Preface from the Provost

Mark ByrnesThis is not the first time a virus has shaken our campus. Within the first decade of our history, what was then Middle Tennessee State Normal School witnessed the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. Then, in 1921, a smallpox outbreak struck campus. The school was put under quarantine, and the main access road, now known as Middle Tennessee Boulevard, was even blocked for a time. Students who fell ill were cared for in a house near campus. The campus community must have been terrified. But the institution persevered.

Now, nearly a century later, another virus bedevils us. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned campus life upside down. Like most universities, Middle Tennessee State University transitioned all Spring courses to remote instruction in March 2020 to slow the spread of the virus. Shortly thereafter, we decided that all Summer courses would also be online. On April 30, however, President Sidney A. McPhee announced that the MTSU campus would resume on-campus operations for the Fall 2020 semester. He established a COVID-19 Task Force to make recommendations about how to bring students back while maintaining educational quality and minimizing risk to our community. The Task Force, which included faculty, staff, administrators, and community members, was divided into three committees­­: Academics, Student Affairs and Services, and Administration and Operations. The recommendations from those committees form the bulk of this report.

Current scientific projections suggest that opening the new academic year as usual is not advisable given the nature of university life, which presents heightened risks through repeated prolonged personal contact in densely populated spaces. (See, for example, the most recent CDC guidelines for institutions of higher education.) Starting the semester entirely online, however, is far from ideal for courses requiring labs, performances, or other activities that need to occur in specialized spaces or involve significant collaboration with others. A more nuanced path seems preferable. 

The Task Force proposes a modified reopening, in which some courses occur on-ground with social distancing, some remain online, and some are delivered in a hybrid format. This approach seeks to minimize risk while we continue to pursue our educational mission as best we can. The Task Force also offers recommendations on how changes to housing, on-campus events, and student services might reduce population density on campus while continuing our work. In addition, we make suggestions about mitigating risk for our employees and addressing anticipated budget shortfalls.

Let us hope that the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic is soon dispatched into oblivion. In the meantime, we must face our circumstances with the same fortitude and sense of community shown by our predecessors who confronted smallpox a century ago. They worked together to get through their trials, and we must do the same.

My thanks to all the members of the Task Force for their hard work on a tight deadline. Special thanks to Bud Fischer, Mary Hoffschwelle, Karen Petersen, Deb Sells, and Alan Thomas. Matthew Hibdon, Allison McGoffin, and Cheryl Torsney also provided valuable help in creating this report. 

Mark Byrnes
Chair, MTSU COVID-19 Task Force