A Year on the Frontlines

Students walking on campus wearing masks

NSU Student Affairs adapts to challenging year of serving students during COVID-19

Northern State University Student Affairs launched an ambitious effort to do three things this year: protect the community’s health, keep campus open, and help students connect and engage at Northern. Each effort presented new challenges for the Student Affairs team and required creativity, adaptability and laser-like focus.

Utilizing a collaborative approach aimed at keeping case numbers as low as possible, Student Affairs presented students the opportunity to be partners in the effort to protect their health. This was accomplished by hosting multiple mass test events, helping students quarantine and isolate when necessary, and communicating public health messages.

A key to generating student cooperation was the use of a positive tone, absent of shame and blame.

“Too often, institutions across the country developed a negative tone and threatened students with disciplinary action,” said Sean Blackburn, Dean of Students. “Treating students like adults and setting a positive tone served Northern well during this pandemic.”

Student Affairs adopted an individualized approach to support students who were ill or in close contact with someone with COVID-19, putting the priority on caring for each individual student as a person.

“Learning you have COVID-19 can be frightening and embarrassing; we wanted to take the time to speak with each student to help them through the process,” Blackburn said.

As infection rates climbed from August until mid-November, Student Affairs worked with students and partners across campus to support students and work to prevent greater harm to student health and academic success.

Blackburn noted, “We asked every student leaving quarantine or isolation how their classes were going and if they needed any further assistance. We tracked every student case, monitored for trends and found new ways to support students along the way.” Hundreds of student absence notices were sent to faculty who responded with compassion and support.

The Student Affairs team added this case management work to their already busy obligations during the fall semester.

“We were so grateful to add Arlene Redler – a retired administrative assistant from Northern’s Presidents’ Office with 25 years of experience – to the team in January 2021,” Blackburn said. “We could not have sustained our efforts without Arlene.”

Adapted to New Challenges

Though the learning curve was significant, the team adapted best practices to meet these new challenges.

“We are very grateful for the system of policies and protocols established by the COVID-19 Taskforce this summer,” noted Blackburn. “Partners in the Facilities Department were also critical and often go unnoticed.”

The team in Residence Life faced an unplanned and stressful move-out in March 2020. In an anxious environment, staff members calmed students, helped them think through their transition to their permanent address, and faced an uncertain end of the spring semester.

Residence Life operated a COVID-19 isolation program within Steele Hall. While other institutions in the region encouraged students to leave campus when they tested positive, Northern encouraged students to stay. This involved the delivery of hundreds of meals, prescriptions, mail, and packages to residential students seven days a week. This effort helped maintain our Northern community and protected loved ones from exposure to COVID-19 at home.

Marty Sabolo, Director of Residence Life and Dining Services, noted, “The team was under significant stress. Prioritizing student needs was our focus and kept us going. Unlike other challenges faced by campus in the past, there seemed to be no end in sight. I’m proud of the team’s efforts.”

In addition to isolation housing in Steele Hall, students were quarantined due to close contact throughout the residence halls. The team’s efforts made this challenging situation more comfortable for students.

Communication was Key

Communication was also a key strategy. Recognizing the need to keep campus leadership informed, Student Affairs began to distribute a “Confidential Daily Activity Report.” This report tracked student cases in the micro and macro and supported a comprehensive and data-informed response to the pandemic.

An often missed, but critically important effort has been the on-boarding and community development efforts of Student Involvement and Leadership, student organizations, the Campus Activities Board (CAB) and Residence Life.

Megan Frewaldt and her team only had six weeks to launch a virtual HOWL (Helping Our Wolves Learn) summer orientation. Colleagues from across campus were involved in this monumental shift. Recognizing the value and need for an in-person HOWL, the team was then given the challenge to create a safe on-campus experience only a month after offering a whole new virtual experience. Few, if any other institutions, across the country were doing in-person orientation, so this required a great deal of attention to detail and innovation from the New Student Programs team.

“The team’s hard work, adaptability, creativity and passion for students – along with best practices from NODA (Association for Orientation, Transition, and Retention in Higher Education) – made it possible,” said Megan Frewaldt, Director of Student Involvement and Leadership.

A strong commitment to supporting students during the transition to college led the group to offer students a safe arrival to campus for Move-in and Wolf Pack Welcome.

“These critical programs help transition students from high school to college. These represented the first large-group student gatherings at Northern during a pandemic. A great deal of careful planning and dialogue were needed to safely welcome our new Wolves. This truly was a campuswide effort, but our Orientation Leaders deserve special recognition for their leadership in setting the atmosphere for their fellow students,” noted Frewaldt.

Safe Student Activities

The Campus Activities Board (CAB) was charged by former President Downs to offer students an array of safe but still engaging activities and opportunities. The challenge of connecting new members of the Northern community was made more interesting due to the pandemic.

“The CAB student leaders did a wonderful job,” Frewaldt said. “They were creative and fearless when it came to trying new programs. Virtual events, more outdoor events and group virtual events were all offered at a greater pace than normal, which required experimentation and going back to the drawing board time after time. The CAB students continuously explored innovative ways to meet the social needs of Northern students.”

The team in Counseling and Avera Student Health opened and safely operated a COVID-19 testing center within the Avera Student Center in August 2020. Hundreds of symptomatic students were screened, tested and supported on campus and within walking distance of the residence halls. To date, no infection has been traced back to the testing location.

In March 2020, the Counseling Center migrated to a telehealth model in order to continue to support students who faced a sudden disruption to their college careers. College students have reported increased anxiety and depression throughout the pandemic. The team in the Counseling Center was flexible and creative in its efforts to continue to support students.

Thanks to Northern’s partners at the South Dakota Department of Health and Avera St. Luke’s, NSU was the first in the Board of Regents to host a mass test event in September 2020. This was followed by four additional mass tests and vaccination appreciation events. Northern can also proudly boast being one of two South Dakota Board of Regents institutions with an on-demand asymptomatic testing program. And unlike the other institution, Northern does not have a medical school and laboratory.

“Innovative thinking and our partnerships have made all the difference,” said Blackburn.

Team members worked day in and day out within feet from a testing site, willingly walked into an isolation building housing COVID-19 infected students, and more recently invited the campus to participate in a saliva-based asymptomatic testing program within the Student Affairs Suite.

“What has been accomplished this semester is nothing short of impressive and demonstrates to all our commitment to student health,” noted Heather R. Aldentaler, Director of Counseling Services.