Reinventing UMW

Task Force Navigates Pandemic Challenges

By Neva Trenis ’00

Soon after UMW sent students home at the start of the pandemic, President Troy Paino created a task force to figure out how to bring them back to campus more safely. He charged Jeff McClurken ’94, chief of staff and clerk of the board, and Tim O’Donnell, associate provost for academic engagement and student success, to form the COVID-19 Implementation Team.

The co-coordinators brought together hundreds of members of the Mary Washington community to pose and answer questions about how to proceed with academics, student life, dining, work life, testing, public health, lab and studio courses, mental health, isolation, quarantine, and more.

“We were literally reinventing Mary Washington,” McClurken said. “And we kept asking ourselves, ‘How do we retain those things that are most important about the Mary Washington experience when the pandemic makes it so hard, makes it dangerous even for us to be together as we normally are?’ ”

President Paino set out five goals to guide the work of the task force:

  • Protect the health, safety, and well-being of students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding community.
  • Preserve the ability to fulfill UMW’s mission of teaching and learning that serves the public good.
  • Maintain those university operations that support student success and the ability to fulfill UMW’s mission.
  • Preserve the university’s financial capacity and its long-term financial health to fulfill UMW’s mission now and into the future.
  • Honor UMW’s community values as summarized in ASPIRE: Accountability, Scholarship, Personal and Institutional Integrity, Inclusive Excellence, Respect and Civility, Engagement.

First the task force crafted #ForwardUMW – Our Return to Campus Plan, which they submitted to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) in July. It was approved without question, a reflection of the thorough nature of the plan.

Since then, the task force has nimbly navigated changes and unforeseen challenges as the virus made its way through Virginia.

Not knowing what the fall would bring, last summer UMW asked faculty to 1) prepare to teach entirely online, 2) prepare to start the semester remotely, 3) prepare to have to go remote in the middle of the semester, and even to prepare for 4) students who might have to be out of class for two weeks or more while in quarantine or isolation. Faculty responded and, to help them, UMW’s Digital Learning Support Group created summer training sessions called ReFocus Online.

“Faculty worked incredibly hard, unbelievably hard, all summer, to learn new tools and techniques and pedagogies to make all of that work,” McClurken said. He added that nonteaching staff throughout the university adapted similarly, challenging themselves to meet the demands of an evolving situation.

The university changed the academic calendar to lessen student travel, reducing the risk of spreading the virus. There was no fall break, and the university planned to end in-person classes on Nov. 20, with the last week of instruction and exam week conducted online. Ultimately, the task force delayed return to campus by three weeks, too, starting all courses online Aug. 24.

The on-campus delay came in part because the COVID-19 tests that UMW had ordered well in advance were diverted by the Department of Health and Human Services to nursing homes and other high-need facilities.

And the task force needed time to gauge the progress of the virus, establishing protocols using the number of local cases, hospital beds available, and the availability of personal protective equipment and testing to determine when students could most safely return.

For the fall 2020 semester, 61 percent of classes are fully online, with the rest either hybrid or fully in person. Faculty members chose how they taught, and students could alter schedules to find classes that best met their needs. Students could cancel housing contracts if they chose.

The task force surveyed student need for internet access, laptops, and specialized software. In addition, faculty, staff, the IT Department, and Financial Aid alerted the task force when students needed help with computers and internet access. The university gave about 150 WiFi and cellular hotspots to students who needed them to access the internet. It established WiFi hotspots in multiple campus parking lots, and it loaned or provided funds for laptops.

For all in-person classes, UMW took a conservative approach and planned for 8 feet distance between individuals, exceeding CDC guidelines. The task force repurposed large lecture halls, auditoriums, and ballrooms as classrooms with limited capacity. For example, James Farmer Lecture Hall in Monroe normally seats 130 people, but during the pandemic it accommodates 25.

The task force created signs that were put up all across campus reminding everyone of expected protocols. The campaign “MMDC” – for Monitor, Mask, Distance, Clean – became the byword of return to campus. The task force got the help of faculty, students, staff, and administrator to create the Return to Campus, Monitor, Mask, Distance, Clean video, which has gotten thousands of views. UMW trained students as Eagle care ambassadors to remind others about the importance of MMDC; they help reinforce UMW’s robust face covering policy, and they carry masks to distribute.

The campus now has more than 700 automatic sanitizing stations. UMW has bought masks, tubs of sanitizing wipes, and cleaning supplies for every classroom. The university encourages employees to work remotely when possible. Where that is not possible, Mary Washington has installed plexiglass and signs to help students and employees stay healthy.

From the start, the task force worked closely with the Rappahannock Area Health District of the Virginia Department of Health to set up procedures for case investigations and contact tracing. Task force members consult with them almost daily. UMW set aside Bushnell, Marshall, Custis, and South halls for students who need to quarantine or isolate, and it created a variety of new employee positions to support those students.

When students returned to campus in mid-September, they were randomly tested before entry. Weekly randomized testing of residential and commuter students has continued since, and the university plans to conduction optional exit testing of students before they return to their homes.

To help those on and off campus know that status of campus health, UMW instituted an online COVID-19 Dashboard, which is updated daily. It includes the number of tests done by the Student Health Center, the number of positive cases resulting from those tests, and the number of quarantine and isolation spaces available.

The task force continues its work including plans for spring semester. Learn more about the Return to Campus initiative at UMW.