Big Questions in Higher Education – Pandemic 2020
The virus seemed far away, unlikely to makes its way to Berks County, Pa.
On Tuesday, headline stories in the Reading newspaper circled around war overseas and local athletics. Two days later, local physicians told the media that there was no cause for alarm if people avoided large gatherings and stifled sneezes and coughs.
But before the work week had finished, everything changed. The state health commissioner offered a list of symptoms that included fever and headache, and officially closed nearly all public indoor gathering places in the commonwealth. Bars, theaters and dance halls were closed. Most restaurants, schools and churches remained open — at least for the time being.
Though it may sound like March 2020, the date was actually October 1918 — and the Spanish Influenza was already heading toward its second, most deadly wave in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the influenza pandemic of 1918-19 was the most deadly flu outbreak in history, infecting 500 million worldwide — about one-third of the world’s population — and killing up to 50 million people.
The first wave of the Spanish flu didn’t seem particularly deadly when it arrived on American shores in March 1918, likely spread by travelling World War I soldiers. It waned during the summer months and there was hope at the beginning of August that it had run its course. But a mutated strain — with the power to kill perfectly healthy people within 24 hours of the first signs of infection — emerged from Europe. In October alone, 195,000 Americans died from the Spanish flu.
Though each issue of the Albright Bulletin in 1918 focused on news about the college’s 14 undergraduate students serving in the war, influenza did come to Albright College. According to “Discovery and Promise: A History of Albright College, 1856-1981,” by Eugene Barth, so many students were struck by the epidemic that the Arts and Music Building had to be converted into hospital quarters. Even so, all but one inflicted student, Charles Francis Messner, from Wiconisco, Pa., recovered.
Pushback not limited to 2020
The 1918 pandemic was caused by an Influenza N1H1 virus (likely Avian in nature) and COVID-19 is a severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus. Yet both are shared through respiratory droplets and the surfaces they land on. And descriptions of respiratory failure in Spanish flu patients echo that of COVID-19 sufferers 100 years later. Both spread quickly and both were met by skepticism in the United States.
In October 1918, New Jersey’s Gov. Wallace Edge and the state health board called for a statewide quarantine. Bars and saloons, churches, restaurants and theaters were all closed, with gatherings banned and travel discouraged. School closings were not mandatory, but most schools still shuttered.
Meanwhile, Charles P. Gillen, mayor of Newark, N.J., heavily resisted the shutdown. Accusing reporters of printing “vile lies,” he banned Newark Evening News reporters from his office. He eventually lifted the city’s quarantine on Oct. 21 without state approval, declaring the threat over. At the time, the state’s death rate was at its highest, with 8,500 deaths in New Jersey among the 200,000 nationwide.
Similarly, all across the nation, public pushback, legal challenges and outright defiance followed bar and school closures, social distancing and mask guidelines. In Atlanta, there was a hard push to reopen businesses. An Anti-Mask League formed in San Francisco, where citizens were routinely arrested for not wearing masks in public. Those who refused to wear masks claimed that they were ineffective or that mask ordinances were unconstitutional. But cities that removed social distancing and closure orders later faced additional case spikes.
Cases began to thin out by December 1918 — one month after the end of World War I — before a third wave worked its way from Australia to the United States. But finally, by the summer of 1919, a year and a half after it began, the Spanish flu finally subsided for good.
An educated response — 100 years later
First discovered in Wuhan, China just before the new year, COVID-19 found its way to U.S. shores by Feb. 26, 2020, and expanded to touch nearly every corner of the globe by mid spring.
Once news of the virus broke, Albright’s Pandemic Planning Task Force began meeting regularly to develop short- and long-term contingency plans. It was not the team’s first go-around. Formed in response to the H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic, the team successfully isolated seven students and prevented spread of the Swine Flu on campus in 2009. By 2020, with a decade of contingency plans in place, the college started preparing for the worst immediately. By the time the U.S. declared a national emergency on March 13, essential personnel had been fit-tested for safety equipment and completed a step-by-step isolation walk-through (from initial testing and isolation through room fumigation, and adjustments to technology, dining needs and beyond). Facilities personnel immediately inventoried cleaning supplies and ramped up sanitization of high touch areas on campus.
Leading Albright’s Pandemic Task Force is 21 year Albright veteran, Samantha J. Wesner, DNP, CRNP, WHNP-BC, senior vice president of student and campus life and chief health officer. “The task force is continuously monitoring the evolution of the coronavirus and COVID19 nationally, regionally and in our state, and working to ensure the health, safety and well-being of our community,” says Wesner. “As always, the health and safety of all members of our campus community is our top priority.”
All across the nation, public pushback, legal challenges and outright defiance followed bar and school closures, social distancing and mask guidelines.
A decade between pandemics doesn’t always seem like a long period of time. But when Wesner gathered Albright’s task force to begin discussing new medium- and long-term contingency plans, it was clear that quite a lot had changed. Technology advances in particular (both in what has become possible and in the comfort level of students and faculty) had opened doors to options that included teaching and learning online. And it wasn’t long before those advances would prove necessary.
The college’s first real step was to cancel Spring Break trips (both abroad and domestic) and advise students studying abroad to return home. These sound like easy decisions now, but they weren’t. At the time, it seemed that travel restrictions would only be necessary for a short time … about two weeks at the most. Resident-students were asked to remain on campus during the break, to help narrow the chance that they might bring the virus to campus after visiting areas where the coronavirus was prevalent.
But of course, the timing and spread of COVID-19 has been unprecedented. Staff who would normally have been on campus during Spring Break began working remotely, literally overnight, on March 18. On Thursday, March 19 — before Albright’s Spring Break was over — Pennsylvania’s governor ordered all non-life-sustaining businesses in Pennsylvania to close physical locations until further notice, effective Saturday, March 21. Colleges and universities were on the “non-essential” list.
By that evening, Albright pivoted into the essential business mode of “community food and housing, emergency and other relief services,” knowing that many Albright students might not be able to continue in their coursework from home, and that others struggle with food insecurities at home or have no home to which they could return. More than 100 students met the shelter criteria and remained on campus through the end of the spring semester. Spring athletes leaned on each other, coming to grips with the realization that their season was over nearly as soon as it began.
The fast-paced Spring Break pivot signaled the beginning of a high-rolling wave of change. Constant changes by health officials meant that new policies and contingency plans needed to be updated or completely scrapped, sometimes while they were being written.
At one point in March, members of the pandemic team used a white board to rough out three completely different plans based on possible scenarios. An hour later, they moved forward with a hybrid fourth plan.
While students settled back into residence halls, faculty scrapped personal Spring Break plans in order to recreate coursework and instruction models in the virtual world. The college’s Digital Strategy and Infrastructure (DSI) team created robust learning tools to help students, faculty and staff make the transition. Tutors and student success teams reached out to help students make the most of virtual ‘classrooms.’ Faculty formed groups to help each other conquer the necessary technology and staff teams formulated plans to keep the college’s administrative wheels turning.
Still, students who returned home struggled with bad Wi-Fi connections. Others worried about sick relatives. In response, Albright offered a modified grading system and refunded unused room and board. To discourage remaining resident-students from venturing off campus, the college’s Care Corner expanded to include free personal care products, toiletries and snacks. Dining Services modeled the takeout restaurant business, with students ordering and picking up meals.
In less than two weeks, the world went from running normally to going completely virtual. Ringing in the 2020 new year, no one expected a third of the nation to be sheltering in place by the end of March. No one expected that admissions teams would need to go fully online when most high school seniors were making final decisions and visiting campuses.
But after the initial shock of losing in-person instruction and events, Albrightians found that learning and working remotely wasn’t quite learning and working from the moon. Throughout the summer, students continued to work one-on-one with faculty mentors to explore and present original research. High school students were still able to connect with current students about life at Albright. And some of the technology tools used to bridge the gap between remote locations will likely continue to be utilized even after staff return to the office.
The New Normal
In planning the start of the fall semester, flexibility and resiliency were considered second only to safety. All Albright faculty and students were able to choose the mode and location with which they were most comfortable for the semester, resulting in approximately one third of classes being held in-person, one third fully online, and one third a hybrid of on-campus and online experiences. Lab and studio classes in particular included on-campus components. Many staff members continued to work remotely, allowing for less-densified campus buildings.
Although Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC) presidents made the difficult decision to suspend all intercollegiate athletics competition through the fall semester, athletic teammates were housed together on campus and continue to practice their skills, led by coaches and sport performance experts.
An early fall start (Aug. 17) allowed for the semester to be completed early — ahead of the regular flu season. The campus was papered with signage reminding students and staff to wear masks and be mindful of social distancing. Although fewer people would be inside classrooms, furniture was rearranged and ventilation was heightened. Some in-person classes ventured outdoors during good weather and others explored new technology at a distance.
But of course, the story of COVID-19 is far from over. Follow along and read about the latest developments at albright.edu/coronavirus.