Dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic has affected so many sectors of our Bloomington-Normal community.
K-12 schools needed to determine whether children could safely attend in-person classes, how virtual learning might affect their personal and emotional as well as intellectual growth, and how asymptomatic infection might affect young people’s health — among other issues, such as keeping teachers safe.
When coronavirus cases began to spike just over a year ago, stress levels for parents spiked along with the virus.
Restaurants needed to consider whether individuals could safely gather indoors — and, if so, how many people, with what degree of distancing? In addition, there was initially widespread concern about virus transmission via surfaces — though, with additional experience, we have learned this is an aerosol-borne disease, highly unlikely to be transmitted via touch.
Residential facilities, such as senior living complexes, in which many unrelated persons live in close proximity to one another, presented particularly difficult challenges, as we learned, in some cases, tragically.
Recreational facilities, such as health clubs or gyms, needed to balance the positive effects of exercise and activity with the risk of having persons in close proximity — and, with exertion, prone to strong exhalation.
Illinois Wesleyan University, as a residential liberal arts university, faced every one of these challenges. We needed not only to determine the most desirable and feasible learning environment, but also to feed and house 1,600 young adults who also depend on the university for their recreation, entertainment and social life.
We are extremely proud of the way all members of this university community — students, faculty and staff — have risen to the occasion to meet these challenges successfully. The largest outbreak we experienced (in the days immediately preceding the fall semester) involved only about 2% of our students. In recent weeks, we have been surveillance testing more than 300 students at a time, typically with zero to one positive cases identified. Most significantly, while there have been positive cases over the year, to date none of these have originated in either a classroom or office environment at the university.
Last March, when Illinois locked down, our students were away from campus on spring break; they never returned to on-campus classes. The emergence of COVID-19 led us to suddenly develop online learning in the course of a week’s turnaround time. IWU has not historically offered online courses. Close personal interaction — between faculty and students, as well as among the student body — is the hallmark of the residential education we offer. Yet both faculty and students demonstrated flexibility and goodwill as they adjusted to an unfamiliar and unexpected learning environment. Remarkably, the outcome was quite positive overall.
But our faculty was not satisfied with that. Over the summer, faculty members, who normally have time to prepare courses for the fall and carry out research, instead chose to become students themselves. About 50% of our faculty completed virtual courses to improve their own skills in online teaching.
The efforts to deal with the virus involved literally every aspect of the campus. Not only faculty but also staff members made extraordinary efforts, working throughout the summer. Plexiglass was installed across campus where personal contact needed to be maintained but protected. Every student’s course registration needed to be redone, as classrooms were adjusted to enable social distancing. Every piece of furniture had to be moved or marked to accomplish the same end. New cleaning protocols were established across campus. Food service needed to be re-configured, limiting seating capacity, packaging individual meals, and delivering food to students in quarantine or isolation. Tents were set up to accommodate teaching outdoors. Students’ social activities went primarily online, with virtual hangouts, game nights, leadership workshops and the like. Our theater department re-imagined productions to stream them online. The list of adjustments goes on and on.
The good news is: It’s working! While each day can bring change in the situation, after an initial small outbreak, IWU has experienced a very low and manageable positivity rate, even when numbers in McLean County rose dramatically. We are cautiously confident that our response to the pandemic has been a success. That could not have happened without the involvement and collaboration of the entire campus community. We are especially proud and grateful that, in confronting the challenges of the pandemic, the Illinois Wesleyan community has proven itself, over and over, to be adaptable, creative and resilient.