This month, thousands of college students across Newport and Bristol counties will awaken (some later than others…) and partake in the instinctive morning ritual of grabbing for their smartphone. Though a waiting text message is not uncommon, each student at Roger Williams University in Bristol and Salve Regina University in Newport will have the same message demanding their attention: a daily digital health screening including a COVID-19 symptom checker and questions about if they’ve been in contact with anyone who has been exposed to the virus and if they plan to be on campus that day, along with other inquiries to best assess the risks for the day ahead. Faculty and staff of both universities will also be subject to the same daily screening.
“We have a full data operation that has been developed, designed to decrease risk and increase mitigation,” says Jim Fowler, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Salve Regina. “There will be a lot of tracking that will be going on and this will also help with contact tracing should that be necessary.”
Roger Williams shares the same tactic. “It will give them advice if they should go to health services or to stay home, not take a class that day, or be a remote student that day, and it’ll just start the day on that foundation,” explains Brian G. Williams, D.M., the University’s Interim Chief of Staff and Vice President for Enrollment Management and Marketing.
Both men agree that students are excited to return to their campus communities this fall, even though day-to-day experiences have noticeably changed. At both schools, classrooms have been modified to meet social distancing and capacity requirements, large gatherings have been cancelled or reworked to virtual experiences, and students and faculty will wear face coverings at all times – and those are just some of the changes. But returning face-to-face allows students to grow in a way that fulfills 21st century students in a digital-forward world. Says Williams, “This generation… they are very digital, but they are also very connected with people, so the isolating nature of online learning that students experienced this spring is, I think, why there’s a longing to be back in the community together. Online learning is fine, but having a roommate, having discussions between classes, being on a quad, talking about the ideas of the class and what you just learned – being in an interactive community – is the piece that makes higher ed and in-person learning so distinctive. It’s not just about reading something and learning content – it’s about the dialogue, and dialogue is a more in-person, interactive experience. That’s the part that’s really hard to replicate online.”
That sense of community is demonstrable in both Bristol and Newport, where each university is woven into the very fabric of its culture and populace. In the most recent economic impact report, Salve Regina was credited with adding $68 million in total value to the Aquidneck Island economy with nearly 200 employees living on Aquidneck Island. When Governor Gina Raimondo issued a stay-at-home order to Rhode Island residents on March 28, businesses in every Rhode Island city and town faced an unprecedented challenge.
CJ Barone owns Empire Tea & Coffee, which has two locations in Newport and one in Bristol; a Middletown shop permanently closed in March. “COVID was the tipping point on closing it,” says Barone. Students at each university play a critical role at all three coffee houses in two distinct ways – as customers and employees. “We wouldn’t exist if [Salve students] didn’t support us for the past 16 years,” concedes Barone, who says between 5 and 10 percent of business at the Broadway store in Newport can be attributed to Salve students, and many of the shops’ employees are university students. At Empire’s Bellevue Avenue location, Salve students have a smaller percentage of sales compared to tourists, but they are still a substantial piece of business. “They not only spend a good amount of money there and buy some of our higher-end products, but they also are in the store and they bring a lot of energy to the space. They’re really a vital part of the community, beyond dollar amounts.” In Bristol, students returning to campus as traditionally brings along a substantial bump in business. “The students make up a very big percentage of our customer base there – they come in a lot,” says Barone. “Roger Williams students really add to that store, and that’s a really great community in general for us. Even the faculty; they come in droves.”
Jen Cavallaro, owner of the Beehive Café and the Beehive Pantry in Bristol, also sees business generated by the university. “We are very glad to welcome the students back to town,” says Cavallaro. Since the stay-at-home order and ensuing multiphase openings, The Beehive and the Beehive Pantry have made curbside pick-up and delivery options front-and-center on each website and announced indoor and outside seating at their cafe as soon as it became available. “We also hope [students] wear their masks and maintain social distancing while here. I feel bad that their college experience has been so curtailed – I am sure Bristol businesses can cheer them up a bit if they venture downtown!”
Brian Finn and Chloe Synder opened WAVE Cycle, an indoor cycling studio, last November in the heart of downtown Newport. Their business plan was thorough but did not account for a global health pandemic, and Salve students accounted for many of their regular riders. “At this point, we’ve been ‘closed’ longer than we were ever open,” says Finn. “When we made the tough decision to close the doors, we knew we would have to adapt to provide responsible and safe ways to continue to ride with our community.” They looked no further than directly across the street, brokering a partnership with the Newport Harbor Hotel and Marina to offer outdoor classes on Marina’s dock where riders can enjoy a full workout while watching sailboats saunter by. The pivot was so successful, they launched high-interval intensity workouts (HIIT) and yoga classes too, and plan to continue these offerings for as long as the weather will allow. This month, Finn and Synder look forward to welcoming Salve students back. “It will definitely be a different experience for them with our outdoor classes and our limited capacity.”
Fowler says that despite the media debate on America’s youth returning to school, Salve Regina had few students withdraw or defer this year. “We did meet our enrollment goals but in a slightly different way than we typically do… We had some students that were planning to come to Salve from a distance that withdrew, but as those students withdrew, we had other students call us and say, ‘I was previously admitted and was going to go someplace a little further away, and I’m not feeling comfortable right now based on what the situation is in those geographic areas. Can I still come to Salve?’” He credits the state and the City of Newport’s virus mitigation efforts for making the return to campus less stressful than other hotspots nationwide.
“Overall I think most people know Rhode Island has been a good place for management of the pandemic and more importantly, Newport has been a little island with relatively low rates of transmission with a community that I think has done an excellent job of coalescing behind the idea that health and safety is necessary for maintaining the economy,” says Fowler. “As I walk around the Newport community, I see people masked, social distancing, and being socially responsible, and that makes me feel very optimistic. If there is any student population that is going to really heed some of the challenges and new norms, our students are the type of students that can do that because they’re sensitive to the needs of others.”
Roger Williams will see a 2 percent drop in enrollment year-over-year, but Williams says that number cannot be solely attributed to COVID-19. “Our housing is at its intended capacity for the semester and we have about 1 to 2 percent of our students who have chosen to be completely remote this fall. People are just approaching their teaching or learning differently than in prior years.”
While both campuses are working to make this fall feel like a “normal” semester, it’s simply not. Traditions like Parents Weekend and fall sports are suspended (the latter was a decision made by the schools’ intercollegiate athletic conferences). These are all events that economically impact their communities as well. For students, college in the time of COVID-19 is a lot to digest.
“I think that while on one hand, there’s a lot of challenges and unfortunate frustrations associated with this pandemic, it’s going to create a generation of youth that’s resilient and hopefully have a stronger understanding of data that the actions of one can impact the lives of many, that social responsibility is necessary for a functioning society,” predicts Fowler. “And I think this type of health crisis just solidifies the need for that and I think students who have struggled through it will take those lessons and be the leaders that we need moving forward.”