August 26, 2020
Dear Saint Mary’s Friends,
We often talk with students about becoming life-long learners, and this year the entire faculty and staff at Saint Mary’s have had to lead by example, demonstrating the many ways that we, too, can remain open, flexible, determined, and creative in our work. A few weeks ago, a journalist for the tri-campus student newspaper The Observer asked what I hoped to accomplish in my first 100 days. I told her that I was in the unusual position — for a new leader — of having my “top hope” be that we would simply be able to open the doors. The complexities of that task have been almost unimaginable: the threat posed by the coronavirus gives new meaning to the old saying “expect the unexpected.”
Now that we are in Week 3 of classes, I want to update you on the decisions the Cabinet and I have made over the last few months, how we are acting on those decisions, and our current status. Most of the “facts” related to these decisions — as well as FAQs and a daily dashboard — can be found here on our Live Learn Work website. Please visit from time to time as information changes daily.
Back in May, Saint Mary’s made the decision to join the rest of the tri-campus community in aiming for an August 10 start date. When I arrived on June 1, we moved into high gear to identify the many internal policies and procedures we would need to put in place in order to comply with CDC, State of Indiana, and local guidelines and regulations.
College leadership stepped up to tackle a huge variety of expected challenges: preparing the campus for the safe arrival of students and the secure delivery of in-person classes, coordinating pre-matriculation testing (impressively, our team received and catalogued 1,396 test results), spreading out our traditional “move in” over more than a week to prevent crowds, revamping orientation for small groups rather than the whole first-year class, and developing creative approaches to pedagogy given the space constraints that emerged from our safety protocols.
Our Building Services, Facilities, and IT teams did extraordinary work to prepare the campus. They disinfected all spaces, installed new air-exchange systems and filters, and mounted hand-sanitizer stations in entryways all over campus. They moved across the campus classroom by classroom — including laboratories, studios, and theatres — setting up seats according to health and safety standards and adding new technology. They also managed the conversion of unusual spaces for teaching purposes: just picture, for example, Stapleton Lounge and Rice Commons set up with widely spaced desks and masked students and faculty members at work! These staff members labored literally day and night on our infrastructure to make this possible.
The Student Affairs, First-Year Experience, and Mission professionals also worked around the clock, first to put in place resources for Health and Counseling — including the creation of the “Mother Angela Center” in Regina South, where we are housing students in isolation and quarantine. They then turned to reimagining move-in and orientation: the team (and a number of volunteers) met every car that arrived on campus with a warm greeting and an infrared thermometer! (Students could not return to campus until they secured a negative COVID-19 test result.) Then students attended a revised orientation experience, culminating in a live-streamed Mass from Regina Chapel. Kudos to folks in these units for the great welcome they planned for our students.
And the Faculty — well, they worked with the Provost’s Office to implement astonishingly inventive and resourceful approaches to their courses. Some are teaching entirely face-to-face, and others have taken a hybrid approach, teaching (for example) one day in class and another online. They have added technology solutions and experiential learning — and many are teaching outdoors every day that the weather allows! From my desk at Riedinger House, I can see a stack of chairs under a tree, and most days one class or another spends time in discussion in the Riedinger garden.
In fact, the ways the green spaces of Saint Mary’s have been activated is one of the unexpected — and pleasant — results of our having to respond to the coronavirus. Students, faculty, and staff alike have commented on how wonderful it is to see so many people outdoors, sharing a large picnic blanket, dining alfresco at the many new outdoor tables, and reading under the trees. But there have also been unexpected challenges, and more than once we have had to be nimble in changing course. For example we hoped the state would be fully open, but the Governor’s order prohibiting indoor dining such as ours remains in effect. So, we added a large tent on the parking lot next to the Student Center, and students have been using it for meals and small gatherings.
In another example, we originally expected to have an athletics season, but we ultimately voted, with our conference, to suspend fall sports. In the matter of virus testing, we began with a fairly light testing protocol, but as we’ve seen the numbers climb up (and now down again) at neighboring institutions, we have decided to be more aggressive with random testing. We will catch more asymptomatic cases by doing this, and it is important that we do. We have also discovered that there is no such thing as “too much communication” in this “expect the unexpected” moment. Our Strategic Marketing team has orchestrated a terrific communications campaign that includes a variety of email messages to the community — as well as an up-to date web page chronicling our efforts. Since June 26, we have hosted weekly Town Hall Meetings to help keep faculty and staff informed. I have been amazed that we consistently have over 250 people in these Zoom calls. This week we will also host a student Town Hall meeting.
As COVID-19 cases escalated at Notre Dame, we also saw a rise at Saint Mary’s, though our cumulative number of cases remains small: we have had 23 total positive cases since August 3. In a measure of mutual support, the presidents of Saint Mary’s, Notre Dame, and Holy Cross have all asked their students to remain on their own campuses for the next few weeks. We are all offering remote learning options to students who are enrolled in classes on the other campuses.
I am truly proud of our Saint Mary’s response strategy, which continues to evolve as new information becomes available. Our daily response team meets every morning to monitor a number of data points and to consider whether or not we need to elevate our actions. We are keeping a close watch on our own quarantine and isolation numbers to ensure we maintain appropriate capacities. Everyone who works and studies in our community must complete a daily health check and record results online. We will augment our contact tracing resources as we begin the new testing protocol.
Most importantly and consistent with our mission, we are taking care of those who are ill or must quarantine. The Health and Counseling Center staff is in regular touch with these students; Campus Ministry is offering pastoral care, Residence Life staff members are organizing care packages; and fellow students are providing programming for those in the Mother Angela Center — all with appropriate PPE!
As you can see, we have been busy! And while this multifaceted undertaking has been exhausting, I think most of us would agree that it has also been good work. I initially thought there could be no more daunting introduction to a new place than to arrive in the midst of a global pandemic. But what appeared to be daunting has proven to be heartening. The across-the-board rolling up of sleeves and pitching in of time, energy, and creativity by the entire campus community has gone far beyond either the expected or the unexpected: it has been extraordinary! Every day I am learning more and more about what the Saint Mary’s community is made of — and I am profoundly grateful to have landed at this college for an unexpected lesson in my own life-long learning.
I would also be grateful for your continued prayers for the College and for all members of the Saint Mary’s community.
Katie Conboy, PhD
P.S. For details on all the work we’ve been doing to prepare for reopening, please visit our Fall 2020: Live Learn Work webpage.