UH-Hilo chancellor discusses steps needed before in-person classes can resume this fall

  • IRWIN

COVID-19 is changing the way the University of Hawaii at Hilo will approach the new school year when students return in the fall.

This semester, education shifted from the classroom to online because of the ongoing pandemic. UH President David Lassner, however, said Monday that all 10 campuses within the university system were planning to resume in-person instruction this fall, but that the return to classrooms “will not be business as usual.”

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While much is still unknown, UH-Hilo Chancellor Bonnie Irwin said the goal for the fall is to “have students back on campus, because we do realize a number of things that we do, particularly here in Hilo, work better in a face-to-face environment, but we want to make sure people are safe.”

For in-person classes, that means not putting as many people in a room to maintain safe distances and repeatedly cleaning high-use areas, she said. But because social distancing will be necessary, Irwin said UH-Hilo will have to have some hybrid courses, and perhaps leave some classes online.

Conversations regarding courses are still ongoing, she said, but the UH system wanted to make the announcement about classes because many families and students are making their college decisions this month.

“One of the things I’m actually quite hopeful about, (is) having given faculty the experience of teaching online this semester — which we didn’t intend,” Irwin said. “It has shown us that we can do some things online that we perhaps thought we couldn’t.”

That in turn will allow the university to do a better job serving other people on the island who can’t physically come to Hilo for classes, Irwin said.

When classes moved online this semester, Irwin said the faculty had a week to prepare, which meant many things were done quickly, and many teachers had never taught online before. While some training was offered, Irwin said the university plans to offer more workshops and training for faculty this summer.

“In addition to rolling out training this summer, we want to be very intentional about class assignments and assigning to online classes faculty who are best prepared to teach online,” she said.

According to Irwin, a nationwide survey found about 70% of students did not like the transition to online learning.

“Our students at Hilo who are finding discomfort (with the transition) are not alone,” she said. “Because we had to transition so rapidly, we’re hoping in the future when we do offer online courses, we are able to plan better and train better to do them well.”

Irwin said the university will take guidance on health protocols from the state and county.

While it’s not yet known if masks will be required, Irwin said the university is thinking about what would be needed to implement such a requirement. Additionally, she said UH-Hilo is still trying to determine “how much we can open the campus to the public,” including performing arts programs, the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center and athletics.

Much will depend on decisions made by the state and county in terms of group sizes, she said.

“… I will hope the community will be patient (with) us so we can figure out how we can open our doors to other people than our students,” Irwin said.

UH-Hilo also will have residence halls open in the fall, but Irwin said university leaders are studying social distancing protocols and looking at how many students can be accommodated.

And while it’s too early to determine the impact COVID-19 will have on campus enrollment this fall, Irwin said university leaders are expecting in-state enrollment to go up and out-of-state and international student enrollment to decline.

Irwin, however, said applications for incoming freshmen were up, although the school won’t know for weeks how many of those will commit to UH-Hilo.

But despite the unknowns, Irwin hopes to still fill some key leadership positions within the university. She is interviewing candidates for the vice chancellor of academic affairs position this week and was given permission to hire for the position.

“We are still planning to continue with searches for a couple of deans, as well, because we need to have a stable leadership force to be able to deal with all the changes ahead,” she said.

Irwin, who is concluding her first year in the university’s top position, said this is not the way she would have imagined her first year as chancellor to go.

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“One of the things I always knew about Hilo and this campus is we’re resilient,” she said. “I’ve seen that demonstrated over and over again over the last two months. … It’s been really challenging, but people are still committed to providing the best experience they can for the students. … I’m hoping that energy and dedication to UH-Hilo and our students will persist into the future and allow us to build a strong UH-Hilo on the other side of this.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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