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Boise State President On In-Person Classes, COVID Testing And The Great Fortune Of Having A Job

Boise State University

It's estimated that approximately 10,000 Boise State University students will attend at least one in-person class this semester. That said, thousands more will be accessing instruction from a distance. As Idaho's largest institution of higher education begins another academic year, students, faculty and staff are facing a lengthy list of safety protocols, while the spread of COVID-19 isn't expected to abate any time soon.

Bosie State President Dr. Marlene Tromp visits with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the delicate balance of reopening classes for some and offering online instruction for others, the university's new partnership with health care providers to increase COVID testing capacity, and why enrollment has actually increased for the new semester. 

“I'm hoping we can really care for those students, but simultaneously really care for our community — not give up either of those.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICEIt is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice.

All eyes are on Boise State this week, entering a new academic year. Students... a good number of students have returned to campus. We're told that about 10,000 students will attend at least one class in person on campus this fall. There is so much at stake. So, we are fortunate to spend some time this morning with Boise State President Dr. Marlene Tromp.

Well, enrollment is actually up this semester. 

DR. MARLENE TROMP: Yes, quite a surprise. Most of the national studies - there were three that we were watching quite closely - suggested that about 22 percent of students were going to stay at home and not go to school in the fall. And so, we didn't know what we would face this fall, even though our enrollment figures looked very good. We weren't sure what kind of decline we'd see. And most schools have seen some decline.

You can imagine our surprise when we were actually up one percent as of a couple of days ago. So, we're just really delighted. And we think part of that is probably due to the fact that in a lot of places, students can't access a face-to-face environment at all. And so, Boise State is giving them an opportunity to choose a flexible schedule: some face-to-face and some remote, online as it suits them and is appropriate for them.

PRENTICE: I have to assume that you have followed the news, closer than most, that some major U.S. universities, after first saying they would open in person, are now retreating from those plans: The University of North Carolina and Notre Dame. What do you make of that?

Credit James Dawson / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
Dr. Marlene Tromp

TROMP: I waited for the news stories to come out in the Chronicle so I could really study them because I was curious about what the underlying conditions were in that context. And what I discovered is that the system-wide president in North Carolina mandated for campuses to open, and the chancellor at UNC Chapel Hill apparently was not pleased with that decision. So, I think that's an interesting context to take into account when we think about their quick closure.

Notre Dame, on the other hand, is doing what we hope to do if we face those kinds of challenges,  which is to go remote for a period, but still allow students to have that critical access to their faculty and staff. And so, if we have to go remote for a period, if we have to have targeted- or rolling closures, we may have to do that. We need to protect the health and well-being of our students, faculty and staff and the community in which we live.

But if we do, we're hoping we can do what Notre Dame has done. And so we're watching them very closely right now because what they've chosen to do is have a targeted closure. Whether the campus remains open, the students remain on campus, but they're just going remote for those two weeks. So, we're all trying to learn from the steps that everyone is taking. But I'm very proud to say that our reintegration plan, which was developed by my VP Alicia Estey and a team of folks, including medical professionals and public health officers - we were one of the first institutions to hire a public health officer in the region to advise us. Those folks got together and built a plan that was so comprehensive and thoughtful and really did model on how we understand the behavior of the age group of students on campus. And so, we feel hopeful that we have a lot of things in place. But we're also always willing to learn more from our peers and colleagues across the country.

PRENTICE: Well, speaking of student behavior, Boise State is a community within a community; and Boise State students spend some of their days and many of their nights on the streets of Boise. The bars are closed downtown right now. I know you don't have any say in this, but if you had your druthers, can I assume that you might wish those bars stay closed for a while?

TROMP: Absolutely. And not because I think ill of our students or think there's something wrong in who they are or what they might do. But if we reduce the number of times when they're… if you're in a bar and you're eating pub food or you're having a drink, your mask is removed and it just increases the chances of them being, especially if they go from place-to-place and they’re a person who is unknowingly asymptomatically infected, spreading that illness to other people, spreading that virus to other people. So it's actually an incredibly wonderful thing that we don't have those bars open right now, that our students aren't going to be asymptomatic carriers that bring the virus into the community in the same way that they might if they were doing traditional college bar-hopping and visiting different places to see all their different friends. And so, I think it really is fortunate, and I know that those business owners have had an enormous hardship. And so I'm very conscious of that hardship. But I also know that we're looking at the long game here, too. How do we keep our economy overall thriving? And I hope that they'll be appropriate supports put in place for those folks because I know they've really had to suffer and have some hardship.

PRENTICE: Let's talk about COVID testing. It's my understanding that Boise State is partnering with St. Al's, St. Luke's and the V.A. regarding an ambitious testing program.

TROMP: Yes, that's right. And we've partnered with the State as well,  and Central District Health, and all of our major medical providers in the community. We're so excited about being able not just to serve our own campus, but to increase the capacity for all of southwest Idaho for testing. So, we believe that we're going to be able… when we're up and running, fully up and running, to do up to 4,000 tests a day and to have a very short turnaround time - maybe as few as 24 hours. That's a real impact in everyone's health for the whole region. So, we're really grateful for those partnerships. And I think it really shows what happens when communities come together and work together to make public health a priority and to make caring for our community a priority.

PRENTICE: I understand that so much of what you do is administrative and scholarship. But I also have to assume that sitting where you're sitting in 2020, in these historic times, your work becomes personal, pretty quick.

TROMP: Yeah, and just like everyone, I face challenges, I'm very fortunate that I have a job. A lot of people have lost their livelihoods. And I worry about those folks and I hope some of them will consider coming back to school to get new credentials that give them more flexibility in the job market. We worked really hard institutionally to make sure that we could provide supports for people who were forced out of work at this difficult time. We've got our folks in financial aid ready to help people who are facing those challenges, too.

PRENTICE: Can I ask you about your time at the University of Wyoming? And I want to make sure I have this right: You had a student ... I think I heard this ... you had a student, a young man who was doing very well in the semester, but then he just disappeared. He went off the radar. Tell me about that.

TROMP: Yeah, when I was teaching - it was an English class, actually. And this young man who was very talented, who came off a ranch in rural Wyoming, who was a very devoted, dedicated student, just like many of the young people you see from our rural communities all over Idaho and the kind of folks that I grew up with: earnest, hardworking, honest people.

This young man suddenly disappeared midway through the semester, about two thirds of the way through the semester. I just couldn't get in touch with him. I didn't know what was going on. He just fell off the radar and he'd been performing so well in the class all semester. He finally showed up when I was grading final papers in my office and I heard a soft tap on my door frame. And I look up and there's this young man standing there in his cowboy hat and his boots. And he said, “Dr. Tromp, I just came by to apologize,” And I said, “You know, I missed you so much. What's going on? What happened? You know what? You just disappeared at the end of the semester.” And he said, “My mother died, and I had to go home and help run the ranch. And I'm not asking ... I'm not here to ask for any special care or attention. I just wanted you to know that I was sorry because that's not my way to disappear like that.” And I said to him, “Of course we can help.” It is an absolutely legitimate reason to have missed classes. And we were able to figure out how to help jhim to navigate his way through the incomplete, and to complete a semester. 

We've installed millions of dollars of new technology in our classrooms, and our faculty have done literally tens of thousands of hours of training to be prepared to be flexible with remote environments. So that if we have a student who's in that situation, Boise State is ready to respond, that we're able to meet that student where he/she is. If a student has to go home to help with the harvest, a student has to go home to take care of an ailing relative. There are a thousand reasons that a student might need just a bit of time, and that often causes someone to lose the work they put in for an entire semester. But we are so committed to figuring out how to flex around those students needs so that we can serve those students and help them be successful even if they need that time away.

PRENTICE: She is Dr. Marlene Tromp, president of Boise State University. Good luck to you.

TROMP: Thank you so much, George. And you know, I'll tell you one last thing. When you have a 92 year old mother living at home … there are some people who've written me that said, “Don't you take this pandemic seriously?” When you have 92 year old mother at home, you take the pandemic very seriously. But I also have seen the data, and maybe you've seen it, too, that depression, anxiety, suicidality and even psychosis have risen in the average college-going age population 400 percent since the pandemic began. So, I think we really have to think about this as a very, very complex issue. And so, I'm hoping we can really care for those students, but simultaneously really care for our community — not give up either of those.

PRENTICE: Can I assume then that that is near the top of your list of priorities, and factors into making the decisions that you do?

TROMP: Yeah, in fact, I think what I would say is this: the well-being of our community - and you can see how the well-being of our community is complex when you consider all those factors. We've got to care for the mental health and well-being of the people we serve, the physical health of our community. But then our mission is our other driving factor. And so, how do we execute on that mission of serving our students and the people of the state of Idaho? And so those really are the two driving forces that have guided us as we've moved through this process.

PRENTICE: Dr. Tromp, I look forward to more conversations through the school year. And again, best of luck.

TROMP: Thank you so much. Take care.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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