During the spring of 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic was spreading in the United States and around the world, the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., president of Niagara University, was working with educational leaders from across New York state on a plan to reopen colleges and universities safely. Father Maher was the only college or university president from the Buffalo-Niagara region to serve on the task force established by the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities (CICU).

While Father Maher recognized the complexities of the pandemic, he also knew that reopening safely was possible, and committed to welcoming students to campus for the fall semester.

“We knew that this work wasn’t going to be easy, but we also knew that through careful planning, collaboration, and innovation, we would be able to create a safe and engaging living-learning environment for our entire community,” said Maher.

Following the direction laid out by the CICU’s “Creating Safe and Resilient Campuses: Suggestions for Reopening and Reimagining Colleges and Universities in New York,” the university established the Restart Implementation Task Force in spring 2020 to proactively plan for the safe and gradual return of students, faculty, and staff to its Lewiston and Vaughan locations, focusing on the following key areas: academics, public health, student life, human resources, infrastructure, finance, and Vaughan, Ontario.

One of the cornerstone pieces of the university’s restart plan, “Forward Niagara,” was the establishment of a public health team, which included staff and faculty from the campus’ Health Services office and the School of Nursing. The public health team also utilized strategic partnerships with Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and Mount St. Mary’s Hospital and Health Center for testing and treating students and members of the university community. Additionally, a partnership with the Niagara County Department of Health helped to define protocols for contact tracing and positive cases. In combination with a robust daily screening process, these collaborations facilitated tracking symptoms and potential cases of COVID-19, and enabled Niagara to proactively respond to any uptick in cases.

Since the fall, Niagara University has been a leader in testing, tracing, and quarantining protocols. The fall semester began with comprehensive plans for testing on campus, both for students who exhibit signs and symptoms of COVID-19, and for students randomly selected for surveillance testing. In the spring, the testing program was enhanced with the procurement of a supply of rapid tests that allows the university to offer testing to the entire campus community.

In order to address isolation and quarantining protocols, partnerships with local hotels were also key to the plan. The Niagara Riverside Resort on Buffalo Avenue (formerly Four Points by Sheraton Niagara Falls) has provided off-campus isolation and quarantine housing for students. The procedures at the hotel are in compliance with Niagara County Department of Health protocols, and students are monitored by Health Services staff, in partnership with Niagara Falls Memorial Hospital staff.

With these measures in place, the university followed the guidance from New York state’s Forward Re-Opening Advisory Board; the Ontario government in “A Framework to Reopening our Province”; guidance from the CDC and health organizations in the U.S. and Ontario; and best practices from emerging scientific knowledge, public health data, and instructional pedagogy. Members of the campus community also agreed to the Purple Pledge, a commitment of practices for each individual to follow to ensure the safety of the entire campus. In doing so, the university has seen incredible compliance in the areas of masking, social distancing, disinfecting work and study spaces, washing hands, and adhering to new traffic flows and directional signage. Looking for innovative ways to develop larger student learning spaces, Niagara also created new, socially distant classroom spaces in the Kiernan Center gym, the Castellani Art Museum, and in the lower level of the Gallagher Center.

These measures, in addition to a commitment to meet the associated costs of implementation, has enabled Niagara University to look to the future and to develop now what we need in higher education for students and faculty moving forward. Continuing the health and safety of the entire community, both in Lewiston, N.Y., and in Vaughan, Ont.; ensuring a well-rounded, enriching, and safe on-campus educational experience for the fall semester of 2021; and shaping programs in ways that meet emerging workforce and community needs leverages the strength of Niagara University in the post-pandemic recovery of our region, nation, and world.

Following the example of St. Vincent de Paul, Niagara knows that disruption can be a teacher, and the university will emerge as a stronger institution from the lessons learned during the pandemic.

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