Baptist colleges adjust to new normal for fall semester

Baptist colleges adjust to new normal for fall semester

By Martha Simmons
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

After 41 years in education — most of which have taken place on the hurricane-prone Alabama coast — you would think University of Mobile President Lonnie Burnett had seen it all. Not so.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is, according to Burnett, “the strangest thing ever.”

“There’s no way you could prepare for this,” he said. “But having said that, we’ve adjusted pretty quickly.”

Burnett noted he and his counterparts at Alabama’s two other Baptist-affiliated colleges — Samford University in Birmingham and Judson College in Marion — meet frequently via online conferencing to discuss the latest plan.

“It’s a situation where it’s day by day,” Burnett said. “We plan for multiple contingencies. It’s not a Plan A, it’s a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, Plan D and Plan E right now.”

‘Learn and adapt’

Samford President Andrew Westmoreland looks on the bright side.

“A crisis of this magnitude creates monumental challenges but also allows opportunities to learn and adapt,” he said in announcing fall semester plans. “We’ve developed new processes and competencies, most notably in online education. While we look forward to the return of in-person instruction, this experience will undoubtedly strengthen our integration of technology in the classroom and across all of our operations for years to come.”

On May 18, Samford brought back a limited number of employees, with the remainder set to return to campus in phases, starting June 15.

Summer term classes are being taught online and orientation for new students and their families will be online.

In an April 30 message to Samford employees, Harry B. “Buck” Brock III, executive vice president and VP for business and financial affairs, wrote, “We will carefully monitor national, regional and local trends and public health mandates related to COVID-19 in the weeks to come. Unless governmental regulations make it impossible or imprudent, we are planning for the general reopening of the campus for classes and residence halls in August.

“Even then,” Brock cautioned, “heightened health and safety monitoring will likely be the norm in all aspects of campus life. Limiting individual and campus exposure to the virus now and in the weeks ahead will enhance the likelihood of a safe resumption of operations in August. Social distancing, hand-washing, face coverings and limited travel should continue to be practiced faithfully.”

‘Prepare for students’

Samford has tentatively rescheduled spring graduation ceremonies for Aug. 13–15, and fall classes are set to begin Aug. 24.

Mark Tew, president of Judson College, called on most all employees to return to campus May 11 following Gov. Kay Ivey’s announcement allowing many businesses to reopen.

As the college’s summer session continues online, Tew said employees working on campus are observing social distancing and other health and safety protocols. Some employees with specific health-related issues have and will continue to work from home, he said, and “additional procedures will be implemented throughout the summer as we prepare our campus to receive our students.”

The campus reopened May 18 for private tours for prospective students and their families, said Mary Amelia Taylor, Judson’s associate vice president for marketing and communications.

Judson is planning commencement for June 27, Taylor added, which will be an outdoor ceremony to allow for social distancing. The college is planning a few special touches as well, she said.

“The college’s student life and academic divisions are planning an event leading up to commencement that we’ve named ‘Linger a Little Longer’ after some cherished Judson traditional song lyrics,” she said. “This event will allow participating students to celebrate several end-of-semester events that were cancelled or postponed this spring, such as our annual Honors Convocation, Class Day and several special events for graduating seniors.”

As for fall, Judson plans to resume face-to-face instruction on Aug. 20, according to Stacey Parham, interim academic dean, with “extra preventive health measures” in place, including social distancing between students and enhanced sanitation procedures.

University of Mobile plans to resume on-campus instruction and residential housing in the fall, with classes set to begin Aug. 17. Meanwhile, prospective students and their families may arrange private tours of the campus.

Fall classes may look different than usual, depending on government regulations in place when the fall semester begins, UM officials said. Smaller class sizes, larger dining hall space and flexible class attendance online or in person may be implemented to accommodate social distancing recommendations.


“The great advantage we have with our university is that we already offer small classes, and we can focus on the needs of the individual student,” Burnett said. “Our employees can be nimble in addressing any need that may arise in the fall.”

UM’s spring 2020 graduates are encouraged to celebrate their commencement with fall grads, said Kathy Dean, assistant vice president for university communications.

‘Big celebration’

“We are encouraging them to come back for Dec. 12 and we will have a big celebration,” Dean said.

“Many have already told us they are planning to come back for the graduation ceremony. It’s something we are all looking forward to — graduates, families, faculty and staff. We are looking forward to hearing all about what they are doing and where they are since we last saw them in April.”

Read more about the factors affecting campuses and students amid the coronavirus pandemic by clicking here.