AN OP-ED ESSAY BY JOEL W. MARTIN
Many said it could not be done.
Others said it should not be done.
To reopen a college campus’s classrooms and residence halls during an ongoing pandemic was not something to take lightly — but it was something higher education leaders had to consider during the summer of 2020. With no precedents to follow and very little guidance from authorities, college and university leaders across the country had to create reopening plans and make lots of decisions in a context of great uncertainty and possible risk.
Understandably, some decided not to reopen for in-person learning and remained purely online for the fall semester.
Others opened their campuses to students but soon had to close or otherwise put their plans on pause.
A few careful colleges, however, made it the entire way — including one right here on Staten Island.
Wagner College is proud to be within the rare set of colleges that sustained a safe and successful semester during the fall of 2020. Eager to see all colleges and universities succeed, we are pleased to share what we learned in case it might help others.
There were many keys to our success, but first and foremost was the fact that Wagner has always been a caring community. When the pandemic tested us, we came together and brought out the best in each other. Every week that we remained open made each of us more committed to stay the course, with students, faculty and staff pulling together as never before.
When we heard of disastrous outbreaks occurring on other campuses across the nation — in North Carolina, Indiana and New York — with campuses going purely online far earlier than planned, we resolved that this would not happen on Grymes Hill. We would not merely avoid outbreaks; we would actually create a really meaningful on-campus experience for our hundreds of residential and commuter students, a semester with course work as well as sports practices, theatrical productions and civic engagement activities.
Building on the foundation of our caring community, we relied on science, collaboration and transparency to keep us safe and successful. We invested in campus health and safety, a decision that benefited our students as well as the local community. While the pandemic is not over, we are confident that the health and safety investments we continue to make will allow Wagner to emerge stronger and better positioned to help Staten Island and the rest of New York City recover from the damage caused by the pandemic.
We believe there were five keys to Wagner’s success in making it through the pandemic, so far.
We mobilized early, convening our Pandemic Response Team in late January.
It’s hard to believe that we have been fighting this pandemic for nearly a full year, and even more difficult to comprehend just how resilient we have been, given the stress and toil of this work and the wider Covid fatigue we see in the region and the nation as a whole. But starting earlier than most, and working hard through the spring and summer, paid off. With unstinting effort, Wagner kept learning and improving throughout the entire ordeal, and that has served us well.
We built partnerships around science and data.
In July, we partnered with the Broad Institute of Harvard and M.I.T. to provide a frequent, accurate, painless and cost-effective testing program, with quick turnaround to enable contact tracing and control potential outbreaks. The test was so easy to take that many could not believe it was so effective — but by providing nearly weekly testing to all students, we demonstrated just how seriously we took the virus. That had a salutary cascade effect on behavior and compliance among our students.
We formed the Higher Education Health Analytics Team, an alliance with local government, other Staten Island universities, scientists and healthcare providers to guide our practice. This group was composed of top administrators from Wagner, St. John’s, the College of Staten Island, Staten Island University Hospital, Richmond University Medical Center and Deputy Borough President Ed Burke. Meeting regularly, they shared best practices, emerging public health guidance and data related to the management and mitigation of the virus. Although this group only met on Zoom, they forged strong bonds of respect in recognition that we are all joined in a great cause to support higher education and protect health on and beyond our campuses. This alliance will serve Staten Island well after the pandemic passes.
While we were careful to under-promise to our stakeholders what we could and would do to manage risks, in fact at Wagner we sought to exceed published promises and reasonable expectations. For example, we proactively exceeded guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing, contact tracing and quarantining those who might have been exposed. Being over-prepared and over-cautious served us well.
We communicated transparently.
Wagner College has been fully transparent about its coronavirus test results and campus quarantine figures, assuring our own community members as well as our neighbors that we are responsible members of the Staten Island community.
We gave weekly video updates and sent twice-weekly community emails about campus coronavirus status and efforts to control the virus.
We invested strategically in community health and educational continuity.
Wagner invested $1 million in its coronavirus testing and tracing program — an indispensable investment that made it possible for the school to stay open.
We added multi-camera systems to many classrooms to allow for remote learning, upgraded our campus wireless network and introduced a new app for dining services.
We providing training to faculty and staff on how to teach and engage students successfully in hybrid and remote teaching approaches.
Undaunted by the virus, we completed a full renovation over the summer of the entryway to our freshmen dorm, Harborview Hall, including touch-free doors, a high-quality hand-washing station and ADA-compliant restrooms.
We relied on the strength of the Wagner community.
The whole community — faculty, residence hall staff, maintenance and housekeeping, dining services, the business office, coaches and athletes, student affairs staff, student organizations and our 2,000-or-so undergraduate and graduate students — worked together to make it possible for Wagner College to continue in the midst of the pandemic to shape the lives and futures of our students as members of an academic community.
We built momentum day-by-day. With the passing of every additional day that we remained open and safe, we gained confidence that we could keep it up — and students very much wanted to keep it up. They wanted to remain together with friends and faculty on campus, with classmates on the sports field or theater stage or nursing lab. They liked eating together outdoors in the heated tents we put up on campus. They appreciated, as never before, the in-person collegiate experience, and they were zealous in calling out anyone whose behavior put that experience at risk.
By October, we all had a growing sense that we could go the distance, though we were careful not to jinx it by saying so out loud. We avoided using metaphors of a possible “perfect game” or a “no-hitter,” though these comparisons came to mind. Given the amount of grit, determination, discipline and luck that had to come together to bring the semester to completion, we did not want to tempt fate. To be sure, we had cases on campus, though these numbers were well below what our models had projected. There were no positive cases among the college’s faculty, and no evidence of transmission within our classrooms or community spread within the campus. The positive cases we did see arose primarily because of the predicted increasing hazard of contracting the virus off-campus as the weather turned colder. Despite the increasing external risks, rates of infection on campus remained at levels well below the percentages observed on Staten Island as a whole and in New York City’s other boroughs. In the end, we can assert confidently that we kept our students, faculty and staff safer by opening the campus this fall.
We aspire to do the same this spring, and we are confident we can do so, building on the caring community that is Wagner coupled with our strong reliance on science, transparency and prudent investments to strengthen our campus life.
Opening a college campus during a pandemic is not something to take lightly. But with the right community employing the right approach, it is not only something that can be done, it is something that should be done.
Joel W. Martin, Ph.D., is the president of Wagner College on Grymes Hill, Staten Island.