New Saint Andrews College in Moscow is moving forward with in-person instruction for the fall semester and while the school plans to keep students 6 feet apart at all times, it will not require them to wear face masks in school facilities.
NSA President Ben Merkle said because the school does not offer services like student housing, athletics or meal programs, planning a safe fall semester is not quite as complex as it is for nearby Washington State University and the University of Idaho.
At around 200 students, Merkle said NSA’s student body is also a fraction the size of other colleges on the Palouse making it easier for students to maintain six feet of distance from their peers.
In early July, Moscow Mayor Bill Lambert issued a public health emergency order requiring those in city limits to wear face coverings in public where six feet of social distancing is impossible. On Tuesday, Moscow City Council extended the order’s expiration to Oct. 6.
Merkle said the former CJ’s Nightclub, located on the south end of Moscow’s Main Street corridor and purchased by NSA in 2017, will be ready to host fall classes in its basement, aiding in the effort to keep classes spaced six feet apart.
“We’re able to spread our students out quite a lot — we already had small classes, we don’t have any lecture halls of 150 students packed in and by spreading them out, we’re able to accommodate the mayor’s order,” Merkle said. “Obviously, if students want to wear masks, they’ve got room to do that but we’re trying to make it so they fit the order with the six feet and then masks are an option if they want to add that.”
The lack of a mask requirement has become a marketing tool for the school. “No riots. No masks. In person. This Fall,” boasts an advertisement posted to the school’s Facebook account earlier this month.
Merkle said NSA has also enhanced its cleaning and disinfection procedures including hiring extra janitorial staff, making hand sanitizer available in school facilities and installing air filters in larger classrooms.
He said the college has also worked to make it possible for students to attend class through the video conferencing platform Zoom. He said one reason allowing students to attend classes online was a priority is because many international students have been unable to return to the country because of the pandemic.
Online classes also will give students a way to attend class if they’ve been exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19 — or perhaps woke up feeling sick and wish to err on the side of caution, Merkle said. He noted young students have a tendency to ignore illness if they can and NSA wants to give students the latitude to “take all of those warning signs really seriously.”
Merkle said NSA prides itself in an up-close, personal educational experience. He said offering those same classes online just won’t deliver as rigorous or valuable an educational product. There’s a reason the expression “to phone it in,” means to do something half-heartedly, he said.
“I’m trying to balance between two very important principles — one is that we want to take (students’) health and safety seriously and strive all that we can to make sure that we’re giving them a safe environment in which to study,” he said. “But the second is that we actually give them the product that they’re paying for, which is a quality, rigorous education.”
Each school is different, Merkle said, and while the UI, WSU and NSA all have different plans for instruction this fall, he said he doesn’t think any of them are necessarily wrong — they’re just operating under a different set of circumstances.
He said even if a college plans to deliver fall classes entirely online, no policy can guarantee students will avoid infection. He said plenty of students still have friends, lives and active leases in the region and likely plan to return to the Palouse whether their colleges are offering in-person instruction or not.
“The decision to be online or not doesn’t eliminate the return to the students, so it’s more about mitigating the challenges that you actually have,” he said. “You can’t think that you can just make a policy decision and make coronavirus go away.”
The first day of NSA’s fall semester is Aug. 17.