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The Admin View: Vice Dean Eggers on Stern’s big fall return

Remembering to fill out the Daily Screener may seem like a pain, but for the average Stern student, the return to in-person instruction has been an invigorating and relatively seamless experience. Just remember to bring your mask to KMC. 

However, planning a safe return to on-campus learning as the Covid-19 Pandemic drags on is no simple task. This month, The Oppy spoke with Vice Dean of MBA and Graduate Programs J.P. Eggers about the complex process of preparing Stern to be fully in-person this fall. It turns out that while you were taking photos of your vaxx card, multiple groups across campus, with a guiding hand from NYU’s Covid Prevention Response Team, were figuring out the logistics for making school feel like school again. Complex coordination, structural upgrades, and a university-wide effort have all been required to make physically attending your elective in KMC 3-80 possible.

As we get deep into fall, and the routine of attending class again has normalized, the Stern administration now has some perspective on how its safety measures have worked. Vice Dean Eggers walked us through the many steps that brought us back to campus, the impressive work of the CPRT, and what the administration is hearing from students and faculty alike on their return to the classroom.

Now that we’re roughly a month or so into the Fall Semester, the administration has had the opportunity to see how Stern’s safety measures are functioning with fully in-person classes. How do the administration and faculty think it’s going?

It has been exciting and gratifying to see everyone back in the classroom this fall. Faculty are excited to be in person (or teaching only 50 students in the 450-seat Paulson Auditorium), as the energy from students getting a chance to be together in the room has been readily apparent. We’re happy to still be offering a set of courses (mostly in the evening) online for students for whom that format makes the most sense, but being back in the classroom this fall has been a clear highlight for many — including myself (I’m teaching Tech Solutions on Thursday afternoons).

While NYU’s team of medical and public health professionals runs the Covid Prevention and Response Team (CPRT), we interact with them on a regular basis for updates and information. The CPRT has engaged with substantial contract tracing for all positive cases in the community this fall, and as I understand it virtually none of the positive cases can be traced back to the classroom or activities in the building. The combination of masks, vaccines, improved air circulation, and other safety measures seems to be getting the job done. Which, of course, we are all very happy about. 

Last year you told us that Stern was prepared to switch to in-person immediately if it was determined that the environment was safe for it. In reality, what was it like logistically to transition back to in-person classes?

In many ways coming back was relatively simple — it was like the 2019-2020 academic plan. But, of course, there have been a million small things that we had to work our way through. Working with international students to be vaccine-compliant, figuring out plans for where students can eat (more on this below), navigating getting access to campus for guest speakers, trying to provide opportunities for safe events and gatherings when possible — all of these and many more have made this a real challenge. In some ways, “flipping the switch” to going remote in March 2020 put a lot of pressure to adapt on students and faculty, while this fall’s adaptation has been particularly hard for administrators (though, to be honest, it hasn’t been easy on anyone).

Can you tell us a little about what the decision-making process was like?

During spring and early summer, NYU asked us to come up with various contingency plans for potential fall semester classroom scenarios. At Stern we remained very focused on full capacity planning — we had already done the 25% capacity plan over 2020-2021, and knew that we COULD go back there if necessary, but wanted to stay as focused as possible on how to get to where we ended up. But, of course, everything had to run through the CPRT, who made the ultimate call about what Fall 2021 would look like. A complicating factor was that new student enrollments — particularly undergraduate and executive MBA — are extremely high this year, which has made planning more challenging.

Obviously, it is inevitable that breakthrough Covid cases will occur among the Stern student population. How did Stern’s leadership determine what kind of measures would be in place when those cases happen?

This is mostly the domain of the CPRT, which makes sense — my PhD is not in medicine or public health, and they have the right expertise to make these calls. The decision to focus on intense contact tracing plus judicious testing has proven to be a good one. As I understand it, the goal is to balance the overall safety of the community with the desire not to be overly-reactive and tell everyone to quarantine when there is no clear evidence of risk. But the lack of in-building transmission makes us feel comfortable that we’re coming down on the right side of those tradeoffs.

Because Stern MBA students are adults, many of whom are working and may be more likely to travel than undergrads in dorms, was it more complicated to create a safe environment for in-person MBA classes?

As I mentioned before, contact tracing has shown that cases aren’t coming from class. Where are they coming from then? All of the other things that adults do all the time — travel, social activities, restaurants, maybe work, etc. For MBA students, those contacts often span well beyond the NYU community (where we are taking more intense precautions), which increases the chances that students will bring Covid back into the community. The good news is that following NYU’s safety protocols appears to work in helping Covid stop there.

It is certainly true that creating a “bubble” for this fall is pretty much impossible in New York City, and doubly so for MBA students (especially those with jobs). My son, by contrast, is almost entirely in a bubble at a small, rural college campus this fall. Maintaining safety here in New York requires everyone to be smart and careful — we’re not out of the woods entirely yet.

Did Stern’s preparation for in-person classes change at all when the Delta variant became a prominent concern earlier this year?

I think the biggest challenge was rumor and uncertainty. As the fall semester was about to start, we all knew that Delta was coming, but there was very little first-hand information. So many people — especially those with unvaccinated children at home, like many of our faculty and administrators — were understandably highly concerned about Delta, especially as we did have a handful of cases at the start of the fall semester. But, again, NYU’s plans and procedures have proven very effective, even if we have had to be a little more conservative than we initially hoped.

To make safe, in-person classes a reality, there must have been a significant amount of coordination with groups students might not think about, like NYU security services or IT. Just how big of a logistical lift was this?

As MBA students (and administrators), I think we often function inside the Stern MBA bubble, and don’t spend much time thinking about the university. But SO much of what goes on behind the scenes is tied to university resources — NYU runs security, they run the facilities group that works on ventilation systems, and they run the health services that are now so important for all of us. Add in the Stern-specific resources — mostly Stern’s IT helpdesk and classroom technology teams — that aren’t usually as central to classroom activity as they are right now, and this has been an enormous coordination effort. Stern COO and CFO Neil Rader (and his teams) has been shouldering an absolutely enormous load trying to help coordinate those resources. If you see Neil, be sure to say thank you.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from professors and students on how the transition has been handled?

Almost entirely positive. People are really happy to be back in person, understandably. But behind the happiness has been lots of questions — who needs to wear masks and when, what do I do if I think I may have been exposed, what happens if a student (or faculty) cannot come into the building, etc.

Was there any thought to creating specific rooms or pods inside KMC where students could safely eat or drink mask-free?

So there ARE two spaces where eating is permitted within Stern — Sosnoff Cafe, and Tisch 411-413. The goal has always been for students to use them relatively quickly for eating and then move back to other parts of the building.

Beyond those spaces, we run into the same problem that is a reality in New York City — space constraints. We have far too many students to be able to provide private spaces for all (or even most) students to have a safe space for eating. We all recognize that this creates challenges, and we definitely don’t want students to not get enough to eat (running out of energy in class is no fun for anyone), and we continue to work with NYU on creative ideas for food and eating space that fit within the CPRT’s policies.

On April Fool’s Day this year, we ran a satirical article claiming that NYU Stern had decided to permanently move to online instruction (Note to Readers: That was a joke. Stern is not permanently moving to full-time remote instruction). Did your office receive any worried communications or complaints from students about this in early April? (If so, we’re sorry.)

Thankfully, not too much. But I can assure you that we’ve seen every possible opinion expressed by different students — full time students that would prefer online access to classes, part time students wanting to be in the classroom full time, and everything in between. One of the best things about NYU Stern is the diversity of perspectives and preferences among the student body, but it definitely doesn’t make it easy when there are so many different ways to support everyone during this pandemic.

Photo credit: https://www.stern.nyu.edu/portal-partners/current-students/undergraduate/community

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