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COVID on Campus, One Year Later

CONWAY, Ark. (March 12, 2021) — One year ago today, the Hendrix College community responded to COVID-19 at the outset of a global health pandemic.

“A year ago, we faced one of the most difficult issues that we have ever faced as an institution,” said Hendrix President Ellis Arnold of the decision to suspend in-person classes before Spring Break. 

While students moved out of their residence halls, Hendrix faculty quickly transitioned to online pedagogy, retooling their courses to complete the spring 2020 semester online. The College continued with remote learning in the fall 2020 semester and returned to in-person classes with hybrid options for remote participants beginning in January. 

Thanks to the collective commitment of its community and a remarkable partnership with Conway Regional Health System and neighboring institutions, Hendrix has been able to manage coronavirus on campus. This spring, the College has experienced very low (and often zero) positivity on campus from weekly testing, and nearly 90 percent of employees have received the COVID-19 vaccination.

“I am so grateful to the Hendrix community for everything that has been done over the past year to keep this campus healthy and safe,” said Arnold. “We could not have overcome the challenges of the past year without the commitment from everyone on campus, as well as Conway Regional Health System, whose generous partnership has been so beneficial to Hendrix.” 

Despite the energy required to confront COVID-19 successfully, Hendrix has also celebrated several non-COVID milestones. 

This fall, Hendrix was once again listed among America’s Best Colleges for overall quality, value, and innovation by U.S. News & World Report. The College rose eight spots on the 2021 Best Value Schools list to claim the #32 ranking among nationally ranked liberal arts colleges. A month later, Hendrix became an even better value, announcing a 32% reduction in tuition for students entering Hendrix for the first time in the Fall 2021 semester. Applications for Fall 2021 are currently up 32% over last year.

The College surpassed its $110 million campaign goal a year ahead of schedule with $113 million in gifts and pledges. In November, Hendrix received a $15 million gift from the Windgate Foundation, the largest outright gift in Hendrix’s history. With the Windgate gift, the campaign, which was scheduled to end in 2021, was expanded to $150 million and will extend to 2023. As part of the campaign expansion, Hendrix will launch a multimillion-dollar Residence Hall Renewal Project to support renovations of historic Martin and Veasey Halls. $10 million of the Windgate gift will provide endowed scholarships for Hendrix students.

“While the pandemic is certainly not over, we continue to do everything possible to keep Hendrix accessible and affordable to students and families and to ensure that Hendrix remains one of the country’s leading liberal arts colleges for academic quality, innovation, and value,” said Arnold.  

Looking Back & Making Plans

After closing campus last spring, the College refunded unused housing and meal plans, distributed emergency funds provided by the government, and provided technical support to assist students with remote courses. Touchstone traditions like Alumni Weekend and year-end celebrations were canceled, along with all summer programs and many engaged learning experiences, including internships, undergraduate research, and international travel programs. Other campus events such as Honors Day Convocation and Commencement were held virtually.

While in-person summer programs at Hendrix were called off, President Arnold convened a steering committee with representatives from across campus to implement health and safety protocols for the community and develop a plan for the fall semester.

“When the steering committee first convened, the amount of data and details to digest and consider seemed overwhelming. We needed to consider everything from securing enough facemasks and sanitizer to improving HVAC systems to redesigning dining and residence life services,” said Dr. Peter Gess, Associate Provost for Engaged Learning, who was appointed to serve as Campus COVID-19 Response Coordinator.

“I am quite proud of the work of the steering committee, the senior leadership team, and indeed the entire Hendrix community in developing our fall opening plan,” said Gess. “Ultimately, there were simply too many factors out of our control.

“In July we continued to see increasing cases and testing positivity in Arkansas, indicating uncontrolled spread of the virus in Conway and around the state. However, it was testing turn-around time that gave us the most pause,” he said. “Some of our employees were waiting a week to 10 days for test results. There is simply no way to manage a virus on a residential campus with those kinds of testing result delays.” 

Ultimately, the College concluded that a fully remote fall semester was in the best interest of students, faculty, and staff.

The Keys to Success

As fall semester progressed with remote teaching and learning, the Steering Committee and the Senior Leadership Team had the opportunity to learn much from the struggles of other colleges and universities during the pandemic. The most important progress came through the Hendrix partnership with Conway Regional Health System and the other colleges in Conway.

“Suddenly, through the amazing, unselfish, and proactive help of experts at Conway Regional, our important testing protocols fell in place,” Gess said. “We were able to implement a gateway and surveillance testing system to keep our students, faculty, and staff safe from day one of the spring semester.”

Conway Regional medical staff collect the samples and send them off to Natural State Labs in North Little Rock, so Hendrix has consistently received test results in one day or less, which is critical to managing the virus on campus, Gess said.

“We tested all students as they returned to campus. Even though the Central Arkansas background positivity was nearly 20% as we started moving in students in January, our overall gateway positivity was less than 2%. Surveillance testing throughout this semester has remained well below 1%,” he said. “We are very proud of our students for following important protocols such as masking, social distancing, and hand-washing to protect themselves and the community.”

Beyond testing, the most crucial step the College took was to develop and train its own internal contact-tracing and quarantining team, led by Tim Purkiss, Director of Summer Programs. 

“While the Arkansas Departments of Health and Education developed a UAMS-based system for higher education in the state, having our own contact tracing system allowed for rapid response to positive test results,” said Purkiss. “Quickly isolating positive students and employees and quarantining close contacts allowed us to prevent any spread on campus.”

The spring semester opening strategy incorporated many other changes as well. 

“As much as possible, we house one student per residence hall or apartment room to decrease student density. We maintain six-foot social distancing in all classrooms, which required incorporating non-traditional teaching spaces, such as ballrooms and gyms. We eliminated spring break from the semester calendar. We increased time between classes to more carefully move people. Dining Services added several online ordering and take-out options. Student activities have been primarily online or outdoors. Intercollegiate athletes have been subjected to additional testing and protocols,” Gess explained. “You won’t find a single office or activity at Hendrix unaffected by these changes.”

Ultimately, the Hendrix community demonstrated its confidence in the spring opening plan. About 87% of students returned to campus for in-person instruction, and about 80% of classes are taught in person. 

Looking forward, the College is finalizing health and safety protocols for Honors Day Convocation and Commencement and preparing for the fall 2021 semester.

About Hendrix College

A private liberal arts college in Conway, Arkansas, Hendrix College consistently earns recognition as one of the country’s leading liberal arts institutions, and is featured in Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About Colleges. Its academic quality and rigor, innovation, and value have established Hendrix as a fixture in numerous college guides, lists, and rankings. Founded in 1876, Hendrix has been affiliated with the United Methodist Church since 1884. To learn more, visit