Tue. Jun 25th, 2024

On April 21, President Christopher Fiorentino sat down for an interview with Emma Bickerstaffe (EB) and Brendan Lordan, where he discussed what to expect from the university’s upcoming in-person fall semester. The near completed spring semester concludes over a year of remote learning, and Fiorentino reflected on the experience of running a university during a global pandemic. The interview has been edited for clarity. 


EB: What steps will the university be taking to ensure the safety of its students and employees this upcoming fall semester?

PF: Let me say first: if the students and employees would take the step of getting vaccinated, that would make the steps that we would have to take quite easy. People who are vaccinated are not in danger of dying or becoming extremely sick, and they only have infinitesimal chances of contracting the virus. Certainly, our first message is that — while we cannot require vaccinations as a public institution — we are really hoping that our students, faculty and staff will take the opportunity to get vaccinated. We just announced a vaccine clinic on campus on May 1 that will be available to employees and students. We have 1,170 doses that, as of April 22, students will be able to sign up for. 

Last year, there was a big concern about the virus being contracted from surfaces, and that has really been debunked at this point. Obviously, we’ll continue to sanitize the campus; we always continue to clean things for general health and safety reasons, but those things are not going to have any impact on the spread of the virus. We’re looking at things like the circulation of air in the buildings; there are lots of code requirements around the public buildings that we have. Even the older buildings have been retrofitted, made up-to-code as they’ve been remodeled over time. So, hopefully, we’ll be in generally good shape in that arena. 

The requirements for social distancing are imposed by the state government, and as of now, they’re still in place. We’re certainly hoping that they will be relaxed by the time we get to the fall semester.  In order for us to be fully back and fully operational — and we’ve been hoping and stating that those are our intentions — we are going to have to be able to relax those restrictions. Even if we go from six feet to three feet, that puts us in a much better position to have students in classrooms while still operating safely. Probably no matter what, we will still all be wearing masks in public settings, just in terms of prudent behaviors. If we have a fully vaccinated population, then none of those things are really major concerns. 

EB: Because it’s a public university, how will vaccine standards be handled? Will vaccinations be required for students to partake in certain events? 

PF: We do have the ability to test students who are going into the residence halls. As far as I understand it, at this point, we cannot mandate vaccines. We are having ongoing discussions with our attorneys about what the restrictions are for public institutions. In fact, when I was looking over these interview questions, they triggered me to ask our attorney a clarifying question: what about aspects of the university that are not public buildings? We have auxiliary buildings — the residence halls, Sykes Student Union; these are buildings that are paid for with student fees. But, at this point, I’m not aware of any restrictions. If we find, for example, that we could require students to be vaccinated in order to participate in certain types of events, we would certainly take a serious look into if that’s a good idea. At this point, I can’t definitively answer your question. As you’ll find as we go through these questions, this is a very fluid situation. The lawyers are working hard to get clarifications on the laws and policies of the state government. As the administration gets questions, we’re passing them on to our lawyers; so, while I can’t give you a definitive answer about that now, we’re taking a look into it. 

EB: What is the safety protocol if a student or faculty member tests positive for COVID-19? Will there be pre-prepared quarantine housing?

PF: We don’t want to set aside student housing on campus and take it offline if we don’t have to. My understanding from talking to Dr. Davenport is that we’re having conversations with hotels nearby to maybe have blocks of rooms where we can send students. If the employees test positive or are exposed to somebody who has tested positive — we’ve already been functioning over a year now with most of our employees working remotely, so that would certainly be the protocol for that. I would expect that if students test positive, the first most likely thing would be that they would go home. There are reasons that students might not want to go home — if there’s somebody compromised there or if they don’t feel safe — then we would look at providing other options for students, such as a nearby hotel. There are several hotels as you go down Route 202, and we can certainly make arrangements with them. 

EB: Do you have any words to ease the worries and frustrations of upperclassmen who are running into housing accommodation problems due to freshman and sophomore priority?

PF: I wish that I could snap my finger and put more housing on campus. Obviously, this is a terrible situation that’s been dropped in our laps. This year’s first-year students didn’t have the opportunity to live in on-campus housing during their first year, and we find ourselves next year with them saying, “what about us?” We took a hard look at it and decided that this was the way that we had to do it. There are a lot of aspects of this pandemic situation that truly break my heart. The graduating seniors, I see them around campus now getting pictures taken with their caps and gowns on — their senior year just didn’t turn out the way they expected. 

Going forward, the housing issues are going to be a problem. We’re looking at housing. We’ve studied it; we do believe that we could accommodate more housing. We have more students on campus, and there is sufficient demand to do that, but we can’t make a change like that overnight. It takes time; we have to work with the municipalities, build buildings and so forth. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything in the short run. We felt that we had to prioritize the rising sophomore and incoming freshman students because the evidence strongly shows that if students start with on-campus experience in terms of housing, they have a higher likelihood of being successful, ultimately. That was the tough decision that we had to make, and I’m very sorry that we had to make it because I understand the frustration of all the students who feel that they would like to be in housing and we just don’t have enough space for them. It’s just one more of the things that I’m sad about in terms of the impact that this pandemic has had on our community. 

EB: What can students expect from fall semester? Is there a sense of normalcy that they can look forward to having back?

PF: My hope is that we’re going to be fully back, and I can tell you that the employees really thrive on the presence of the students. I’ve been coming to work since June, and the campus is a very lonely place. We have a few hundred people in the residence halls now; yesterday it was a beautiful afternoon, there were a few clusters of students sitting out on the quad, but it wasn’t how it usually looks. Those are things that we really miss — the staff is excited to get back to operating the university; the business of supporting the students, providing the full array of activities for the students. That’s certainly what we’re hoping that we’re going to be able to do.

When we say that we want to be back and fully operational, that assumes that we have a high percentage of the people who will be on the campus and vaccinated at that point. We had an uptick of cases this past week or so, and we don’t know exactly why, but I do know that there was a 3-on-3 basketball tournament over in Rustin Park a week ago; it was packed with students, and a lot of them weren’t wearing masks. There were other social events in the neighborhoods around that time. And lo and behold, we had a significant uptick five or six days later. The students, to a great extent, control our destiny over what happens in the fall. If the students don’t behave responsibly, then they’re going to ruin it for everybody else. We sure hope that doesn’t happen. But as we’ve already talked about, I can mandate certain things in the residence halls, but once they go off-campus, if they go to a party on Walnut Street, I can’t tell them what they have to do there. 

We have to wait and see, but what we’re planning for right now is that life is going to go back to what it was like before March 10 of 2020, and we will have our campus full of students, faculty, staff and activities. But at this point that remains my hope, not my definitive statement. 

EB: Will there still be social distancing and mask requirements? Will there be any limitations? 

PF: Honestly, I don’t know. As of right now, they’re all still in place. The social distancing and mask requirements have not been relaxed. Even if we get significant compliance with faculty and students getting vaccinated, not everyone is going to be vaccinated. I expect that in public areas, people will still be wearing masks. If the classroom requirement is reduced from six feet to three feet, then we’ll operate at three feet. At this point, that change has been operationalized for K-12, but not for higher education. If we were having face-to-face classes, we would not be able to do that right now; we would need six feet, which basically takes out two-thirds of the seats in a classroom. If that is still in place in the fall, it’s going to be really impossible for us to return to the kind of full operation where we have regular, on-campus classes. We’re hoping that those things will be relaxed. There’s certainly going to be enough vaccines — already we’re seeing that the problem now is not having enough vaccines meet the people who are looking for appointments; it’s finding enough people to utilize the number of available vaccines. 

We’re still in a very uncertain set of circumstances and probably will be well into the summer. What we keep saying is: we are planning for a full return; we’re planning to return employees to campus on a phased-in basis throughout the summer. There may be things that we decide have worked so well remotely that we will continue to operate in that way. Student experiences with the registrar, bursar and financial aid offices have worked very well. We look at that and think that it’s probably something we should continue, a service that functions remotely so that students don’t have to troop over there and wait in lines. We’re still accessing how things work, what went well, what didn’t go well. Over the course of the next few months, we’ll sort all of those things out.  

EB: If the state drops or alters their social distancing requirements, does the university have the authority to implement their own?

PF: We can implement stricter requirements than the state; we can’t implement more lax requirements. If the state says six feet, then we’re doing six feet. If the state says three feet and we decide that we’re not ready for three, we can still do six. The guidance is coming from the state; they’re being very careful and very prudent. I’ve talked recently with the presidents of other State System universities. Places like Shippensburg University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania are in very different locations than West Chester and are experiencing things differently. There’s an upsurge in cases in some of the more rural areas than in Chester County right now. It may be that, even though there’s a general relaxation by the governor, different schools are going to react to it differently. The governor may even start relaxing things county by county. These are all things that we’re waiting to hear. This is a very fluid situation in terms of what we’re able to do, what we’re not able to do, what’s mandated, what’s not mandated. We’ll continue to adjust accordingly; we want to keep everyone safe, but we’re relying on the experts to tell us exactly what that means. I have a lot of experience running a university, but I do not have a lot of experience in knowing public health protocol — I rely on those experts to help.

EB: What are you most looking forward to in the upcoming semester and what are you proud of that has occurred over this past year?

PF: I’m looking forward to being back to normal, having a full campus. The campus has been very lonely; it’s intended to be filled with people and vibrancy. This has not been fun. Looking back, I’m very proud that we weret able to put our students in the position to continue to move towards their goals. We quickly pivoted. Operating remotely has its challenges, and I’ve heard concerns; I’ve worked closely with student government leadership on identifying issues. We’ve modified grading practices; we’ve tried to do things to help the students be successful. The employees of this university rallied around the students — they stepped up. We have been operating this university for over a year with most of our 2,000 employees not here, and that’s pretty amazing. If you had asked me in January of 2020 whether I thought the university could operate effectively with nobody here, I wouldn’t have thought that was possible. We were put in a position where we had no choice but to do that. The backroom offices, the registrar, bursar, financial aid, the health center, the counseling center, the IT department — everything pivoted to remote delivery of services, and we continued to operate successfully. While I don’t expect it to be equivalent to the on-campus experience — which is the type of experience that we intend for our students, we still enable students to make progress toward their degrees. We made difficult decisions, and they were controversial when we made them, but looking back, I think we did the right thing every step of the way. We made sure that we kept our community safe, and we did not have major health calamities on campus. Our quick decisions contributed to the safety of the entire West Chester community. I feel good about the university’s ability to adapt to meet the needs of our students to the best of our ability. 

Emma Bickerstaffe is a fourth-year English Writings major with a minor in Journalism. EB891492@wcupa.edu

One thought on “An interview with President Fiorentino: Spring 2021”
  1. I want written contract and tution refunded for fall 2021 if you renig on your promise for in person learning. not hybrid, not online classes, but the human body, physically present in a University building, with a PHYSICALLY present professor, TEACHING IN PERSON< NOT VIRTUAL on a screen in the classroom. This bait and switch approach has to end. It is not fair to the students, the parents, and the taxpayers of PA who FUND WCU with THEIR tax dollars. Many professors did not even show up for their zoom classes in the fall of last year, and this year. FOR SHAME.. and yet, you charged the parents/students anyway. Shame on you.

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