I look forward to welcoming the BJU community back to campus as we return to on-campus, in-person classes for fall 2020. As we begin the semester, the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff and community continues to be our highest priority.
We’re making plans based upon the best and most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and local health officials — which includes physical distancing and other protective measures.
In this episode of Highest Potential, I sit down with Dr. Alan Benson in my office to discuss how BJU is working to make our campus safe for all our students for this fall semester.
Transcript: “Pettit Addresses Students on Fall Semester” podcast
Host: Welcome to Highest Potential with Steve Pettit, a podcast that explores how Bob Jones University empowers individuals to reach their highest potential for God’s glory.
Pettit: Well, we’d like to welcome you today to this podcast, Highest Potential. I’m Steve Pettit, president here at Bob Jones University, and we are delighted to have with us today Dr. Alan Benson. Alan, thanks for being with us.
Benson: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Pettit: Alan is the vice president here at Bob Jones for Student Development and Discipleship. Alan was in the pastoral ministry for 25 years and came here to Bob Jones University a couple of years ago and has only been a tremendous blessing, especially in his work with our student body and our process of discipleship in life groups, in chapels, in dorm life, in mentorship, in discipleship groups and so much spiritual work that is going on.
And so, I wanted Alan to come in today because he is brilliant overseeing the process here at Bob Jones University of – as we reopen the school this fall, he is in charge of the health and safety of our incoming student body this year, which we’re very, very excited about the incoming student body. And we’re looking like we’re pretty solid on our numbers this fall, Alan?
Pettit: And right now, we’re probably about two percent behind where we were last year, so we’re mashing on the gas to get a full student body in.
So, Alan, I tasked you after the closing of the school in March to really put together a task force for safety and health. So, tell us about that and tell us the process of what we’ve been working on.
Benson: Well, Doc, I too am so excited. You know, we’re living in the age of COVID, and if it’s marked by any one thing in particular, it is marked by the unknown. And, every day, changing circumstances. And so, trying to get to the position of confidence and security and stability, that really has been our primary motivator. You mentioned my privilege of getting to work in student life and development and seeing our kids mentored and growing and developing spiritually, and we believe in the mission of BJU. And that’s what we’re doing, and the passion that is driving us in preparation is because we believe in that mission. So, what can we to open this campus next year, and as much as we can, with full green light to accomplish that mission? That’s really what the task force has been after, not just, “Well, let’s find a way to get the doors open.” It really has been “How can we best accomplish the mission of BJU and then do that in a way that is safe, that is healthy, that is secure, that is protected. And so, we’ve been working to find that balance. No one’s excited, right, that’s not even what we’re talking about. What I am, however, is very encouraged in our preparation. Encouraged, first of all, because you look at the immensity of the task of opening our campus in a very short time. God put together a task force of the most capable, gifted and committed people to help us make these preparations, literally from every department on campus, guided by some of the sharpest minds I’ve ever met.
Pettit: So, tell us some of these people – a lot of our people would not know them but some of them would.
Benson: So, for example, kind of a pinnacle of our preparations has been making preparations to be healthy and safe. So, we put together a subcommittee that has been a health and safety task force, and on that we have got now the dean of our new School of Health Professions, Jessica Minor. We have got on there Amy Hicks, who once you get to know her – she of course is, she’s teaching. Really, she has the capacity to be world renowned.
Pettit: She teaches in the School of Health Professions.
Benson: In the School of Health Professions.
Pettit: With Health Services.
Benson: Exactly. A new addition to our campus this past year and God’s provision at a time like this, Dr. Bernard Kadio, who really is world renowned in community health.
Pettit: He’s a member of the World Health Organization.
Benson: Exactly. That’s three people that are on that Health/Safety task force, who then are feeding back to the operational side of the whole campus recommendations for health and safety. And then, on the operations side, through our people and our partnerships. So, I had a meeting this week with our provider for all of our food services, Aramark. The work that they are doing, because it’s national and then they’re bringing that application specifically to BJU, is phenomenal. What they’re thinking through with regard to cleaning protocols and food service, the way to serve, how to handle utensils – and again, so they’re a part of the operational side of what we’re doing. Our maintenance and facilities staff – Tom Berg may be the most conscientious person I’ve ever met, heading up our facilities department. And so, having that passion as he thinks through what we’re going to do in cleaning, and then, what we’re going to do in the PPE that we’re going to provide across our campus. And those are all people that are on this task force.
Independent of that, there is another whole separate task force to address our academic preparation, and it is made up of deans and department heads under Gary Weier, our provost and their preparations. Again, so encouraging to me.
And so, hours, literally hours, not just in meetings, but each meeting has had hours of research. So, all of this is happening under the clear guidance of both federal, state and local recommendations. The CDC and DHEC recommendations are all being brought into …
Pettit: The Department of Health.
Benson: Exactly. Thank you. Into all of our preparations, and we’ve got people who not just are going out and reading materials, they actually have relationships with the heads of those organizations and are having conversations with them. So, I’m encouraged at our preparations.
Pettit: Well, and I think as we look back when we had to close the school on the 13th of March and we set out two primary goals. One is to protect the health and safety of the environment of the school and secondly, for the students to complete successfully the end of the school year. We really believe that we accomplished those goals and not just got by, but God blessed with our student body, the graduation, at least the seniors finishing that class. Now coming into the summer, obviously we’re now having to make huge pivots within our school in preparation for the coming of our students. And really, our goals are still pretty much the same, in that we want to provide for the health and safety of our entire Bob Jones University family, number one, and number two, we really want there to be a successful student educational experience here of what Bob Jones University is able to provide.
So, as we look at this, I would say that the big picture – I’m sure the students are sitting there thinking, “OK, what’s it going to be like when I come back.” So, tell us what it’s going to be like. Will it be exactly the same as it was last semester? Will it be different?
Benson: You know, I wish we could say it’s going to be exactly the same, and if I said that everybody listening to this would say, “OK, they’re not living in reality.”
We are pursuing a continued, unparalleled student experience, and we’re looking to do that in the age of COVID. And to do it, we have to make preparations that are going to affect everyday life. That’s the reality. And so, it’s not going to be exactly the same. Because if we did that, we all believe and understand that we would put another school year in jeopardy. We may face having to do the same thing that we had to do last March and no one, even in our preparations, can rule that out. That is a part of safely stewarding and managing the risk. At some point you may reach a threshold that says the only way we manage it is to make a similar decision. But we’re doing everything we can that that’s not what we face.
So, there’s a mixture of the preparations that we are making and that we will roll out at the beginning of the year. So, things like – there will be enhanced cleaning. We are going to be cleaning the community spaces much more frequently than we did in the past and even using different measures to do so to sanitize. So, bathrooms will be cleaned more. All the tables in the dining common will be cleaned between use. And we’ll even bring some of those measures to our resident hall facilities, so cleaning …
Pettit: Probably a little more staggered of when students can come in and out for eating and that kind of thing.
Benson: Exactly. Then following, and if you’re listening in the news at all, you hear kind of the discussions of what happens with COVID, and we’re addressing all of those things.
Benson: So, will we do testing? The answer is yes, we will.
Pettit: Let’s get to some of the elephants in the room in just a moment, because I’ve got about five, probably five elephants in the room. That’s why I always have an elephant in my room because we always, everybody always wants to know where we’re going to go.
But I do want to say before we get there, as a university, we have been working with the health organizations here in Greenville, and we’re planning to do something on campus that we’ve not done before, and especially working with the health provider called Prisma. So, tell us a little bit about that.
Benson: Prisma is the largest health care provider in the Upstate of South Carolina. Most people that would go to the doctor in Greenville are going to end up in a Prisma facility, whether that’s just a doctor’s office or ultimately end up in the hospital. And they’re not the only one, but they’re the largest. And we really have had the privilege of developing an unparalleled partnership as a university with Prisma to provide health care services.
What we’ll roll out in light of returning to campus in the fall is what we’re terming our “Student Health Services.” We’re going to have an on-campus presence that will be an immediate point of contact for our students, that will take the wonderful network of care that we’ve already had in our resident hall settings. So, it will actually utilize dorm supervisors, mentors, all the way down to our students that are working on our halls and coordinate. Someone’s not feeling well. You aren’t going to have to go search for somebody to figure out what to do. The people you know are now going to be trained to be a part of this. But we’re going to have an on-campus office, Student Health Services, that ultimately, you can talk to that person, and you are going to get assisted through a full health assessment.
Pettit: So that’ll be something here on campus. Like, in the past we had the, well not in the past, but we have the Office for Student Care, Center for Student Care, something along that line.
Benson: Absolutely, with a point person that literally can walk a student through the steps they need to do. So, through our partnership with Prisma, we have a 24/7 nurse diagnostic line. You can call any time. It is fee based, and the University pays that for our students. To give you an example of how this office would work – you’re not feeling well, you talk to your, say your mentor – your mentor’s going to link you with this office, and someone’ll say “Hey, let’s call that number,” and we’ll help you with that diagnostic and then what’s next. You’re not feeling well, so “what do I … .” Someone’ll say, “Hey, you know what, they’re saying let’s get you to the doctor.” We’ll get you to the doctor. And someone now will be in the process of walking through all that care with you. And the wonderful thing about the partnership with Prisma is, you are in a health care system to deal with might be COVID and might not be. But they’ll walk you through, “Do I need a test? Do I not need a test? Is there medicine?”
Pettit: There’s a primary clinic – actually, it’s the BJU primary clinic across the street.
Benson: Right. What now is actually going to be termed The Student Health Services Partnership, that’s what it is. And so, we will create our own presence on campus. We have just outside our front gate that service, and they’re gonna be linked, a link that we’re making. We’re going to put someone on campus that facilitates our students getting active with that care.
Benson: And so, that partnership I’m really excited about. The services that we are going to provide our students through the Prisma partnership are unparalleled. They’re just not available to anybody else and we’re so thankful for Prisma’s help with that.
Pettit: That’s great. Let’s talk about some of the elephants in the room – the big questions that people are going to ask about when they come back on the campus and so forth. So, let me just go down the list.
Let’s talk about testing. And I realize, and I think all of you that are listening recognize that what America is like today, in 50 days from now could be very, very different, and we realize there is a flexibility in this. And so, we’re moving in a particular direction with the recognition that we can pivot or shift depending on what happens. But let’s talk about, first of all, testing.
Benson: Testing as it is today – and that’s really what we’re making decisions on – is what kind of effectiveness do we have in providing a healthy and safe campus environment. So, we’re looking at – what does testing as it exists today provide us? And the biggest challenge with testing is the amount of time it takes to get results.
Benson: So, do we do initial testing, require it 10 days before a student comes to campus? All it will tell us is that 10 days before they came to campus, they were negative. It tells us nothing about the next 10 days, when they actually are going to be doing all their travel, they’re probably going to interact with their families ‘cause they’re going to meet and say goodbye, they’re going to be with all of their friends, probably their greatest days of exposure.
So then, do we do a test when they get to campus? The challenge with that is, we bring them all here, we put them all together …
Pettit: 2500 students.
Benson: … we give them all a test and we wait for five to seven days for results. Well, now they’ve all been together, so …
Benson: … where we’re at on testing is that we are going to do testing, but it’s going to be symptomatic.
Benson: So, we are going to do screening of everybody initially to determine who is symptomatic, and if that screening shows us anyone that’s symptomatic, we’re going to have testing for those people.
Pettit: Screening will be ongoing.
Benson: Correct, correct. So, that bridges to that. We are going to provide an initial screening that we are going to do for everybody. And then beyond that, through our partnership, we are actually going to provide a digital tool that every student will have access to, to then carry out self-screenings every day that will be a part of their access to class and the normal routines of campus life. So, there will be self-administered screening every day then throughout the semester.
Pettit: OK. And then, some of that asks about the contact tracing. So, let’s say somebody doesn’t feel good and then they take the test and they show up as COVID-19, then you start tracing everybody around here on campus. Where are we on that?
Benson: Contact tracing is like anything; it develops perceptions. And I think everybody has become familiar with the thought that there’s a way to do contact tracing using either Google or Apple devices, that they can use those to know everybody you’ve come in contact with within the last 15 days. That is not what we are talking about. What we are talking about is community health. So, talking with those who got diagnosed and then looking at their close community for the possibility of prolonged exposure. So, primarily in our settings, that person will have roommates, so we want to make sure that not only does the roommate become aware, which they would very quickly they’ve got a roommate who is not feeling well or has been tested, but then to talk to them about “how are you feeling?” And so, when we talk about contact tracing, we’re actually talking about community care. Who’s in your immediate community? And we’re going to initiate conversations with them to be sure that they’re well and making sure that if we can preemptively, very early get them in the process. Have you been having aches and pains? Fever? The other clear symptoms of what could potentially be COVID infection.
Pettit: So, it’s a commonsense thing.
Pettit: So, if my roommate, for example, had COVID-19, it doesn’t guarantee if I have it. So, either you go take a test or you wait until the symptoms come.
Benson: Correct. So, it’s a step. It’s a caring step that we’re going to purpose, that instead of waiting for your roommate to come to us, we’re going to make sure that we have the conversation early and say, “Hey, just so you’re aware” and “How are you feeling?” So, that’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about contact tracing. It’s the contacts of the person who now has been tested, and for us, that’s just community. We’re not trying to find out if you happen to be somewhere at the mall and – we’re talking about our community, are your roommates well, can we keep them well? That’s what we’re talking about.
Pettit: So, let’s say that, let’s say one of our students takes a test and it comes out that he has COVID-19. Obviously, in this case he would be symptomatic. What’s the process here? Obviously, there has to be some isolation. How are we going to do that here on the campus?
Benson: We have been able because of having a building available that we could in short order get prepared for actual housing in a comfortable, safe environment, for those who need to be isolated. So, two types of potential isolation, someone’s symptomatic and goes and gets tested and is waiting for that test. Is there a place where they can be while they have the potential of being a disease spreader and not be in their room with their roommates or those sort of things? The second is, someone’s test comes back positive and for us, that looks like a period that’s standard from all known guidance from the Department of Health – they’re going to be in isolation for 14 days and need to be without symptoms for three days to come back into normal circulation.
Obviously, we don’t want to put those two types of isolation together, so, but we have provided now spaces for them in what our students would know as Reveal dormitory. Two full floors, four halls that will be like our normal dorm rooms where they can be housed in isolation.
Pettit: Food will be brought in.
Benson: Exactly. It will be a full care facility. And so, a couple of things about that. We will bring to them their food in their dorm room so they will be fed, not just a meal to get by, but a healthy meal. We are going to be providing the linen service in those rooms. They don’t have to worry where do I get my sheets and towels and what do I do. The rooms will be equipped for them, we actually are working with IT right now so that we will have our strongest bandwidth in that facility, because we don’t want them to miss class, you know.
Pettit: So, they can do class while they’re in the room.
Benson: Exactly. And then the other thing that that will provide wonderfully through our partnership is they will have the opportunity about every three days to have a virtual doctor’s visit with a physician, right in their room. The physician will walk them through their treatment …
Pettit: That’s pretty cool.
Benson: So, it’s going to be a full-care facility for them. And that will be there for our students should they wait for a test for three days or should they have to do a full 14-day isolation.
Pettit: Well, I’ve got one final question, and that’s probably – this is always, because it affects us on a regular basis, and that has to do with the idea of social distancing and wearing of masks. So, talk to us about that.
Benson: And probably for those of us who generally feel healthy, we feel like somehow COVID-19 has invaded our personal space. This is the biggest issue, like, you’re telling me I can’t be with my friends, and if I am, I’ve got to wear a mask? Like, how uncomfortable is that? And so, it really does invade our personal space.
At the beginning of our chat today, we talked about wanting to provide as normal a student experience as possible, and the issues of social distancing, as it’s termed – really, for us, it’s physical distancing …
Benson: I want our student body to develop stronger social relationships but do it with physical distancing – and thus, the idea of masking. Really, the general protocols are social distance, or physical distance, and that is termed by six feet and 15 minutes, right? If you’re within six feet for 15 minutes, you’ve violated social distancing. And if you can’t provide that kind of spacing, the right answer, the next right answer, is then you wear a mask. And what we are looking at is trying as much as possible on our campus to keep things normal by providing social distancing. But there are certain things that we could either look and say, “We can’t do the social distancing, therefore we’re not going to do that,” or “You know what, that is really important to the student experience, we really need to be able to do that, and the way for us to be able to provide that for our students is that they wear masks.”
And that’s what we’re trying to balance. It would be really easy to say, “Just stop it all.” But we wouldn’t have the student experience our students want to have. We can provide the experience, though not 100%, maybe 80%, some maybe 90, but you can do it and wear a mask. And that’s when we’re looking to wear masks, when it allows us to give the students the student experience. Not out of fear, not “Well, everybody all wear a mask, and we’re all gonna be safe.” It actually is proactive; it’s about providing the student experience.
The second factor in that is that this is just an opportunity for us to display brotherly love. If my mask is actually more about keeping somebody else safe, and that needs to be our heart when we even consider it. Why am I going to wear this mask? Because I may have a fellow classmate that does have an underlying health condition that could be something as simple as asthma and when it’s normal, other than seeing them use their inhaler, I never think about them having asthma. But it becomes a real issue with COVID-19. And I just get to love them by wearing a mask so that they can have a normal college experience. And that’s the other side of masking.
So, our goal is going to be to wear masks enough to provide the best student experience we can provide.
Pettit: And of course, knowing where we are today, we will be in alignment with our state regulations, and particularly, our local regulations here in the city of Greenville. And we’ll do that, and we’ll do what is good common sense without overburdening everybody. So, it’s a really fine balance and we never look at it as a permanent thing. We might get the biggest cheers when I announce that no more masks.
Benson: That’s right.
Pettit: Everybody is going to go bonkers over that, but we do have to be prepared for that in our thinking. So, in preparation for that, every student that comes is getting a Bob Jones University specially made mask.
Benson: That’s correct.
Pettit: We’ll provide one for all the students; they’re washable. And then we will also provide masks in buildings where they’re going to be expected to wear them and perhaps, they come in and they don’t have their Bruins mask, their BJU mask, so …
Benson: One of our passions is to make this as convenient as possible. So, rather than it be, “Oh, I walked all that way and now I can’t go to class because I forgot my mask.” We don’t want that to happen to anybody, so we’re going to try and make compensations to provide for that. So, “here, you know what, here’s a mask you can wear, and you need to get to class and not miss it.” So, we’re trying to think of that as well across campus.
Pettit: Well, there’s a – again, for all of you that are coming to the University this year as students, these are the basic things that we’ve been working on. There is flexibility. I always have to – my job is to be as clear as I possibly can, that there will be some inconveniences just by virtue of the way things are today. But we’re going to do everything we can to try to have a balance of the best experience, especially student educational experience, and at the same time provide for safety and health of the Bob Jones University community.
So, Dr. Benson, thank you for your time. I really appreciate it. We are very excited about having our students back. It’s not very long, and they’ll be …
Benson: It’s been too long.
Pettit: It’s been way too long. And we’re excited; we have a pretty full schedule planned. We have athletic events, we have society events, we have most of our fall schedule that we had planned or were planning to do, so we’re pretty excited about it and looking forward to it. So, thank you very much.
Benson: It has been my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Burak: Thanks for listening to this episode of Highest Potential with Steve Pettit. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a positive review on Apple podcast, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And please don’t forget to follow BJU on social media @bju.edu and Steve Pettit at @bjupresident.