Broad operational flexibility given to Tenn. colleges to prevent spread of COVID-19

The state’s community colleges and colleges of applied technology comprising the College System of Tennessee were given broad flexibility to alter their classes and other operations as needed locally to protect students, faculty and staff from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), including extending spring breaks before transitioning to online classes where possible.

All 13 community colleges and 27 colleges of applied technology in the system, governed by the Tennessee Board of Regents, are taking further precautions against the spread of the virus—including cancelling out-of-state work-related travel and large meetings and events on campus, suspending study-abroad trips through May 31, instituting deep cleanings of facilities, and notifying students, faculty and staff to stay home if they are sick or exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.

Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor Flora W. Tydings discussed the system’s latest measures in a conference call with college presidents. Because several colleges are located in rural areas and smaller cities with no reported COVID-19 cases in their regions, the presidents have authority to choose a number of operating options that reflect conditions in their areas. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides separate guidance for higher education institutions that do not have COVID-19 cases in their communities and for those that do.

Most of the community and technical colleges are on spring break this week. Each college will communicate its operating decisions to its students and broader community; several are already doing so.

Options available to presidents include:

  • Extending spring break for an extra week for students, then transitioning to online classes when possible, at least through April 3. Colleges in communities where COVID-19 cases have been identified are expected to exercise this option.
  • Hybrid approaches that move lectures and similar classes to an online environment and retaining in-person classes for laboratories and hands-on technical education programs but with revised schedules and precautions that limit students to 10 or 12 per classroom depending on size and social distancing guidelines that maintain at least six feet between persons. Campuses could stagger class schedules to accommodate these precautions.
  • Continuing regular class schedules but with heightened precautions following all CDC guidelines. Smaller colleges in rural areas may choose this option.

The call with presidents followed an earlier call in which Tennessee Department of Health officials briefed leaders of the state’s higher education institutions on the COVID-19 situation.

“The health, safety and welfare of our students, faculty, staff and their families are always our top priorities and we believe these new precautionary measures are necessary to protect our college communities,” Chancellor Tydings said. “I also believe we are being student friendly by helping students continue their educations when possible, while protecting their health. While there will likely be disruptions and inconveniences, we have a responsibility to help protect the communities we serve, including those who may be particularly vulnerable to the virus.

“We asked our college presidents last week to begin preparing for a possible shift from in-person to online classes. Similar measures are being implemented at other public and private colleges and universities, not only in Tennessee but across the nation.”

The TBR system office is assisting the colleges in their preparations for more online classes. TN eCampus, an online education partnership among TBR colleges and other Tennessee universities, has operated out of the system office for several years.

The Board of Regents, Dr. Tydings and the presidents will continue monitoring the situation and make further decisions later this month about how classes will operate for the remainder of the academic year.

Thus far, the only confirmed COVID-19 case involving a member of the system’s campus communities is an adult male student of Nashville State Community College, who attended classes at Nashville State’s East Davidson Campus in Donelson and its Southeast Campus in Antioch. The student self-reported to the college after receiving notification of a positive COVID-19 test. Nashville State immediately contacted health authorities. Working with the college, health officials began contacting students and faculty with whom the student may have come in contact. The college, which was on spring break was already deep cleaning its campuses, closed the two campuses for deeper cleaning.

The college strongly encourages its students, faculty, staff and community members who have recently been on both campuses to watch for symptoms of the disease and to notify their health care providers if symptoms arise. For further information, visit Nashville State’s website at <www.nscc.edu/>.

In addition, Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis was notified Monday afternoon that two radiologic technology students might have been exposed to a COVID-19 patient during their clinicals at a Memphis hospital, before the college went on spring break. The two students reportedly had subsequent contact with other students and faculty members in the radiologic technology program. Those exposed are under a self-quarantine for 14 days, as recommended by the CDC. Southwest is deep cleaning its Allied Health Building during its spring break and has communicated with its college community.