2 Years Later: How the Pandemic Shaped ATU’s Future

Witherspoon Hall COVID-19 Mural
Artifacts such as this mural that once adorned the exterior of Witherspoon Hall reflected Arkansas Tech University's collective efforts to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has been two years since the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic first affected Arkansas Tech University.

On March 18, 2020, ATU in Russellville and Ozark began virtual classes and operations as a mitigation strategy against the health threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Classes and operations continued in a remote environment for the balance of the spring 2020 semester. Some in-person classes and operations resumed during summer 2020, but the majority of ATU’s academic offerings remained in an online or hybrid environment through the end of spring 2021. Support offices returned to on-campus operations by June 2021.

Now, two years after the arrival of the virus, ATU’s successful implementation of its COVID-19 management plan has allowed the university to discontinue its COVID-related mitigation strategies and resume campus operations that more closely resemble life before March 2020.

“Arkansas Tech is emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic as a more adaptable and resilient institution,” said Dr. Robin E. Bowen, ATU president. “We are applying the lessons from the past two years in order to be better prepared for the challenges of the future. The technological advances we have made during the pandemic will help us become a more efficient institution. I hope and I believe the quality of life for ATU faculty and staff will improve as a result of enhanced opportunities for remote work. At least one outcome from the pandemic is certain: Arkansas Tech is better positioned to serve students by providing them with greater access to our academic programs through online and mixed methodology learning.”

Ken Wester, chief information officer at ATU and director of information systems, and Steve Milligan, associate director of information systems, reported that 50 classrooms at Arkansas Tech have been upgraded to facilitate remote teaching over the course of the pandemic.

The ATU Office of Information Systems has also implemented increased capacity for remote testing, access to WebEx software as a means of conducting remote classes and meetings, improved wireless internet access and a reinforced cybersecurity posture.

“All of these upgrades are designed to support ATU’s mission of student access and success,” said Bowen. “The learning environment has never been more influenced by technology than it is today. Arkansas Tech is compelled by its mission to embrace and expand upon its technological traditions in order to empower individuals from the university community and beyond to achieve their goals. The advances we have made over the past two years have positioned Arkansas Tech to achieve that objective now and in the future.”

Isolation was a parallel challenge created by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the physical distance between the ATU community grew, the sense of connectedness inevitably decreased. As a result, mental health became a considerable concern for ATU and its leadership.

“Each of us have been in literal survival mode for two years,” said Bowen. “I do not know that we will fully understand the stress and strain of what we have been through…individually and collectively…until more time has passed. As we work to unpack the mental and emotional toll the pandemic has taken on us, it is more important than ever that we are intentional about building and enhancing relationships with our colleagues, our students and the communities we serve. Similarly, we must be intentional about breaking down stigmas regarding mental health. Let’s help each other regain the joys in our lives that were diminished or unavailable over the past two years.”

As part of that process, Arkansas Tech will host guest speaker Dr. Kenton Olliff for a presentation about faculty and staff mental health on Monday, April 4. Three sessions of the presentation — one on the Ozark campus and two on the Russellville campus — are planned.

The April 4 presentations have been approved by the ATU Executive Council for all ATU staff members to attend as part of their work day.

More details are available at www.arkansastechnews.com/guest-speaker-to-focus-on-faculty-staff-mental-health.

“We will continue to monitor trends relative to COVID-19 and be prepared to take actions that support the health and safety of the ATU community,” said Bowen. “So long as the conditions of the pandemic continue to improve, we will turn our focus to making Arkansas Tech University a great place to learn, live, teach and work. We have withstood perhaps the greatest collective challenge of our lifetime. It is time to reclaim our spirit, our energy, our drive and our passion as a university. It is time to be Arkansas Tech again.”