For over 155 years, Fairmont State University has been called upon to provide real leadership to our city and our state during times of great uncertainty. Our University has survived the aftermath of the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Great Depression and, in more recent years, 9/11 and the Great Recession. Now, armed with the certain knowledge that we have the resiliency to overcome such challenges, we continue to plot a course forward through the exceedingly difficult times the COVID-19 pandemic has placed ahead of us. Like every other sector of society, we are doing the hard work of looking ahead and planning to safely reopen our residential community. Across every facet of our University, our faculty and staff are working diligently to make our campus a safe and healthier place. They have my greatest admiration and gratitude.
When the pandemic arrived, we acted swiftly and with an abundance of caution to protect the health and safety of our university family and our surrounding communities. Almost all our students stayed home after spring break, and did not return to campus. At the same time, we recognized that some students did not have the option to go home. We set up emergency housing and food service on campus, following proper social distancing guidelines. To respond to the immediate need for medical supplies and PPEs, we scoured the campus for all medical supplies, and we distributed these much needed items and protective equipment to local hospitals, nursing homes, and health care workers. Many of our faculty, staff and students have selflessly volunteered to help those in need in their home communities.
Even though we shuttered buildings and closed our campus, our University soldiered on. We never wavered from our educational mission. We completed the Herculean task of moving our remaining spring curriculum from classroom to digital delivery platforms in less than one week. We have continued to provide instruction throughout this crisis, and we kept our students on track to earn their degrees. We recognize the future effects of the pandemic; therefore, with relentless resolve we ensured we did not waste the talents of our incredible students. West Virginia and the entire United States needs us to produce nurses, health care professionals, teachers, engineers, pilots, national security and cybersecurity experts, occupational safety professionals, entrepreneurs and business leaders.
West Virginia has been a leader in efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. In addition, West Virginians have thus far made the sacrifices necessary to flatten the curve. Therefore, it is our intention, barring extraordinary developments, to safely reopen our campus in the fall — with meaningful precautions and measured, creative approaches to resuming residential campus life.
Reopening our University campus is critical for our students’ educational success, their social development and mental health, and their development as citizen leaders. At Fairmont State, we educate the largest percentage of West Virginia resident students among all of our state universities. We have found many of our students do not have access to the connectivity necessary for effective remote learning. Our least advantaged students are our most vulnerable. They have the most to gain from a return to a safe and supportive campus community, and the most to lose if our hilltop campus remains closed.
Our faculty and staff have done an outstanding job remaining connected to our students despite all sorts of difficulties. They have provided invaluable mentoring, engagement, and support during this crisis. But, we know how much our students benefit from the face to face teaching and learning that define a Fairmont State education — classroom discussions that sharpen their critical and communication skills ; collaborations with classmates and subject experts; the opportunities our friendly and inviting campus provides for spontaneous “teachable moments” that extend learning beyond the classroom; life lessons and team-building skills acquired on the athletic fields; and the participation in the full spectrum of residential campus life and governance, which offers vital training for the next generation of leaders.
We take pride that we are #OneFalconFamily. It is our strongest attribute. We value the power of relationships, inclusion, compassion, and service. We love and support our students. We are committed to academic excellence and to preparing our graduates to live a successful and meaningful life of consequence. We believe that every student has both the capacity and the responsibility to make a positive impact in the world. We care most about developing leaders who possess not only knowledge and skills, but also character and integrity. We believe that such character and integrity is best built in community.
Higher education is crucial to the economy of North Central West Virginia. It undergirds our growth and increases our potential. Fairmont State alone provides over 700 direct employment opportunities and a total business impact of 83 million dollars in our region – that’s over $21,000.00 per student! Our importance is multiplied many times over through our outreach programs and the community service of our students, faculty, and staff. We are vital to the success of many small and emerging businesses.
The disruption this global health crisis has caused to our normal University operations is significant – both in lost revenue and unexpected expenses. Even one additional semester of exclusively remote instruction will have severe and lasting effects on our University and our local economy, robbing not just the city of Fairmont and our neighboring communities, but the entire State, of a critical economic multiplier we urgently need to recover from this pandemic.
Fairmont State is, as I often say, the wellspring of aspiration and inspiration for our region and our State. We occupy a unique and essential place in the academic world. We provide an outstanding personal, affordable, and accessible education that leads to meaningful careers in high-demand fields. Bringing our students to campus gives us the opportunity to stitch learning, engagement, and values together right here in North Central West Virginia for the betterment of us all.
We are planning to open our campus safely this fall with careful planning and attention to public health. We will continue working closely with public health experts, community leaders, and faculty and staff members. We are focusing on steps to protect our students, faculty, and staff, and in particular, the most vulnerable who are on and near our campuses. We will implement the experiences and best practices gained from tackling the contagious illnesses that affect nearly every college campus each year.
For sure, there will be changes and college life will look and feel somewhat different next year, but we are working hard to preserve the virtues of campus life. It’s a given there will be changes to housing, classroom setups, food service, and there will be social distancing protocols. Class schedules and even the spring academic calendar will likely require flexibility and/or modification. And, we’ll have procedures for testing and careful contact tracing and other responses if COVID-19 cases emerge. We are diligently developing detailed plans across our entire enterprise while keeping in mind those plans may need to rapidly change to reflect the latest recommendations from government and health officials.
Fairmont State has, however, many built-in advantages. We already have relatively small class sizes and a secure campus. We have incredible, dedicated, creative and innovative team members. Our students and our parents are great partners. I have no doubt we are all willing to accept the changes necessary to keep our Falcon family protected and healthy, so we are able to safely return to campus. Therefore, I am confident, at this time, we will be able to achieve the imperatives of reopening campus for the fall semester and of keeping those in all our communities safe.
Recently, we released our three-phase plan to reopen our Fairmont State University campus. We felt it was important to offer our students, faculty, staff and families a look ahead so they can plan as much as possible under the circumstances. There will be adjustments to our journey to reopen our University in the days ahead, but we will continue to communicate these changes in a clear and timely manner. Tough and uncertain times are ahead for all of us as we begin to reopen our communities. Fairmont State University stands ready and able to lead the way forward. Together, we will emerge from this crisis stronger and more united.
Thank you all for your support, prayers and continued partnership. May you and all who surround you stay safe and well.