Regard the Past to Envision the Future

By Melinda McNamara

"We did more than survive. We truly thrived. I chalk that up to the remarkable Saint Mary’s spirit that prevailed among all our constituents—faculty and staff, students, alumnae, parents, and friends of the College."

Katie Conboy, Ph.D., President

Last year tested everyone at Saint Mary's—from faculty and administrators to students, staff, friends, and family. It was a complex, challenging time, filled with long days of principled questioning and difficult decisions. Above all, it was a time to listen, learn, think critically, and welcome creativity. 

By all accounts, the challenges of COVID-19 changed the College in profound ways. Every avenue demanded attention—from academics and operations, to residence life and the mental, physical, and emotional health of all on campus. A powerful mindset quickly took hold to preserve the spirit of relationships that is at the heart of Saint Mary's. 

Here are insights into how the community stepped out in faith and charted a path focused on safety, holistic care, and community.

Academics: Forging a New Path

"Realization dawns slowly, yet we had to act quickly."

Karen Chambers, Dean of Academic Student Services

Outside class

Saint Mary's has crisis plans in place for plenty of scenarios. But all the planning could not have prepared the College for a life-changing public health catastrophe that impacted every part of the world.

"We had plans in place for a natural disaster in Italy or a systems failure on campus, but not a worldwide pandemic that was evolving by the minute,” said Karen Chambers, dean of academic student services. “We had to figure out who needed to be at the table to make decisions, even though we didn’t know if it would develop into a real, sustained crisis.” 

Despite the unknowns, everyone in leadership recognized a need for clear thought and planning to confront countless scenarios. Task force teams focused on the mission: Keep students safe; continue student education; give students the tools they need to progress toward their futures.

The difficult decisions began in February 2020 when conversations started about bringing students back to the US from their study abroad programs across the globe. At home, on-campus residents were cautioned against travel of any kind for spring break. They left in March 2020 never dreaming they would be away from campus for the rest of the semester.

In these critical weeks, the virus disrupted the entire nation. Completely virtual campuses, once considered unfathomable, became a reality overnight. 

"We had 10 days to prepare to go online," said Titilayo Ufomata, provost and senior vice president. "Even though it was not easy, everybody did what they had to do so we could deliver the education we are used to giving our students."

That meant taking faculty out of the classrooms they loved and finding ways to connect with students in a totally remote environment. The days of lectures, learning labs, and hands-on instruction were paused indefinitely. Instructors needed to learn how to use virtual resources to share screens, open breakout rooms online, and answer questions sent through chat and messaging applications.

Online training sessions developed by the IT team guided faculty and staff on how to set up virtual classroom tools to keep students actively engaged. Conference webcams installed in every classroom accommodated remote and hybrid learning.

"Our instructional technology department partnered with several members of the faculty who have a wealth of experience in online instruction," said Todd Norris, chief information officer. “The teamwork was truly inspiring.”

Outreach to our students all over the country revealed that not everyone had access to fast, reliable internet necessary for digital classrooms. Wi-Fi, hot spots, even cell service that students and faculty take for granted on campus were not guaranteed in this remote environment. In many situations, private spaces to join video conferences, collaborate with classmates, and study were not equally available for all students.

"There was a lifting of a veil about disparity and diversity with students," Chambers said. "We had to find the best ways to reach students where they were and get them to where they needed to be."

Alumnae and the community at large stepped in with emergency funds to give students the access they needed to progress academically. The College loosened its pass/fail grading policies to ease burdens of learning in complicated circumstances. Asynchronous class schedules gave students in time zones stretching across the country a way to work at their own pace.

"Once we got spring 2020 courses successfully moved online, we began thinking about what an on-campus fall semester would look like," Norris said.

Operations: Come Back Better

"There was no such thing as moving too quickly. We needed to act with speed to make decisions to protect the safety of students and the campus community, yet recognize the risk with each decision."

Dana Strait, Ph.D., Vice President for Strategy and Finance

Change comes slowly in the academic environment—until extraordinary times present a clear vision of opportunity. As the campus shut down in spring 2020, leadership recognized a strong call to look forward and imagine the future.

"As we were closing down buildings and sending students home, we asked ourselves, 'What can we do now that we couldn't have done before?'" said Dana Strait, vice president for strategy and finance. 

The nearly empty campus afforded a unique opportunity to quickly adapt into a safe, secure environment for residents, faculty and staff, even under pandemic conditions. Initial upgrades included high-efficiency air filters, touch-free water dispensers, Plexiglas or acrylic barriers, and hand-sanitizing stations that complied with the Centers for Disease Control guidelines. 

Operations teams also set in motion ambitious timelines to move forward with facilities improvement projects that had been long-desired. Central air conditioning in Le Mans Hall, energy-efficient windows in Le Mans and McCandless halls, elevator upgrades, and the reopening of the underground tunnel connecting the Cushwa-Leighton Library to Le Mans Hall topped the revitalization list.

The shutdown further afforded an opportunity to overhaul campus dining. An empty dining hall provided time and space for a new dining partner—Notre Dame Campus Dining—to onboard new staff, grab-and-go options, a Starbucks coffee shop, and outdoor seating that transformed Noble Family Dining Hall and the 1844 Café. Guidance from county, state, and federal public health experts helped shape robust safety standards for meal service and ensure a safe, healthy environment.

"It was a gift to have that time to be able to strengthen the dining program for years to come," Strait said.

By the time students returned in August 2020, the transformation of the campus reflected a new normal with a safe environment for learning, research, working, worship, and socializing.

Student Affairs: Planning with Intention

"It would be a terrible waste of trauma to go back to business as usual. We experimented with things from every angle and forged new ways to deliver content, support students, and support faculty as teachers and researchers."

Titilayo Ufomata, Ph.D., Provost and Senior Vice President

Days after the spring 2020 semester ended, Saint Mary's announced its intention to reopen the campus with in-person instruction for the fall semester. Faculty and staff had 10 weeks to reimagine the entire campus. That set in motion complex planning to prepare for a safe learning and living environment that remains true to the College mission.

"We came out early with our decision (to bring students back to campus for the fall)," Titilayo Ufomata, provost and senior vice president, said. "It gave us focus to make the plan work."

Faculty and staff made tough decisions to alter the fall academic calendar—no easy feat, even in the best of circumstances. It needed flexibility to fit every possible scenario from in-person classrooms to remote and hybrid learning. Virtual computer labs gave students more ways  to connect to the software they need to fully engage in their coursework.

"Our learning management system is designed to support face-to-face, hybrid, and online instruction," Norris said. "Instructors were able to accommodate students learning face-to-face and those attending online from their home or from a quarantine location."

Multiple task forces dove into complex discussions about how to protect the campus community from the spread of the virus. An on-campus diagnostic testing site adjacent to the Health and Counseling Center gave students quick access to COVID-19 screenings. The Mother Angela Care Center opened in Regina Hall South to care for students in quarantine and isolation.

IT experts took on the daunting task of implementing virus-tracking software that fed an online dashboard with daily COVID-19 updates. Outside partnerships opened resources to launch SMC Care—24-hour-a-day, live, remote medical and mental healthcare—for students on and off campus.

"Check up. Mask up. Back up. Wash up.” became the daily mantra. Everyone in the Saint Mary's community did wellness self-checks every day before class or work. Random COVID-19 screenings turned into a way of life.

"The RAs were true heroes," said Ariel Leary, former director of residence life. "They had to keep the bubble tight and make sure residents followed all the protocols or they wouldn't get a spring semester on campus."

It took unrelenting diligence, monitoring, reminders, tolerance, compliments, and plenty of smiling eyes to reach the goal—a complete year of in-person education and an in-person commencement for the Class of 2021.

The vision for the future now includes a transition to laptops, rather than traditional desktop computers, for all faculty and staff. An expansion of Wi-Fi to outdoor gathering areas opens opportunities to move classes and study areas out of traditional spaces.

“We have experience and knowledge now that we can take forward,” Ufomata said. “Our newfound flexibility with technology frees us to become a totally green campus and expand the way we teach so we can reach more people.”

Community: Coming Together with Purpose

"It's been incredibly heartening to see the community come together. We do ‘challenge’ right. We are resilient people."

Mona Bowe, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Co-director of the COVID-19 Response Team

Indoor class

Relationships matter at Saint Mary's. That's why over the past year it became more important than ever to look out for each other. Teams of students, faculty, staff, and administrators stepped forward to take on tasks that took them out of their comfort zones and away from their usual roles.

“Every decision had perspective from all points of view on campus,” said Mona Bowe, co-director of the COVID-19 response team. “I look back in awe at how everyone was willing to jump in and do what needed to be done.”

Daily task force meetings addressed every facet of campus life, from academics, residential and student engagement, to health and safety standards. Although early shutdowns and shelter-in-place restrictions forced sweeping changes, the goal remained constant: bring everyone on campus to live, learn, work, and pray together again.

"The Saint Mary's culture is so special," said Giavanna Paradiso '21, president of the student government association. "You have to be in it and feel it to understand that everyone cares so deeply about you."

To recapture that sense of community at the start of the new academic year, every activity needed a re-do—from move-in events to social gatherings, even outreach. Residence Life and student organizations planned more than 400 virtual and physically distanced events during the semester to keep students connected. Outdoor gathering spaces popped up for dining, relaxing around fire pits, and breathing in the fresh air.

Incoming students and recruits took advantage of virtual tours and a Zoom Room, where students could pop in to talk about campus life. Orientation and traditional activities for first-year students adopted innovative approaches to meet safety guidelines, yet help students build connections that last a lifetime.

"I was worried coming in my first year that I wouldn't find a home," said Margaret McNabb, '24. "But Saint Mary's is so intentional about building community, it made me feel like I do have a home."

Student Health: Caring for the Mind, Body, Spirit

"Our student leader volunteers became the bridge between academic needs and holistic care. They were rooted in the mission to meet the emotional, mental, and spiritual needs of every student."

Liz Palmer '13, Assistant Director of Campus Ministry

The beauty of the Saint Mary's community radiated in countless ways last year, perhaps none more profound than at the Mother Angela Care Center (MACC). The dedicated isolation and quarantine space provided a temporary home for more than 300 residential students who were exposed to the virus or tested positive over the course of the academic year.

As MACC started to fill, a task force from campus ministry, student life, and health services recognized an unmet need and quickly mobilized to care for the students' emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.

"Students felt completely separate from the community," Liz Palmer '13, assistant director of Campus Ministry and co-director of the Mother Angela Care Center, said. "We became their point of contact and wanted to serve them with a spirit of hospitality."

Student workers also stepped forward to serve as a connection with the outside world. Volunteers took two-hour rotations to bring in meals for students, help with admissions, and restock the refrigerator. They delivered care packages from faculty, brought in extra pillows and special blankets, and delivered hand-written messages of hope and healing from well-wishers.

McNabb knew the hardship of isolation and quarantine first-hand. She was quarantined in November when her roommate tested positive for the virus. While she tested negative throughout her time at MACC, it was a lonely, difficult experience. The highlight of her day was seeing people deliver meals. That's when she knew she wanted to be a smiling face for those who followed her into MACC.

"I learned the power of a smile goes a long way," she said. "And yes, you do smile with your eyes."

Emily Shetterly, '24, signed up to work at MACC at the beginning of the year and was in isolation for contact exposure twice. She understood the importance of a caring spirit, no matter what hour. Called in to visit MACC in the middle of a late evening snowstorm, Emily joined a brigade of student workers to find dry sheets and pillows for new admits.

"It felt important to help them get comfortable, and they were so grateful," she said. "It was a magical moment."

Doors Open to a Rebirth of Community

The communal experience of a congregate-living campus defines the heart of Saint Mary's. That's why the new near-normal includes face-to-face instruction, student gatherings and events, and a whole-hearted embrace of visitors on campus. It also gives a way for all of us to breathe more and come together with a reaffirmed faith and peace as a community, stronger than ever.

“I’m hoping the closed doors from this past year are behind us,” said Paradiso. “We're never better than when we can be physically in our community together.”

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