The College of Wooster plans to test each student for COVID-19 every week during the spring semester. (Photo: Matt Dilyard)

In 2020, Youngstown State University president Jim Tressel leaned on a lesson from decades ago.

He has mentioned the Stockdale Paradox in conversations with his university community this year. It’s about Admiral James Stockdale, a prisoner of war for more than seven years in Vietnam. The story has been highlighted in a popular professional development book.

In Tressel’s retelling, when the admiral was asked years later about how he survived the brutal circumstances, he said optimists in the same situation perhaps didn’t fare as well because they set unrealistic expectations. Stockdale, then, decided to focus on an approach grounded in making daily good decisions while still confronting reality, though always keeping the faith he’d eventually prevail.

The takeaway there can be applicable now, Tressel said.

“Like any lessons you learn, any difficult classes, any difficult life situations, you’ll learn a lot from them,” he said. “I think we’ll learn a lot from this once it’s behind us. But the reality is we don’t know when it’s behind us.”

One of next semester’s big changes at Youngstown State includes a shift away from a traditional spring break.

“What we heard was there is a need for breaks mentally, but yet we didn’t want to encourage long travel,” Tressel said.

Instead, the campus’s calendar includes a scattering of “wellness days” throughout the semester. Tressel said the move wasn’t a unanimous decision by all of the campus’s stakeholders, but he called it the most responsible one to help slow the virus’s spread.

Keeping tabs on students’ mental well-being has been top of mind at Lorain County Community College, too, according to Tracy Green, vice president of strategic and institutional development. Roughly 89% of students took classes in some type of online format, an amount officials expect to stay about the same next semester.

“They are facing a lot of challenges, juggling lots of roles and responsibilities, and they need help,” Green said. “They need help through emergency aid, to help with utility bills. You know, education may come second, third or fourth on the priority list depending on what those needs are.”

Now having a handle on what some of those needs look like, officials are upping the wraparound support offered to students in the spring, adding additional mental health counselors and moving to extend evening hours for financial aid and related services.

“This hasn’t been a sprint. It hasn’t been over quickly, and it’s lingering on,” Green said. “We know that all of those burdens, all of those challenges, are really weighing on the shoulders of all of us. But particularly our students who had challenges before the pandemic.”

Some of the campus’s students include those working on a variety of health and wellness programs, ranging from aspiring paramedics to phlebotomists. Green said the college has connected with the county’s health department to potentially offer enlisting those students to help distribute a COVID vaccine, along with the use of the campus itself as a possible distribution spot.

But administering a vaccine could be weeks or months ahead, and it remains unknown where schools’ staff or students will fall in the priority line of receiving it.

In the interim, some schools are looking to change their coronavirus testing strategy. The practice varied widely from place-to-place in the fall. Researchers from Harvard and Yale recommended on-campus college students to be tested every two days, but an October NPR analysis of campuses offering in-person classes nationwide found that most didn’t aggressively test students.

The College of Wooster, which pivoted to online courses in October after an uptick in COVID cases, is one that’s altering course for its 2,000 students. In the fall, the college tested students upon arrival to campus and then continued to test a student sampling each week.

Administrators’ starting point this spring will be to test every student, every week, though that could shift depending on the amount of local outbreaks in the area. The plan isn’t cheap. It’s estimated to cost between $1 million to $2 million for the semester, according to Wooster president Sarah Bolton.

“I think our experience in the fall made it clear, as well as the experiences of a number of other institutions, that frequent testing is a really good investment and that it does really make a difference,” she said.

Bolton said another change included the introduction of the “Wooster Plus” program, an offering designed to give students who have completed eight semesters at the college a chance to complete up to two more semesters at the college tuition-free. It’s designed for students who may have experienced disruptions this year, she said, adding the effort is focused on being equitable and offering flexibility.

“One of the things we learned, that we anticipated but learned for sure, was that for this kind of situation with COVID, you don’t need a plan — you need plans A to Z,” she said. “Many different layers of plans for many different contingencies.”

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.