With classes slated to start Aug. 24 at Hawaii Pacific University — and in-person instruction for the first time since learning went online due to the pandemic shutdown in March — staff members were ready, confident and excited to welcome students back with redesigned facilities and protocols aimed at neutralizing the novel coronavirus, said HPU President John Gotanda on a media tour of the university’s hub campus at Aloha Tower Marketplace on Wednesday.
“Students nationwide prefer on-campus to online learning,” said Gotanda, adding he believed that HPU’s commitment to providing in-person class meetings to its 3,750-some undergraduates (with social distancing in small groups), coupled with “Hawaii’s being viewed, definitely, as a safe place,” contributed to an increase in freshman applications both before and after the novel coronavirus surge.
As a result, he said, the approximately 500-member freshman class, all of whom will be residing in HPU dorms, represents an increase of 20% over last year.
But, the president added, in light of Hawaii quarantine exemptions for university students announced July 13, he wanted to assure local residents that “HPU is following the science of the pandemic and taking all possible precautions for the health and safety of its students, faculty, staff, and the Honolulu and statewide communities.”
Hence the walking tour, on which Gotanda, Provost Jennifer Walsh, Security Manager Chris Martin, Vice Preswident of Communications Stephen Ward, Chief Financial Officer Cody Down and Chef Sam Choy, whose Pier 9 restaurant serves as campus cafeteria, discussed precautions.
The visit kicked off in the large, airy student union after everyone coming in the door had had their temperature taken; visitors must also fill out a health questionnaire and pass the facial recognition screen kiosk.
The software recognizes HPU staff and students by name even if they’re wearing a face mask, as was confirmed by journalists who had emailed their ID photos in advance. Those who hadn’t were photographed and provided visitor badges with their photos, which will be the protocol for members of the public, Ward said.
Face masks were required by members of the security staff at the entrance to and throughout the open-air mall as well as in interior spaces, except during eating and drinking, which was limited to outdoors; HPU logo masks were provide to all students and staff, and instructors were given face shields, which were also an option for students, particularly in laboratory classes, Walsh said.
At the next stop, the Learning Commons, the biggest classroom on campus, Walsh said, HPU was following “and actually exceeding” the directives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for social distancing, including separation of desks or tables and reduced density in all its classrooms and other areas, as well as its computer gaming arena, HPU E-Sports, which is open to the public, as well.
For instance, the commons “last year seated 200 students and now seats only 60, with new desks set 6 feet apart,” Walsh said, pointing out other new standard features such as a clear plastic shield at the speaker’s podium up front and new ventilation systems with enhanced filtration.
During classes, “teachers are encouraged to open windows and prop open doors” to allow fresh air to circulate, she said.
All HPU rooms in the Aloha Tower campus and nearby Waterfront Plaza, where the bulk of classes are held, have hand sanitation stations, designated entrance and exit doors, social distancing markers on floors, and have been treated with an antimicrobial spray approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as effective against the coronavirus for up to 90 days, Walsh said.
Gotanda added the campus also was in the process of converting its ample outdoor spaces to hold classes: these include two enormous second-floor lanais, shaded by high ceilings and overlooking Honolulu Harbor.
On the second floor, dorm rooms and sleeping lofts had had beds removed so that triples and the occasional quad were now doubles, in which students would be instructed to do “distanced sleeping” with their heads at opposite ends of their beds, which lie against separate walls; in addition to single bathrooms, community bathrooms had signage and dividers.
HPU students, who come from all 50 states and more than 60 countries, have to be back in Hawaii by Aug. 10 if they’re doing the 14-day quarantine, Gotanda said. The university has reserved an entire hotel for this purpose.
Dining modifications include prepared meals for takeout or outdoor seating, harbor-side. There’s no more buffet, Choy said, as one of his servers filled his famous ahi or tofu poke bowls to order.
“No food in the engine, it’s hard to learn,” the chef said, noting that’s why he insists the college food meet the standards of his restaurants, and caterer Aramark is making this happen in “a team effort.”
Choy added, “This could be the new norm even after a vaccine, because of the sanitation, the food safety.”
Student Xiao Yi Wang- Beckvall,who plans to go to medical school, said she was thrilled to be back on campus for the first time since March. “I definitely prefer in-person to online classes,” she said. “They feel like a better way for me to absorb information, and it’s definitely harder to connect with other people through a screen,” said the rising junior, who lives with her parents in the Makiki- Manoa area.
Rather than feeling constrainted, she appreciated HPU’s new precautions: “If they didn’t have the new procedures I’d be worried and pretty stressed,” Wang-Beckvall said, adding that, having spent the summer at the Keck graduate institute studying COVID-19, she thought HPU had done a good job preparing for students’ return.
If students are applying for the university exemption, they can start sooner, Gotanda and Walsh said, provided they bring proof that they tested negative for the virus 72 hours before flying to Hawaii, or take a test administered by a Hawaii-based lab after they check into the quarantine hotel. New student orientation starts Aug. 18.
Gotanda added he hoped HPU’s system might provide ideas for safe reopening to colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and the world.