space and services) for separation (self-isolation or self-quarantine);
  4. Ability to distance according to then-current guidelines;
  5. Capacity and policies for students, staff, and faculty who need to work or study from remote locations.

Secondary Conditions:

  1. Adequate health-care capacity in Whatcom County;
  2. Adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE);
  3. Adequate cleaning and disinfecting capacity.

Emergency Conditions: Ability to quickly clean and disinfect multiple buildings in the event of contamination.

Guiding Resources

The work of the FYE TF was informed by emerging and received research within the subject area of each member and the following documents (click to open each document):


1) The task force recommends first-year students be permitted to be housed on campus for fall term, per the UR models described below. UR believes they can house students safely and our Admissions Office reports that a “normal,” on-campus fall experience is what admitted students most seek. In addition, students who live in our residence halls in their first year have higher rates of success than students who do not. Consequently, we recommend that first-year students be permitted the opportunity to be housed in our residence halls—assuming appropriate safety measures can be instated (see recommendation 7 below).

2) The task force does not recommend short (1-3 week) on-campus FYE experiences, with the exception of Viking Launch (see recommendation 5 below), as our conversations with admitted students suggest these will be not be sufficiently engaging to meet their needs. In addition, shorter experiences would be expensive for students, and the additional move-in and move-out days required of such models would create additional risk. 

3) The task force recommends FYE experiences featuring first-year seminars that operate for the duration of the termFirst-year seminars providing meaningful peer interaction and frequent student-faculty engagement in small settings represent one of the most documented high-impact practices; practices demonstrated in peer-reviewed research to positively impact student retention, achievement, persistence and engagement. FYE seminars which are part of a cluster of classes students take together as a cohort, such as a FIG seminar, additionally comprise a learning community, another documented high-impact practice. Western’s strategic plan directs the campus to increase student access to high-impact practices and to ensure access to such practices is widespread and equitable. Offering FYE seminars and learning communities—the gold standard in FYE programs—directly supports this goal. In addition, Western’s FYE/FIG seminars have broad faculty and student support and a proven track-record of effectiveness. Rather than creating a new FYE program on an untested timeline to address our current situation, we recommend that, to the extent possible, we build on the proven strengths of our current FYE program and permit students to enroll in FYE/FIG seminars. Given the diversity of student needs and health concerns, we recommend that FYE/FIG seminars be offered in both face to face and online/remote modalities, in FIG clusters and as stand-alone seminars. Efforts to further enhance the quality and impact of these FYE/FIG seminars, such as the addition of peer mentors, or a second pilot of Western's successful Academic Success Coach (ASC) Program, should be pursued if at all possible. (In Western's pilot ASC program, the FYE/FIG seminar faculty remained in contact with their fall seminar students as academic advisors and "coaches" through winter and spring terms. Program participation correlated with a 3% increase in retention and persistence in the pilot year.) 

4) The task force recommends that a working group be charged to develop resources and curriculum for online/remote FYE seminars, as such courses do not currently exist. Students primarily connecting to Western online should still feel a strong sense of belonging and connection. This will require new curriculum and new methods of outreach, communication and community building. For instance, these methods could include contact lists disseminated to faculty who invite first-year students to enroll in online/remote FYEs tailored to their interests. A centralized resource of content and calendaring to support engagement in both modes (face-to-face and online) should also be created to support faculty teaching FYE/FIG seminars.

5) The task force recommends that Viking Launch proceed as planned, with face-to-face classes offered with proper social distancing. VL has been demonstrated to benefit non-residents and other populations and provides a rich opportunity for an FYE while the campus is relatively empty and therefore safer. In addition, surveyed VL faculty report that they can offer their classes with proper safeguards if class sizes are reduced and other protections are taken. Enrollment for VL should prioritize students who intend to stay on campus for the term. However, any seats not filled by July 1 could be offered to students who seek a short on-campus experience but who will be living at home and attending remotely for the regular term.

6) The task force recommends that Honors students be permitted to be housed on campus and have an opportunity to enroll in face-to-face classes, as is safe and possible. 

7) The task force recommends the University communicate to admitted students and their families the many benefits associated with a resident experience at a liberal arts university, and the many rich opportunities for rewarding and engaging curricular and co-curricular first-year experiences Western offers its new students. Students will be informed of the expenses, risks, resources, support services, and other offerings associated with living on-campus. They should also hear of the many benefits a residential experience provides. These include higher rates of persistence, retention and graduation. For students choosing to reside off-campus, we recommend that the University inform students and families of resources for off-campus options, such as those listed with the Office of Off-Campus Living.

8) The task force recommends that departments responsible for campus-wide co-curricular programming develop their offerings for dual modes of delivery, providing both online engagement and in-person gatherings that are safe and limited in size by the guidance available from the Governor’s office and Department of Health. Creating ways for on-campus first year students to connect outside of classes will be critical for them to feel that they are receiving value-added from their decision to be physically present. Equally important, students primarily connecting to Western online should still feel as strong of a sense of belonging and connection as we can make possible. To achieve this, there will need to be new methods of outreach that could include contact lists being disseminated to departments to allow for tailored messaging/invitations to FYE students based on their situation, as well as a centralized web location for content and calendaring to support engagement in both modes (face-to-face and online).

9) The task force strongly recommends the following health and safety measures be implemented to ensure on-campus living and face-to-face courses are as safe as possible. These include:

  • Supporting physical distancing by removing or marking seating not to be used, to allow a minimum of six feet of distance between students, and with no two seats facing each other
  • Marking hallways for appropriate distancing for those waiting to enter a classroom or office.
  • Implementing physical distancing plans specific to each class, to include public health practices such as symptom checks, sneezing into tissue or elbow, hand hygiene, cleaning space after each use, etc.
  • Providing clear instruction to each class on the contents of the class physical distancing plan, as well as expectations for compliance to the plan
  • Supporting instructors to remove individuals who violates those expectations
  • Maintaining seating charts and tracking attendance for contact tracing
  • Providing hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes (for disinfecting seating spaces before use)
  • Wearing face coverings in accordance with current university requirements or recommendations based on information or regulation from the CDC, Health Department, and/or Governor
  • Avoiding common handling of teaching materials (e.g., rocks in Geology) without an appropriate cleaning protocol in place with each handler
  • Separating cohorts (first year, honors) to the extent possible including not scheduling classes in common areas/buildings which bring them in contact with each other

(Assumptions: Class size will not conflict with current state restrictions or the seating capacity of the space after adjusting for physical distancing; and sufficient testing and contact tracing have been assured. This does not include labs, performing arts, or other classes that may limit the ability of participants to physically distance. Refer to specific plans in place for those activities.)

10) The task force recommends that the university consider concluding face-to-face instruction by the Thanksgiving break and concluding the term online. Shortening the number of weeks students spend on campus would reduce risks; not returning after the Thanksgiving would ensure no student brings the virus back to campus following the holiday.

Residence Models

Permitting first-year students to take a face-to-face seminar will require permitting them to live on campus. UR have proposed two models for doing so. This modeling was guided by the following considerations:

  • Maximize enrollment
  • Create a sense of belonging
  • Serve first-year and returning students
  • Meet or exceed ACHA guidelines for safely reopening campus
  • Financial viability

Current Expectations:

UR had 1,827 applications as of 5.21.20 from first-year students for Fall 2020. While that figure is down 35% from previous years, it represents a reasonably strong interest in living on campus, given current discussions. While some members of the taskforce believe this number will fall when students learn most of their classes will be online/remote, Admissions and UR continue to project that up to 1,800 first-year students and 145 transfer students could be housed on campus during the fall quarter.

Any return of substantial numbers of students to University Residences will require a limit of one student to a room and additional safety precautions, including the following:

  • Plexiglass between sinks in bathrooms
  • Sanitizer spray for every student
  • Bathroom schedule with students assigned to sinks, toilets, and showers
  • Increase in sanitation schedule by custodial staff
  • Isolation plan to support individual isolation in rooms and quarantines in each community and in select stacks

The largest variable impacting capacity in these models is the use of community bathrooms. Some believe community bathrooms increase student risk of infection. Others believe that, because they are sanitized more thoroughly and frequently than most suite-style bathrooms, community bathrooms can be safer than bathrooms a few students use and clean themselves. Given that research on this question is still emerging and outside the expertise of most taskforce members, the taskforce wishes to defer the question of which model is best to our health and safety experts, whom we trust to maximize opportunities for new students to live on campus within the constraints of appropriate health and safety guidelines. (See “Appendix A: Constituent Concerns” at the end of this document.)

Model 1:

  • Low/high-end
  • 1187-1197 suites and apartments
  • 2-4 students share bath
  • 369-538 traditional beds
  • 2-26 students share community bath (average is 2-10 students)
  • 1263-1442 first-year students
  • 293 returning students in Birnam Wood and New York Apartments total
  • Total capacity: 1556-1735 (low to high) is expected with a maximum capacity of 1,928
    • Assigning one student per bedroom
    • Space reserved for isolation and quarantine rooms

Model 2:

  • Low-end
  • 1306 suites and apartment rooms
  • 2-4 students share bath 
  • 894-904 first-year students
  • 293 returning students in Birnam Wood and New York Apartments total
  • Total capacity: 1187-1197 (low to high)

Importantly, neither model provides capacity adequate to meet the needs of new and returning students who have applied to live on campus. While number of students who wish to live on campus will likely fall when the balance of face-to-face and remote/online classes is announced, we are likely to need to prioritize housing for new or returning students. Given the well-documented importance of a strong start to college in rates of persistence, retention and graduation, we recommend prioritizing housing for new students.

Dining halls will be open for the Fall 2020 quarter based on student need. Dining options could include the implementation of a “to-go” program similar to our spring quarter operations to support social distancing and student safety. All CDC guidelines will be in effect. These guidelines include, but are not limited to the following items:

  • All employees required to wear masks
  • Health questions will be asked to employees prior to their shift
  • Temperature checks will be performed prior to the beginning of staff members shifts
  • Adjusted sneeze guards to act as barriers between the servers and customers
  • Touchless payment options
  • Enhanced signage in all locations focusing on social distancing and hygiene protocols
  • Strict cleaning and sanitation guidelines

More information and discussion of these models is available in the presentation attached to this document (“FYE UR Planning Fall 2020”).


As a group, we very much appreciate the opportunity to make recommendations on such an important decision as the course-delivery method for Fall 2020. We hope this report will be helpful to you in making that decision, and we will be happy to answer any questions you might have.

Appendix A: Constituent Concerns

To ensure that the voices of all task force members are represented in this report, and that each of the constituent areas represented on this task force can address these recommendations from the perspective of their needs and concerns, we provide the following constituent comments.

Environmental Health and Safety:

“EHS would like to specifically address the concern of communal bathrooms as a focal point for increased risk of disease transmission:

Physical distancing is the most important and effective protection we have against transmission of COVID-19. Further, the only available guidelines, the ACHA Considerations for Reopening IHEs in the COVID-19 Era, which specifically address housing state the following- Single resident per room and ideally per bathroom (if possible). Without any updated guidance available we feel the university should adhere as closely as possible to the ACHA document.

With the use of suites and apartments we are already above the recommended one person per bathroom. Attention should be directed to minimizing the risk to the extent possible in those bathrooms. Plexiglas between sinks and a bathroom schedule have been mentioned as mitigating strategies. In the hierarchy of safety responses (see graphic below), the Plexiglas would be considered an effective engineering control for the time a person is at the sink. As an administrative, or behavioral, response the bathroom schedule would be considered a less effective strategy. It may have some effectiveness, though, with limited numbers (2-4) of users reflected in Model 2 and the fact they have the option to close the door.

We believe communal bathrooms for an entire floor would greatly increase the risk of disease transmission due to the number of people interacting in a limited space. Extra cleaning is important but cannot address the increased respiratory exposures. As well, Plexiglas between sinks would help, but are only effective for the time the person is at the sink. With so many people wanting to use the bathroom, especially first thing in the morning, it would seem impossible to effectively maintain social distancing as people come and go through common entrances and move around within the room. Also, many of the tasks engaged in preclude the wearing of a mask. As an administrative strategy, assignment of sinks and schedules is unlikely to be effective with the larger numbers (up to 12) of users reflected in Model 1.

Ability to distance according to then-current guidelines is one of the primary conditions adopted from the Fall 2020 Planning Group. Therefore, keeping in mind the assumptions mentioned in the safety section of our task force document, EHS cannot endorse Model 1 as the model best suited to protecting our students and to allaying the concerns of their parents.”

University Residences:

University Residences fully supports Model 1 as the preferred option with the greatest possibility to address concerns of health, safety, and financial viability while serving student needs for on campus housing.