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How Campus Rec Responded to the COVID-19 Crisis

Michael Popke
[Photo courtesy of]
[Photo courtesy of]

On Friday, March 13, of all days, Alex Accetta and his staff finalized operational and procedural modifications at Stanford University's four campus recreation centers — precautions developed to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. Those changes included implementing reduced hours, allowing fewer users in the building at one time and enhancing cleaning protocols.


Registrations for the NIRSA Ideas in Motion roundtables between March 24 and May 1



of campus recreation department leaders who say their recreational facilities are closed indefinitely



who anticipate a net revenue loss of 11% to 20% in FY2020



who expect a decrease in student enrollment for Fall 2020



who say all professional staff members are being paid during campus closures

Source: NIRSA surveys conducted April 1-3 and 15-17, 2020

"At 5:15 p.m. I received a phone call from my boss, who told me we had to close everything by 6," remembers Accetta, who is Stanford's executive director of Recreation and Wellness. "He said, 'You need to start getting everybody out of the rec center now.' "

And just like that, Stanford University's spring quarter came to an abrupt halt. The university was among the first in the country to shut down and send students home in an effort to promote social distancing and public health after at least three people on campus tested positive for COVID-19.

Additionally, Santa Clara, located about 15 miles southeast of Stanford, emerged nationally as an early coronavirus hotspot. Administration officials at other northern California institutions — including San Francisco State University and the University of California, San Francisco — made the same decision as Stanford at about the same time.

Over the next week or so, colleges and universities across the country followed suit, and the NCAA canceled its men's and women's basketball tournaments and all other winter and spring sports championships.

"It sounds trite, but our training kicked in," Accetta says. "As a profession, we have emergency action plans and responses in place that we implemented. We spread the word about our facilities closing by using phone trees, social media, prominent signage and our website."

Still, campus recreation professionals don't specifically prepare for a pandemic, and those early days were filled with confusion and uncertainty. How serious was the virus? Would campuses be closed for just a few weeks? A few months? Into next fall and beyond?

Those unnerving questions prompted Accetta to introduce the NIRSA Connect networking community to a Google Doc created a few days earlier by Shanie Chambers, director of the Recreational Sports Department at UC San Francisco. That document shared real-time information about how various campus recreation departments all over the United States were responding to an extremely fluid situation, and it swelled to at least 55 pages. At one point, 180 people were accessing it at the same time, according to Accetta — rec professionals writing and reading history as it happened.

"I knew as soon as I opened the Google Doc up to all NIRSA members that everybody would share it and give it a lot of traction," he says, adding that the document helped campus rec professionals engage in dialogues about everything from virtual programming ideas to furloughing part-time employees. As of this writing, the document is being used to compile best practices and advice for re-opening.

"It was somewhat comforting to realize that I wasn't the only person struggling with what was happening," Accetta says about those early days of the crisis. "I wasn't the only one having to make tough decisions."

'Not designed for social distancing'
And there were so many tough decisions, as NIRSA past president Leah Hall Dorothy acknowledges.

"Our facilities are not designed for social distancing," says Dorothy, the executive director of Recreational Sports at Oregon State University, whose term as NIRSA president concluded April 30. "They're designed for engagement. That makes it really hard when our entire vision and purpose is about creating community and bringing people together around the common values of health and wellbeing."

In an effort to address the role of campus recreation in the lives of students who were suddenly scattered instead of centralized, Dorothy facilitated an hour-long virtual roundtable on March 16 titled "COVID-19 and Campus Recreation Preparedness." The speakers were George Brown, director of Recreation and Wellness at the University of Minnesota, and Bill Crockett, executive director of Campus Life Services at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and a former NIRSA president.

More than 150 campus recreation professionals accessed the session via Zoom. After about 10 minutes, the chat section came alive.

"People jumped in with their own perspectives of what was happening and how campuses were responding," Dorothy says. "The chat was amazing, and we realized people didn't want to see the slides we had prepared; they wanted to see each other. So we took down our slides. That created the sense that we can come together and share ideas, failures, challenges, successes — all of the things that right now make us stronger together."

By the time Dorothy and Accetta hosted a "Director's Roundtable" on March 25, Erin O'Sullivan, NIRSA's director of advocacy and strategic partnerships, had begun leveraging the success of Dorothy's initial roundtable discussion by creating a series of free and on-demand virtual roundtables (complete with transcripts) that focus not only on innovative programming ideas during uncertain times for aquatics, intramurals, fitness and summer camps, but also on less conventional but increasingly relevant topics such as working from home with kids and working from home alone.

O'Sullivan coordinated with NIRSA members who volunteered to spearhead specific conversations, resulting in the recording of as many as three hour-long roundtable sessions per day.

"It exploded," she said. "People emailed us, wanting more topics. Every time somebody suggested one, my email back to them said, 'That's cool. Would you do a session about it? Or find somebody else to help you?' It was very organic and done very much on the fly."

In the true spirit of the initiative, NIRSA's Ideas in Motion landing page (where all of the roundtables are archived) warns viewers that they "might see a cat's tail dancing in front of a web cam or a child asking about the status of their mashed potatoes" but then encourages them to "join us in a forgiving environment to help advance health and wellbeing."

At least 100 people (and often a lot more) viewed live nearly every virtual session that took place between March 24 and April 22, and the series quickly became the most heavily trafficked part of NIRSA's website.

The enthusiastic response, O'Sullivan says, reinforced the idea of the online series serving as an accessible stand-in for the 2020 NIRSA Annual Conference and Campus Rec & Wellness Expo. That event, slated for April 18-21 in Phoenix, was canceled because of the pandemic.

By the end of April, 55 Ideas in Motion sessions were available for on-demand viewing, with at least 10 more scheduled through May 13. O'Sullivan expects to eventually shift content to focus on what campus recreation will look like in a new era after colleges and universities reopen.

"My goal is to keep this going for as long as it's needed," she says. "In unprecedented times, our members are each other's best resources."

Pivoting with purpose
By late April, the Google Doc that Accetta and several of his West Coast colleagues helped promote to the entire NIRSA community had evolved. It contained several pages of resources and recommendations regarding reopening campus recreation facilities and resuming services and programming.

Should wipes or spray bottles be provided for fitness equipment? Should masks be mandatory for all staff and facility users? Should changes be made to the way CPR is administered and other emergency actions taken? What about keeping fitness classroom doors open to provide better air circulation? And how many people should be allowed in the pool at one time?

Those questions, and so many more like them, will face campus recreation professionals in the weeks and months ahead. Although Stanford remained closed indefinitely at the time of this writing, Accetta and his staff planned to keep an eye on states that planned to reopen health clubs and other businesses in May — even if they had yet to record a consistent drop in new coronavirus cases over the course of 14 consecutive days, as recommended by the federal government.

"We just have to think of everything totally different now," he says. "In some ways, it's like starting over. How do you play intramural basketball going forward? Or do you? Is soccer the best sport to start up with, because players don't frequently touch the ball with their hands? Those are things we need to figure out, and we will. Our role in promoting wellbeing is more important than ever right now, because exercising is one of the very best ways to not get sick. We need to shine a spotlight on that."

Which is why embracing new approaches to deliver crucial information to campus recreation professionals — whether in the form of the Ideas in Motion series, NIRSA's new "Value of Campus Recreation" campaign (see "Value Proposition" above) or a simple, shareable Google Doc — is essential to moving the industry past this extreme challenge.

"Our profession is about sharing and caring, not reinventing the wheel," says Dorothy, who wrote about pivoting with purpose in her final "President's Notes" piece on the NIRSA website in April. "So how can we get people together to help each other face this challenge? Going forward, what are the opportunities for offering online platforms for other purposes? Can we bundle more canceled conference presentations into small workshops that people can tune into whenever they want? People are hungry for new information, and they're ready for it."

Value Proposition

As colleges and universities continue to assess the impact of March's sudden closures in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the uncertainty of when students will return, campus recreation professionals find themselves thrust into a brave new world.

Coincidentally, a free new resource from NIRSA — finalized mere weeks before campuses everywhere shut down and officially introduced in April — is intended to reinforce the myriad ways in which participating in collegiate recreation enhances students' lives.

The Value of Campus Recreation campaign features 16 colorful slides organized by seven themes such as academic success, diversity and inclusion, and mental wellbeing. They can be downloaded for use as posters, flyers and digital-platform graphics.

And their timing couldn't be better.

"These are challenging times for the profession," says Jason Miller, assistant director of the Department of Campus Recreation at the University of Pittsburgh, who was heavily involved in the development of the campaign. "With fitness centers and recreation facilities temporarily closed, we are all having to push our boundaries, and develop new and innovative ways to deliver our services. Though access to our physical spaces on campus may not be an option right now, the importance of fitness and recreation, and the many benefits they bring, continue to exist. As campus recreation professionals, we have a responsibility to continually drive this message to our users, whether in person or virtually."

The 10 members of NIRSA's Research & Assessment Committee — which is charged with fostering a culture of research within the campus recreation profession — culled through reams of research to curate the collection of slides. Their goal was to provide students, colleagues, campus communities as a whole and the general public with a greater understanding of the value of campus recreation.

Through a series of discussions, committee members created a list of various areas positively influenced by campus recreation. From that initial list, they identified key themes and then organized them into the following categories: academic success, professional and leadership development, diversity and inclusion, recruitment and retention, engagement and belonging, physical health, and mental wellness. (The download page cites all of the data used in compiling the slides.)

Each message is simple and easy to digest:

• "Recreation participation enhances students' sense of belonging."

• "Club sport participants are more likely to report higher GPAs."

• "Student recreation employees learn how to plan, organize and prioritize their work."

• "Recreation participation provides an opportunity for students to develop relationships with individuals from different cultures."

"A lot of what campus recreation does, on the surface, seems like fun and games," Miller says. "I don't think it's the responsibility of students to ask themselves, 'What is the impact of campus recreation on my life?' But if we can get this information in front of students — as well as parents, administrators, campus recreation professionals and other members of university staff — it will help them connect the dots. The more we can articulate the message, the more they can internalize it."

Miller recommends campus recreation professionals use the slides in creative ways — as insights on an array of social media platforms, as part of internal documents and publications, and as elements of email and public awareness campaigns. He's eager to see how colleges and universities incorporate this new tool into their messaging strategies.

"This is just the starting point for what we hope will be a much larger collection of informative pieces that people can share," Miller says, adding that bolstering the Value of Campus Recreation campaign will be an ongoing project for the Research & Assessment Committee.

For now, though, he recommends using this initial batch of messages to reach out to students and other stakeholders who, even though they're on summer break, might still feel disenfranchised from campus after leaving so abruptly in March.

"Recreation and physical activity are vital components of a healthy lifestyle," Miller says. "Social distancing doesn't mean people should stop taking care of themselves, and students need our help maintaining a sense of community right now. They're not able to meet up with their friends at the dining hall or work out together in the fitness center. That's all been compromised."

"Campus recreation is up for the challenge that is now in front of us," concludes Leah Hall Dorothy, executive director of Recreational Sports at Oregon State University, whose term as NIRSA president wrapped up during the COVID-19 crisis. "This profession is innovative and not content with standing still and waiting for solutions. Our commitment to growing individual and community wellbeing is as strong and as critical as ever."


This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Campus recreation world pivots in wake of covid-19." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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