Colorado State University Pueblo’s campus ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic was recently judged one of the nation’s best.
The American Association of State Colleges and Universities recently selected CSU Pueblo to receive its 2021 Excellence and Innovation Award for Campus Pandemic Response for its submission, “A Study in COVID-19 Response and Planning: Pandemics and the Resiliency of CSU Pueblo, the People’s University.”
One of its highlights: After partnering with Maryland-based medical technology company Spartan medical — which in turn partnered with data company NTT Data Services — to expand the university’s capabilities for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing on campus, CSU Pueblo reduced positivity rates from 20% to 1% in the partnership’s first six weeks.
Donna Souder Hodge, chief strategy officer and coordinator for CSU Pueblo’s COVID-19 Response and Planning Team, said the university’s award-winning submission “told the story” of how its leadership, faculty, staff and students came together with the Pueblo community to address head-on the unprecedented public health emergency.
That story, Souder Hodge said, highlighted some of the keys to CSU Pueblo’s strategy, including the partnerships it developed and the steps it took to prevent and track the spread of the virus on campus.
Those keys included shifting student’s coursework online, ensuring continuous employment for employees and keeping them paid in instances where isolation or quarantine were required, and creating flexible work policies.
Partnerships with organizations like the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment — which informed all of CSU Pueblo’s pandemic response initiatives — Parkview Health Systems, and businesses that brought technological tools to aid in the response, were also a tremendous asset.
“We told a story about how the pandemic started and how our regional, comprehensive campus in southern Colorado turned into an online university overnight,” Souder Hodge said.
“We talked about how it wasn’t just about testing or how we handled quarantining or isolation, it was a complete campus response; how our faculty, who, in many cases had never taught an online class, stepped up to the plate and honed their own skills and took advantage of every resource made available to them and became able and willing to teach their courses in an online format.
“And that was incredibly challenging and yet our campus did it and did it really well.”
A community-wide response helped CSU Pueblo combat COVID
CSU Pueblo President Timothy Mottet said CSU Pueblo’s community partnerships were critical to informing their frequently evolving response, particularly that with the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment.
“When you’ve got almost 4,000 students, you’ve got a large residential component, you’ve got 800 employees, and you’re trained to educate in a very traditional, socially-rich environment and you’re changing that and trying to get back to it or navigate it, the public health implications are complex and you’ve got to make decisions,” Mottet said.
“And we’re doing all of this in a political environment where COVID is different for different groups of people and citizens, where you’re kind of managing an operation in a larger context where there’s a lot of disagreement, philosophically, politically or whatever it is.
“We just continue to follow the guidance of our public health department and they’ve served as a good compass north.”
CSU Pueblo’s response also employed business partners that deal in medical technology and data services.
The partnership between CSU Pueblo and Spartan/NTT began in the spring and allowed the university to manage all of its COVID-19 data in one place, including appointment scheduling and obtaining test results, helping it to conduct nearly 30,000 COVID-19 tests for students and university employees at its on-campus testing site during the spring semester alone.
That access to testing resources helped the university drop its positivity rate by 19%.
“What that allowed us to do was identify positive cases immediately,” Souder Hodge said.
“We had lots of in-person courses happening at that time. Many of our courses are … incredibly difficult to teach in an online format because they’re lab courses or they’re hands-on courses. Our nursing students, for example, or many of our athletic training students, never left campus. They were functioning in full PPE and continuing to do their online learning.
“So to be able to offer our students that testing meant we were able to protect those classes, too.”
How CSU Pueblo made informed decisions about COVID-19
Another thing Mottet said the university “got right” early on was the formation of its own COVID response team, led by Souder Hodge, which developed recommendations for his cabinet surrounding policies, procedures, operations and “what needed to happen day-to-day at the university to really be cognizant of public health code and standards.”
That advisory group was also advised by CSU Pueblo faculty members in the science department.
“Early on, there were key members of our faculty who were really up to date with what all of the latest data said and they were willing to share that insight with all of us, which meant our COVID operational team was much more prepared to ask the right questions with public health,” Souder Hodge said.
While the health and safety of the campus community was and continues to be CSU Pueblo’s top priority, the university has also found ways to maintain and enhance the student experience by doing things like forming a partnership with Harvard’s Business School Online, and expanding professional development opportunities around diversity, inclusion, and equity across higher education.
“Everyone is managing personal lives and their own worries for their health and wellness and still we remained completely committed to our students and ensuring that our students had the best of us through a year that didn’t always bring out the best in everyone,” Souder Hodge said.
“It was difficult and we overcame, at least to this point. It’s hard to say what the future has in store but we’re a more innovative campus because we’ve proven to ourselves we can flip the switch if we have to overnight.”
CSU Pueblo’s playbook is being recognized nationally
Mottet said heading into the pandemic, CSU Pueblo had “no playbook” as to how to weather the storm.
But in nearly 18 months navigating the pandemic, they now not only have such a playbook, but have developed one of the nation’s best.
“We definitely do (have a playbook now) and we’ve got it pretty well documented,” Mottet said.
“I hope to God there’s not another pandemic, but if there ever is, we’ve got what I believe is a national best practice for a university. And to get that level of recognition from a national organization (AASCU), that feels pretty good.”
AASCU award recipients will be honored at the organization’s annual meeting in Clearwater Beach, Florida, on November 7, as well as through as well as through the AASCU newsletter, website, and social media pages.
The event will have options for in-person or virtual attendance.
Chieftain reporter Zach Hillstrom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ZachHillstrom