COVID-19 hasn’t slowed Bacone College’s progress on recovering from a near-shutdown in 2018, said Vice President of Student Affairs Kaila Harjo.
“When I prepared my enrollment projections, I did that in a five year span. With COVID, we took into consideration what other institutions took into consideration. Most institutions went on ahead and prepared for 20 percent reduction,” Harjo said. “I said I'm only going to predict a 15 percent reduction.”
The school did even better – amid a wave of campus closures and changes across the country, Bacone’s fall enrollment stands at 264 students. That’s compared to 273 enrolled students in the fall semester of 2019.
“We have surpassed what we thought we were going to lose,” Harjo said. “We've also increased our residential numbers. We have taken every precaution that we can consider to keep our students safe.”
Bacone’s COVID-19 preparation began in late January and early February, Harjo said.
“Our executive team got together and said what happened if it makes it here? We laid out a temporary plan so that we could have something in place. As soon as it hit Oklahoma, we knew that parents were going to be concerned with their students,” Harjo said. “We talked about things we might consider in our normal every day life. We were sending emails to students: make sure you're keeping a safe distance, make sure you're washing your hands.”
As April approached and COVID-19 cases began to trend upward, Bacone sent its residential students home. They’re taking a different approach this fall, Harjo said.
“In the spring of 20 we realized that sending students home because of COVID, may not have been the best choice for some of those students,” she said. “If it presents itself to us that we need to be all online, we will keep our dorms open. We have recently made renovations to our dorms so that way our students are more comfortable if they are encouraged or asked to remain inside for a number of days. We're still on a good path to bringing Bacone back to a respectful institution.”
Commencement was moved from early May to December. Plans began for eventually reopening the campus, Harjo said.
“We were tasked with ‘when do you think we can reopen?’” Harjo said. “Our COVID-19 response team got together on Zoom. June 1 hits and the numbers start going up tremendously.”
Photo above: Student Ty Maxwell Muscogee (Creek) receives a care kit with gloves, disposable mask, washable mask and sanitizer during housing check-in for athletes the week prior to school starting. Housing Director Kendall Scott (Kickapoo) right, set up the check-point as the students' last stop before getting the keys to their dorms.
That prompted multiple safety measures – including keeping test results on file, Harjo said.
“One of the most crucial pieces of our policy is that all of our residential students, our faculty and our staff, have to have a negative COVID 19 test on file to be on campus,” Harjo said.
The school has also expanded learning options for students who might feel uncomfortable going to class gatherings, even if they’re staying on campus, Harjo said.
“That's one thing we wanted to make sure that our students knew - if you don't feel comfortable coming to campus, or you're mistrusting of your surroundings, we have the option to take all of your classes at home,” Harjo said.
The changes come amid a slow shift in identity for Bacone: athletics have been pared back as the school works to rebuild its Native American roots.
“We did increase our Native American population from 29 percent to 69 percent,” Harjo said. “That has allowed us to slowly rebuild our relationship with the Native tribes of Oklahoma as well as nationally.”
Photo: Summer student workers Roshawn White, left, Dathan Kaler, Housing Director Kendall Scott, and Ty Maxwell demonstrate the distanced classroom set up under the watchful eye of Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Beverly Smith after a day of moving furniture to prepare for class beginning the following week.
So far, the change in priorities has worked well for the school, Harjo said.
“One of the things we've focused on is our retention rate. For the Fall of 2019 to Spring 2020 we had a 90 percent retention rate. We're on a promising, motivating path to fulfilling education,” she said.
The key to maintaining those numbers amid a pandemic is to ensure the safety of everyone on campus, Harjo said.
“As a mom, I want to know what the school's going to do to prepare my child. My mom mode always kicks in when it comes to these Bacone students,” Harjo said. “Their moms are trusting us to keep their children safe while they're here and I like to think we do a good job of that.”
It also means adapting to ever changing, fluid circumstances, she said.
“I wish I knew what was going to present itself as far as COVID and how our campus adjustment,” Harjo said. “You've got to be creative. You've got to think outside the box. We're just taking it day by day, re-evaluating the resources we have and making sure that our students remain safe.”
Photo: Kaila Harjo,
Vice President of Student Affairs