“We are in unprecedented times.”
Those were the words of Chancellor Andrew D. Martin in one of the numerous communications that went out to the Washington University in St. Louis faculty, staff and students in one historic week in March 2020, during a time that will be recorded in history books.
Unprecedented and historic due to the continuing global crisis caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19), which was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11.
In the days that students were on spring break, athletic teams were on spring trips, and faculty and staff traditionally take a breath before the last frenetic weeks of a semester, Washington University implemented — and communicated fast and furiously — a number of major changes intended to help “flatten the curve” and protect the health and well-being of the university community and the St. Louis region.
- Students were asked to complete the remainder of the spring semester from their permanent residences. Only a small number of students who were unable to return home are allowed to remain on campus.
- Spring break has been extended one week and all coursework has been shifted to online instruction beginning March 23.
- The university has shifted operations to allow for faculty and staff to work remotely as much as possible.
And the most heartbreaking decision of all was the March 16 announcement of the cancellation of the 159th Commencement ceremony, which was scheduled for May 15. “In an instant flip of the switch, these moments and dreams have been ripped out from underneath you and for that I am truly sorry,” Martin told the class of 2020 in a video announcement.
It was the first time in university history that Commencement was canceled.
None of these decisions, Martin said, were made lightly by him and the university’s core COVID-19 response team, which includes leaders from across the university and infectious disease experts from Washington University School of Medicine.
“We’re doing what we believe is absolutely necessary to protect our community,” Martin said. “We can’t predict how any of this will turn out.”
The gravity of it all began to sink in after that moment for faculty, staff and students.
‘This is my community’
Among those actions was the announcement that undergraduates needed to complete their spring coursework off campus from their permanent homes in order to reduce the risk of community spread among the students.
Students who were still on campus were told to move out of university housing by 5 p.m. March 15. The residential life team, along with university volunteers, are working through the week to help send home students’ belongings. Rooms are being packed up and items sent back in phases, with things students’ deemed essential sent back in this first week.
Meanwhile, faculty spent the week preparing to put lessons online to be able to teach the remainder of the semester. One faculty member, Jason Purnell, associate professor of public health at the Brown School, was asked by St. Louis County Executive Sam Page to assist the county health department to draft coronavirus policies.
“This is my community,” Purnell said. “We are facing a critical challenge and it is time for people to contribute in any way they can. A lot of my career has been about the health and well-being of the St. Louis community, and this technical specialists team is directly in line with not only what I care about professionally, but personally.”
By the start of this week, every one of the seven schools had a coronavirus page of resources and links geared toward helping their specific community through the crisis, everything from technical resources to academic issues to ensuring that students were taking care of their mental health.
On the Medical Campus, extensive efforts were well underway to respond to the virus. Researchers, doctors and staff continued preparing for an outbreak; infectious disease physicians worked with colleagues regarding how to respond when people with suspected exposure to the virus arrive on campus; and researchers continued to collaborate with colleagues here and elsewhere to zero in on drugs or vaccines to treat or prevent COVID-19.
Virtually every aspect of campus life was affected, from employees reassigned to work remotely (Zoom became an important part of our vocabulary) to Parking and Transportation Services, which announced new policies this week.
It was an emotional time, as students also prepared to take classes, without their classmates at their side.
“I’m sad I won’t be able to see my friends until next August,” said Meghan Street, a junior in Arts & Sciences. “But I’m even sadder for my senior friends, who have walked the campus for the last time.”
Street said she and her friends have made a commitment to a weekly Facetime call to catch up and play Bananagrams – anything to keep in touch.
An abrupt end
The WashU Bears sports teams were also affected, not only by the university announcements but by the NCAA abruptly ending their seasons.
The baseball team, which was enjoying its first-ever No. 1 ranking, was in Florida. The track and field team had driven to Winston-Salem, N.C., for the Division III championship meet and ended up turning around and driving back as soon as they got there. The No. 2 ranked golf team was in a tournament, also in Florida.
And the men’s basketball team, ranked No. 16 in the country, was practicing on a court in Naperville, Ill., for their NCAA Sweet 16 game against North Central College on March 13 when they got the news their season was over. Just like that, the players’ last moment as a Washington University scholar-champion had ended.
Coach Pat Juckem helped put it in perspective. He was referring to his team but his words can be applied to the entire university community in these times. “This is disappointing,” he said. “But these relationships aren’t ending, they’re just beginning.”