Professor Kat Wakabayashi takes his teaching to a new level — the outdoor balcony on the second floor of Academic East.
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Professor Kat Wakabayashi takes his teaching to a new level — the outdoor balcony on the second floor of Academic East.
New Protocols in Place
A Fall Like No Other
Students return to a transformed campus experience
by Matt Hughes

eturning to Bucknell’s campus felt like stepping onto a movie set to Jaden Lee ’22. At the semester’s start, the mechanical engineering major was still getting used to taking visual cues from the more than 10,000 signs hung on campus over the summer, illustrating where to stand while waiting for food, checking equipment out from the library or directing one-way movement through buildings. “It’s like stage directions: ‘Go upstairs one way and down another.’ ‘Stand on this spot,’ ” he says.

The proliferation of signs as well as face coverings — many in orange and blue — might have been the most obvious indicators of change as Bucknell reopened on Aug. 17 for an in-person fall semester amid an ongoing pandemic.

Orientation assistants cheer on new Bucknellians.
On the first day of classes, students get into the groove of an unusual academic year.
Photos: Emily Paine
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Top: Orientation assistants cheer on new Bucknellians.
Bottom: On the first day of classes, students get into the groove of an unusual academic year.
But the preparations went much deeper. The resumption of in-person living and learning was a meticulously orchestrated mobilization of resources and efforts in which everyone — students, faculty and staff — had a part to play. It included one of the most rigorous COVID-testing regimens at any school in the nation as well as new protocols for contact tracing and quarantine — and a host of preventive measures.

Faculty led the same engaging labs and engrossing discussions but in modified and often larger spaces, including outdoors, or in venues such as the Weis Center for the Performing Arts. Cleaning and disinfecting of classroom spaces ramped up, as it did in residence halls. Dining shifted toward to-go service and outdoor seating, eliminated buffets and made-to-order options, and offered identical meals at each venue at meal times to mitigate crowding.

Move-in, usually a flurry of cars, carts and excited students packed into a frantic morning, was spread across more than a week to allow for physical distancing. It also occurred earlier than usual, part of an altered schedule that moved up the semester’s end and eliminated fall break.

Keeping COVID Off Campus
To prevent the spread of the virus on campus, Bucknell invested in a rigorous testing program that included two prearrival COVID-19 tests. Surveillance tests continued for students on campus about every 10 days, and faculty and staff were tested as often as every two weeks. Students testing positive were isolated in off-campus accomodations and those with whom they’d had close contact were quarantined. Contact tracing and a public dashboard updating the case count daily also were implemented.

Those new protocols were put to the test before the semester even began, as Emily Baird ’24 experienced.

The Dallas native was quarantined in her room shortly after she arrived, when a student on her hall tested positive. Baird left quarantine two days later when it was determined that she had no close contact with the student. While she took the early close call in stride, she does worry that she might have to “start from square one again coming back from Christmas break,” she says.

Those same concerns weighed heavily for Bucknell President John Bravman, but the incident also offered evidence, he noted in an email to faculty and staff, “that our process is working.”

Options for Students and Faculty
Students also could take classes remotely this fall, and on opening day, 320 had chosen that option, while nearly 3,400 elected to return to campus. Faculty could choose three teaching options: fully in person, fully online or a hybrid. At the start, more than 80% of classes were offered in person or with a blend of methods.

Among the in-person offerings were chemical engineering courses led by Professor Kat Wakabayashi, who was eager to resume the personal interaction he considers a teaching strength. “It is just much easier to achieve that in person, even with half of our faces covered and standing six feet apart,” he says.

Returning to campus required Wakabayashi to juggle lab schedules, prerecord lectures and livestream labs for remote students with a camera on his forehead. But as he stepped onto the outdoor balcony that would serve as his fair-weather classroom and saw his students, Wakabayshi says he knew he “made the right personal choice.”

Ready to Pivot
Flexibility would remain key throughout the semester, and all at Bucknell — students, faculty and staff — were prepared to pivot in response to changes in the public-health landscape.

In the waning weeks of summer, many schools that announced plans to return to campus rescinded or made modifications to those plans, such as allowing only first-year students to live on campus. As Bucknell classes began, some universities, including UNC-Chapel Hill and Notre Dame, halted in-person instruction amid COVID-19 flare-ups. At press time, Bucknell had avoided such measures, but the need for vigilance was as strong as ever.

Near the end of the first week of classes, Bravman wrote to remind the student body that “no place is safe from COVID-19” and said he would take action if conditions emerged that would threaten the health of the campus or Lewisburg.

“I truly do not want to do that, but I will if the facts demand such action,” Bravman wrote.

To Lee, who returned to campus early as an Arts First Pre-Orientation adviser, the thoroughness of Bucknell’s approach was apparent.

“The University has very strategically done this,” he says. He hoped it would be enough to sustain the in-person experiences he looked forward to for his junior year.