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West Virginia University adjusts to life during pandemic

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories detailing West Virginia University President Gordon Gee’s thoughts on how the university is helping guide its students — and the entire Mountain State — through the COVID-19 pandemic. Gee also focuses on WVU Medicine, the future of higher education and college sports as we approach a “new normal.”

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MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University President Gordon Gee says higher education during a pandemic is untested ground and likely will change the university for decades to come.

West Virginia University closed its buildings and campus last month as part of a statewide and nationwide attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, also known as coronavirus. The illness was first documented in China, but quickly spread around the world, taking a particular toll on the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

On Tuesday, Gee spoke online with the Ogden Newspapers editorial board about how the college is adapting to this new age of social distancing and restrictions on gatherings.

“I thought I’d seen everything, but I’d never seen a pandemic,” Gee said. “I feel a little like a small boy walking a picket fence: I’m thrilled, but in danger of being impaled. It’s a freshman moment for me. I’ve never had to deal with this.”

Gee said shutting down the Morgantown campus and moving to a primarily-online model of instruction was an important move because of WVU’s diverse student population.

“We were one of the first to make a move and close down our campus,” he said. “We have students from 55 (West Virginia) counties, 50 states and 118 countries. If we have students who go on spring break and come back from all those places, we would have caused a dynamic that would have been unsustainable in West Virginia.”

The university moved most of its classes online, a process which was done in a matter of weeks rather than the months it takes to develop an online class, Gee said.

“We had to make this decision to do it online and to do it in two weeks. That’s a little like planning the invasion of Normandy,” he said. “You have faculty and others who have never done this, they’ve always taught in person. We moved mountains and went online, and we predicted we were going to have a lot of initial glitches. We’ve had very few complaints.”

John Bolt, executive director for the Office of Communications for WVU, said the immediate challenge has been bringing the traditional classroom to the students. Bolton said WVU’s online programs have seen great success, but COVID-19 forced everything to go digital in a short amount of time.

“Many of these classes are not true online classes,” he said. “They were being taught in the classroom and they had to figure out how to get what they were teaching delivered online. You don’t structure a course the same way.”

“We have been in the online business, and we have some effective online leadership,” Gee said, “so we were not caught totally blind.”

Gee joked that he too had had to adjust to the digital shift.

“I am a luddite. I’ve never used Zoom or anything else,” Gee said. “Now here I am running a university from my office, and I’m finding it pretty effective, actually.”

But Gee also said he believed some of the university experience and education cannot be duplicated online.

“Is online education as good as in-person? In some cases, yes,” he said. “Certain things can be effectively delivered in this manner. The one thing that online can’t replace … that individual human contact. I think the good universities are the ones where the real learning takes place outside the classroom. I think right now we are trying to figure out how to make this work in the short term, but also to learn from it.”

Gee said there are concerns for the finances of the college. Combined with WVU Medicine’s 16 hospitals, the total budget for WVU is about $4 billion, but is significantly less for the university itself.

“We live at the margins. We have about 55-65 days of cash available, so we have to preserve that,” he said. “I spent the morning with our staff council, we’re talking with many of them about how do we make certain we preserve our greatest asset, which is our talent. How do we all make sure we all are contributing to make sure that talent is here for the long haul?”

Gee said there also are concerns about whether the university will be able to open its campus for the fall semester and how online-only summer school will affect enrollment.

“Our online numbers look better than we thought they would,” he said. “They are down a little bit but not that much and our enrollment numbers, in terms of paid deposits, is still looking quite strong.”

But Gee said the constantly-changing landscape of COVID-19 has made for uncertain times for everyone. With businesses shut down many students have found themselves without jobs or with income insecurity. State and federal officials are unable to say when stay home order and restrictions on gatherings might be eased or lifted entirely.

“It’s a dynamic that is very immediate. We don’t know what the day is going to be like,” Gee said. “We’re fighting the unknowns. The distancing also makes it difficult.

“I think people who say there is going to be a new normal are right. I think its going to be a new world,” he said. “I think it’s going to fundamentally change the way we do things.”

Contact Michael Erb @newsandsentinel.com.

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