The Union is Open: Virtual or Hybrid, the Living Room of Campus Looks Different

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the United States, with many states experiencing new spikes in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. With no national strategy to follow, each state, and its own cities and regions, are responding in different ways, and the same is true for universities as the fall semester begins. Some are going completely virtual in the fall and others are reopening to meet the needs of students on campus.

The Bulletin interviewed two student union directors, one managing solely online operations, and the other preparing to welcome students back to their campus facilities. Here’s how a couple student unions are approaching reopening, according to Eve Esch (pictured at right), director of the University of Houston Student Centers, and James Contratto (pictured below, left), associate director for student activities, university programs, at the University of South Alabama Student Center South Alabama will be completely virtual, while the University of Houston will have a scaled down on-campus operation.

Why has the University of Houston Student Centers decided to open in-person for the fall semester?

Esch: The university wants to offer as much flexibility and variability regarding students’ options. As of right now, 86% of students will be completely online. We still want to serve the approximately 14% of students who will be on campus in some capacity, as well as offer virtual engagement opportunities and support for the online-only students.

Why has the student center decided to go virtual for the fall semester?

Contratto: We’re taking direction from the Centers for Disease Control and the campus reopening committee. As of right now, all in-person university events will remain cancelled until such time as the CDC indicates the community spread of COVID-19 has decreased to an appropriate level. This applies to all social gatherings and ceremonies.

What preparations are the student centers making for reopening, particularly for events, dining, sanitation, and large spaces?

Esch: We have been researching, benchmarking, and investigating the best practices for safely hosting events, serving as a dining location, and fulfilling our mission to maintain a safe environment for our students, staff, faculty, and guests. We have compiled a document of changes that we’ve instituted that we will be adding to our website, as well as on our digital signage as bullet points of information.

What preparations is the Student Center making for virtual offerings, including events and networking? Will there be expansions of any virtual offerings made over the summer? 

Contratto: Our programming board has done a fantastic job of offering virtual events when we shut down in March. We had three events in April and four events over the summer. Our events included a BINGO Night, Open Mic Night, band performances, a video game tournament, a trivia night, and a six-week financial literacy workshop. This really gave us an opportunity to try some new programs, get feedback from participants, and learn what we can do better to implement for the fall semester. 

Is there a possibility for the Student Centers to switch to virtual offerings? If so, what red flags will signal a change in operations? 

Esch: Yes, it could be a possibility, and the decision would be based on consultation with university administration and health experts and governmental recommendations.

Is there a possibility for the Student Centers to switch to in-person offerings? If so, what signs will signal a change in operations? 

Contratto: It’s going to take a huge decrease in the community spread of COVID-19. Mobile County has one of the higher numbers in Alabama, so it could be a while. Thankfully, South Alabama has a medical school, so we are getting a lot of up-to-date information from them. 

How have University of Houston students and student organizations responded to and engaged with the current plans?

Esch: Students seem to be split; some are excited to get back to campus, while others are nervous to return. We are optimistic that they will participate in our Virtual Weeks of Welcome.

How have students and student organizations at South Alabama responded to and engaged with the current plans? 

Contratto: They have been really responsive to our programs and events. Our virtual events have seen participation from students who never had the opportunity to participate before. We’ve had nursing students, grad students, students who are parents, and non-traditional students participate and have a great time. I believe offering virtual programs will still be a part of our programming schedule in future years. 

What goals do you have for the in-person reopening?

Esch: We want to create and maintain a safe environment to encourage student success and follow our president’s recommendation to be flexible and compassionate in all of our actions and decisions.

What goals do you have for the virtual reopening? 

Contratto: My goal is to do what I can to help students build community as safe as possible. We’ll have to think on our feet and adjust at times, but we will be flexible and do what we can with the information we’re given. Students still need engagement and community. We will be there to help provide that for them.


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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