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To deal with the virus, Eckerd College takes a familiar step: Go outside.

Outdoor learning and "block" scheduling set the school apart as schools work to reopen for the fall semester.

Eckerd College says it will reopen for the fall semester with the option of holding many of its classes outdoors and having students cycle back to campus gradually, an approach that differs from plans announced by other area colleges and universities.

Elizabeth Forys, a natural sciences professor at Eckerd, worked with another faculty member to identify 51 spots on the St. Petersburg campus that could be used as outdoor classrooms — 27 with shade and 24 others that can accommodate a class of 20 or more students, socially distanced. Most spots had Wi-Fi access and the university’s IT department is working on boosting those that didn’t.

Forys has been teaching outside since 1996, when the first classroom she was assigned to had 12 computers for 20 students. She split the class, taking some outside, and since then has been regularly teaching outdoors.

There’s the occasional rain shower or chilly day that requires a jacket, she said, but overall, she said she has found that students enjoy the classes and stay engaged, sometimes bringing food or beverages with them.

Eckerd is looking to use her methods on a larger scale as some studies have found that coronavirus transmission rates are lower outdoors. The school will make outdoor classes available for regular reservation or for spontaneous sign-up.

The strategy is in keeping with a small waterfront school that prides itself on doing things differently. It’s online pitch to students: “We’re not for everyone but we might be just the place for you.”

Eckerd’s motto, “ThinkOutside,” predates the pandemic, and its traditions include pet-friendly dorms, bare-footed seniors on graduation day, and post-commencement dips in Boca Ciega Bay.

Another reopening feature is a “block” system that will take the place of the regular semester.

Students will have the option to take online classes or return to campus in phased blocks.

The first block begins Aug. 31, when first-year students are expected to return to campus. The second block, beginning Sept. 28, will be when second-year students return. The rest will return Oct. 26 for the remainder of the term, which will end Dec. 11.

The block schedule allows for students to take one course at a time. A three-hour course would meet every day within a block, but would last only a few weeks. After that, students move to other classes during the fall so that their course load for the term will be complete by December.

The plan was based on feedback from students who said they found it difficult to take multiple classes online at the same time.

The schedule also gives the university time to monitor public health trends, said Assistant Vice President of Operations and Emergency Management Adam Colby. “Part of the reason is because it gives us ultimate flexibility to shape that return,” he said.

After surveying students a couple weeks ago, Vice President of Marketing and Communications Valerie Gliem said about 10 percent wanted to stay remote.

“The majority want to come back,” Gliem said. “We’re trying to find that balance between safety and providing what they want.”

The campus will have no indoor dining areas. A large outdoor tent will be set up where students can eat, and revamped VW vans will serve as food truck-like options around campus for grab-and-go items.

Students will be required to download an app on their phones where they must complete daily symptom tracking surveys. The app also will help with contact tracing, Colby said. It does not use location but, through Bluetooth, it will be able to detect handshakes if a person has been within 6 feet of someone else with the app for more than 15 minutes.

Colby said shared responsibility will be emphasized, with mask-wearing required in shared spaces.

Gliem said enrollment is mostly on track. The school saw a slight dip over the summer in students who were planning to enroll in fall, but not anywhere near the 15 percent dip predicted across higher education by a trade group in May.

Continuing students’ education, Gliem said, is the university’s priority.

“We know this is temporary,” she said. “We don’t know how long temporary is, but we share folks’ frustrations and concerns. This is new for everybody. We’re trying to be thoughtful about all of this.”

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