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The Way Forward

Illustration of a Zoom call with various images from a pizza box to sewing machine to canned goods, an admissions letter, horseshoe, mask and laptop.

Written by Wendy Holdren
Illustrated by Graham Curry

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Megan Stemple always thought her last year at West Virginia University would be unforgettable. And it was. Stemple, now an obstetrics and gynecology resident physician, envisioned a huge Match Day celebration. “Match Day is a huge event for medical students, and the majority would say even more symbolic than graduation,” Stemple said. “We open envelopes that reveal our future jobs and locations in front of our classmates and family members. I was so looking forward to being surrounded by my family and classmates on this important day.”

But those plans changed as the University closed campuses to curb the spread of COVID-19.


When the southern Indiana native learned of the change in plans, she sprang into action alongside class president, Philip Hurst. It was a scramble. WVU students were sent off campus for spring break and Match Day was a week later on March 23.

 

“We spoke daily, discussing options and backup options to get the most out of a celebration,” Stemple said. “Finally, we came up with the idea of a virtual Match Day Zoom session, allowing our class, even across three campuses, to celebrate together virtually, along with family and friends tuning in.”

 

Despite her stress leading up to Match Day, she said the event, matching 100 percent of the class to a job placement, was a huge success.

 

“I have learned not to take anything for granted,” she shared. “Even the smallest moments with classmates, friends and family can be significant. I’ve also learned improvising and creativity is key in chaos — without those two things, Match Day and our final days of medical school would have been lonely and sad instead of happy and joyful.”

 

This was a happier moment during the national response to the new coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease. But getting to a positive outcome meant changing plans immediately, taking action for tens of thousands of students, faculty and staff in completely unfamiliar circumstances, and looking out for those around us.

 

In a virtual commencement held May 16 – unlike any other event in the University’s 153-year history – WVU President E. Gordon Gee acknowledged the unusual circumstances that brought the 4,500 new graduates to this moment, saying “You are truly a special class.”

 

“And this experience will be just one of many that will shape you throughout your life,” he continued. “Though the time in which we find ourselves is one of the most challenging our nation has ever faced, we know that our campus, our state and our country will come together again – stronger and more resilient than ever before.

 

“After all, we are Mountaineers.”

 


Turning on a Dime 

Early morning on Tuesday, March 10, a series of cell phones around West Virginia University chimed with a new text message.

 

“I’m looking at the situation in Italy,” read the text from Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean for WVU Health Sciences. “We’re just like Italy. If we don’t move fast, this could be detrimental to our state and community.”

 

For the past several weeks, Marsh had been advising University leaders about the worldwide spread of the new coronavirus and how it could affect West Virginia. He knew West Virginia and Italy shared similar populations — residents in both territories tend to be older, more likely to smoke and more likely to have chronic medical conditions.

 

Sharon Martin, vice president for University relations and enrollment management, knew after reading the text that her day just changed. She canceled her 9 a.m. meeting and quickly pulled together a small group.

 

“If Clay’s instincts are telling him this could be us, we have to move fast,” Martin recalled thinking.

 

Spring break was four days away and would send more than 30,000 students from West Virginia across the world and bring them back again. WVU Medicine officials were concerned about the hospital’s ability to handle a large influx of cases of COVID-19.

 

“From the perspective of academics, we move to remote learning,” Martin said. “We would just need to get all the information to students before they left for spring break.”  

 

The plan was for faculty and Information Technology Services to use spring break and the following week to prepare for the transition to remote instruction.

 

Martin, along with other University leaders and communications team members, gathered in the early afternoon around a conference table in Room 208 at Stewart Hall to craft the message that would create a semester unlike any other.

 

“We walked through what we were going to do, and we worked on the message from President Gee,” Martin said. As afternoon turned to evening, some folks trickled out as their puzzle pieces were locked in place. Others, including Martin, remained.

 

“At 5 p.m. I said, ‘We might be here a while, can I order some food?’” No one took her up on the offer, thinking they’d be finished soon. Another two hours passed. Martin again offered dinner. Again, the small group declined.

 

 After dozens of edits, the team gave the letter a final read and hit send at 10 p.m.

 

“If we’re ever in that situation again, I’m just ordering food,” Martin said with a laugh.

 

Marsh not only spurred his colleagues into action. Twelve days later, Gov. Jim Justice named Marsh West Virginia’s coronavirus czar, responsible for advising the state government on its response to the pandemic.

 

“As we have watched the pandemic unfold, it has been a true partnership between WVU and West Virginia as to how we address the needs of the state,” Martin said. 


Illustration of boxes labeled "masks" next to a table with a sewing machine, storage boxes and a mask.  

A Closed Campus 

Quickly, study abroad trips were canceled and events halted. Offices emptied out. Campus was quiet as tulips rose in the planters across from Woodburn Hall.

 

All other digital projects came to a grinding halt as IT crews across the University worked to get faculty, students and staff ready to work remotely.

 

“I don’t know if I can reiterate strongly enough how our IT worked to get everyone online – from classes to VPN access for employees to work from home – they pulled it off without a hitch,” said Rob Alsop, vice president for strategic initiatives.

 

Outside campus, as hand sanitizer, cleaning solution and toilet paper flew off the shelves, healthcare workers did not have enough personal protective equipment to prepare for the projected spread of COVID-19. Over the course of three months, it would have a rapid pace of infection and go on to kill more than 100,000 Americans and about 400,000 worldwide.

 

The public sewed cloth masks for WVU Medicine, and businesses donated masks and funds. Fashion visiting assistant professor Elizabeth Shorrock set out to make 10,000 masks in the design studio at the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, with the help of two students and her own daughter, who was home from college. They made kits for community crafters to help out.

 

“I feel like we’re contributing to the war effort,” Shorrock said. “We’re just trying to help because it’s a need. I mean, we’ve got the facility, the sewing machines. We’ve got the thread.”

 

Staff and faculty across campus went into their closets and grabbed gloves and masks, shipping them over to the hospital. The C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry alone provided 62,000 pairs of gloves. The Department of Forensic Science offered up more than 600 full-body Tyvek suits.

 

Mechanical engineering student Logan Forquer made 500 to 600 face shields a day using a WaterJet in the Innovation Hub at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

 

“I’ve probably made around four or five thousand face shields for the hospital. At times it’s been a little hard to keep track of what needs done for class, but it’s manageable because it’s all online,” Forquer said.

 

The School of Pharmacy started compounding hand sanitizer.

 

As the infection spread, communities across the country were left without adequate testing. The State of West Virginia called for increased testing, and the Innovation Hub worked with WVU Medicine to produce up to 10,000 swabs a week.

 

Aside from these first responders, there were also students, faculty and staff who had to take care of the living things that remained on farms and in buildings. Masked professors visited their labs to take care of priceless living collections, from animals to plants.

Workers fed horses and kept research in the Greenhouse alive.

 

Evansdale Greenhouse Manager Andrea Landis and two staff members took care of 16 faculty and student research projects that were started before the pandemic. No one was there at the same time. They cleaned door handles, wore gloves and carried their own pens to leave progress notes.

“We’re not sure how long this will go on,” she said. “As of right now there are still a couple projects that are just hanging on until we figure out if researchers will be able to continue. We’re constantly updating them on pest or disease issues and figuring out the best path forward together.”


Illustration of course lecture on a laptop with a cat, mug and plant on a desk.

 

Learning from Afar

The first thing Nancy Caronia asked her students when classes started online was “How are you?”

 

Even before the University transitioned to online and remote instruction, Caronia, teaching associate professor of English, urged her students not to panic but to prepare. She also assured them she would be there for them.

 

She knew some her students were in coronavirus hotspots, some were essential workers and some would not have consistent high-speed internet access.

 

“Because they knew they could talk to me, I got deep stories about struggle, about anxiety, about confusion. They thought life was going in one direction, but it ended up going in another,” Caronia said. “I wasn’t thinking of this as online instruction, but as triage. This isn’t online instruction as it normally is.”

 

At the end of the semester, WVU asked students to nominate “MVP” professors — those who went above and beyond during this time. Caronia was named the “Queen of Online Instruction.”

 

One student wrote, “Dr. Caronia was so gracious and understanding in this online transition. For some students in her class, this is an incredibly stressful, hectic time, and she fully recognizes that. In addition to sending us weekly emails that are succinct and easy to follow, she altered the course assignments to fit the online restrictions and made herself as available as possible to meet with her students and answer questions.”

 

Maryanne Reed, provost and vice president for academic affairs, said the learning environment wasn’t ideal, but everyone made it work.

 

“I was very impressed with how quickly faculty and students have adapted to remote instruction. It required faculty to be really creative and to adapt to modes of instruction unfamiliar to many of them,” Reed said. “I truly believe our faculty and students rose to the challenge.”

 

Another instructor, Danielle Davidov, assistant professor in the School of Public Health and adjunct in Emergency Medicine, was named “Most Compassionate Soul” in the MVP awards.  

 

Often, Davidov’s Zoom classes began with a greeting from her 2-year-old son, Jonah, in person or with a funny video to lighten the mood. He became a virtual classroom regular by the end of the semester.

 

“That’s something I’ve always done in the classroom — I try to humanize myself. I bring pictures of my child and my dogs, and I like to start out class with funny pics or videos. I just think it makes it a little more comfortable.”

 

Davidov also shifted her students’ final project to something COVID-related because it was at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

 

“I could sense a lot of worry, a lot of stress from students. They were worried they’d be graded more harshly, or professors would have higher expectations,” she said. “They were concerned about not being in person to discuss issues or to have support they need.”

 

Davidov said she immediately tried to quell those fears. She wanted to hear their concerns, not just about their studies, but about their lives, if they wanted to share.

 

“The stories I heard after students moved back home were really difficult, in terms of what they were being asked to manage. Some had to go home to care for immune-compromised family members. Many students signed up when they went home to work on the front lines of this pandemic,” she said.

 

“They inspired me in a lot of ways. Although this was extremely stressful to them as public health students, it let them see a different side of the field they’re working toward going into. It really personalized public health for them.”

 

For the MVP teaching nomination, one student wrote of Davidov, “I immediately felt like I could tell her anything as she always makes sure to let her students know that they will always be safe with her. She helped me form a plan to complete the semester and graduate, and with her support, I felt confident I could still accomplish my goals.”

 

Some classes were more easily offered remotely than others. Many programs require hands-on learning, especially as students near the completion of their degrees. But the faculty members tried to make the best of their time online.

 

“In the College of Creative Arts, some faculty members brought in world-class musicians into their classroom via Zoom,” said Provost Reed. “By using the opportunity provided by the distance format, they were able to bring in people they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.”

 

Illustration of living room with TV on wall and yoga mat, weights and yoga ball on floor.

The Offline World

Corey Farris, dean of students, remembers following along with an instructor during an online Student Rec Center workout.

 

“She was in her living room, and I was in mine,” he said. “I couldn’t jump because I would hit my ceiling fan,” he added with a laugh. “We all had to make adaptations.”

 

Farris said he understood how disappointed students would be as the campus was closed due to COVID-19 concerns, but as soon as the call was made, there were some very real problems to solve.

 

By June, the United States had seen more than 42 million unemployment claims since the start of the pandemic, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That rippled down to students’ immediate security and their ability to seek education in the future.

 

A #GivingTuesdayNow effort through the WVU Foundation raised more than $500,000 for the Student Emergency Fund originally created by Ken and Carolyn Gray. The Foundation launched an effort for a new Emergency Scholarship fund to help students who have suffered a financial hardship due to COVID-19.

 

One of Farris’ biggest concerns was face-to-face counseling sessions. The transition was simple for students still physically in West Virginia, as remote counseling services were available. However, even five minutes away across the Pennsylvania border, the University had to contract with another company for counseling services due to licensure requirements.

 

The University did make two exceptions for on-campus services. If a student was experiencing suicidal thoughts, Farris said telecounseling simply wasn’t enough. A space was created for critical in-person counseling, with physical distancing restrictions in place. The other on-campus service that remained open was The Rack, a food pantry available for students in need. Previously, students could go into the pantry for supplies but during the pandemic, organizers filled boxes with a week’s worth of food for students to pick up.

 

Not all students moved back home. Some students had critical jobs and needed to remain employed. Some were international students who might not be able to return if they left. Some had parents in the military who were stationed out of the country.

 

“And there were some students who just didn’t have a safe space to go,” he said. “Some students see their university experience as an escape, especially those from marginalized communities, such as first-generation college students, LGBTQ+ students and rural students who may not even have access to the internet.”

 

For those who didn’t have laptops, his team located unused University laptops for students to borrow.

 

“We had 70 students who did not have adequate Wi-Fi, so we worked with them to determine locations they could go or get them hotspots at no charge,” he said.

 

As for student organizations, Farris said many already had online infrastructure in place, but those who didn’t have been quick to adapt. The Collegiate Recovery Program, for example, is a group for students who struggle with addiction issues. They implemented daily online meetings for everyone to check in.

 

Throughout all this, parents were worried about their children’s safety and education. And one office had answers.

 

In a traditional year, the Mountaineer Parents Club typically sends 10 emails during the spring semester to its 18,000 members.

 

During the spring 2020 semester, Mountaineer Parents Club Director Lisa Hanselman said the club distributed nearly 20 emails to parents and guardians to relay all-things coronavirus. 

 

“In the beginning, the biggest concerns were safety,” Hanselman said. “Some of the families lived in hotspots and were concerned about students coming back. Other questions were about refunds and how would that work. Later, questions came about belongings, and how to retrieve items from residence hall rooms.”

 

She said feedback has been incredible, and parents have expressed their appreciation for the communications. The Mountaineer Parents Club received hundreds of responses during the spring semester — sometimes with questions, sometimes with gratitude, and sometimes with both.

 

“By tailoring information to parents, even if it’s encouraging them to tell their students to check their MIX account, it helps them feel involved and that we really care about them,” Hanselman said.

 

With the Student Rec Center closed and on-campus activities canceled, Farris and his team also tried to bring as much fun online as possible. Virtual workout classes were offered, as well as games and activities. The Center for Black Culture and Research hosted online movie nights, Farris said, and Student Government never missed their weekly Wednesday meetings.

 

“Is the traditional 18- to 22-year-old comfortable with the technology? Yes, but they came to WVU for an in-person experience for a reason. They want that residence hall experience — playing video games side-by-side or solving problems together at 3 a.m. over pizza,” Farris acknowledged. “We’re social creatures. We need other people around us.”

 

He knows that some students were able to go beyond their situations and help their neighbors.

 

“After they got their classes done, they asked, ‘What can I do to make things better for someone else?’” Farris said. “They’re checking in on elderly neighbors to see if they can pick up something for them from the grocery store. They’re making masks, making Meals on Wheels deliveries, donating blood. That’s the Mountaineer spirit — acting as one to do good for other people.”


The Next Steps

On June 3, the University began to release a plan for the return to campus: Students would return to classes Aug. 19 as previously scheduled. There would be no mid-semester fall break and then students would leave campus at Thanksgiving break and finish the semester remotely. Current public health norms would continue with low-density classes, online classes and hybrid classes with online and in-person components.

 

The University will provide personal safety kits to faculty, students and staff with cloth face coverings, hand sanitizer and a no-touch tool to minimize contact with surfaces such as elevator buttons and door handles. Face coverings will be required, and classroom lecterns will have plastic shields.

 

Everyone on campus will be tested for COVID-19, a process that is still being hammered out. And so far, 100 workers have been trained in contact tracing to find and halt potential outbreaks.

 

“I cannot overemphasize the importance of wearing masks and face coverings across our campus,” said Dean of the School of Public Health Dr. Jeff Coben. “We know that this one intervention along with social distancing is really one of the most important tools in our tool kit to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

 

More detailed announcements will roll out through July.

 

Looking Back

At the start of June, Clay Marsh closed out his time as coronavirus czar for the state and wrote some parting words on his blog.

 

“When the virus first appeared in humans, many said, ‘no big deal,’” he wrote. “I thought the same thing. It will be like influenza, and it will be limited to China. No big deal.

 

“That is naive for many reasons, but the most important is the intimate interconnectivity and interdependency of our world. We are all connected.”

 

In the months since Marsh voiced his concerns that helped to spur the University’s response and the State’s, Americans have stayed home and received federal guidance to wear masks and use caution as we observe changes in infection rates and locations of hot zones and watch for news about vaccine developments and medical breakthroughs.

 

Even through record economic turmoil, Marsh says that the stay-at-home phase saved lives.

 

He urges everyone to wear masks in public, pointing to the difference between the stories of the United States and Japan. As of June 1, the U.S. has a population of 331 million people and 104,000 COVID-19 deaths. Japan has 127 million people in Japan and 884 deaths. Marsh believes the difference is related to a culture of mask-wearing in Japan.

 

“You wear your mask to tell others you love them,” he wrote. “To demonstrate altruism. To keep West Virginia safe. To protect others from you.

 

“If all of us wear masks or face coverings, we protect West Virginia. …Let’s lead and show the world what strong community and a strong West Virginia can do together.”


Timeline

 

March 5: WVU launches coronavirus.wvu.edu to house information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as University updates.  

 

March 10: President Gee announces a plan to mitigate the spread. There were no confirmed cases in West Virginia, but as Gee wrote, “Our highest priority is always the safety and well-being of our faculty, staff, students and community.” Gee announced the University would suspend classes the week of March 23-27, and beginning March 30, class instruction would be delivered remotely via online or other alternative learning options.

 

March 12: Officials offer additional guidance for instructors to transition to online learning. Gatherings of 100 or more were postponed. Faculty and staff were asked to reduce in-person meetings, and University-related travel, both international and domestic, was suspended.

 

March 17: WVU Medicine establishes five drive-through collection points in West Virginia — Morgantown, Parkersburg, Bridgeport, Wheeling and Martinsburg — to collect specimens from pre-screened patients to test for COVID-19. Testing was supported by Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp.

 

March 18: It is announced that classes would be held online for the remainder of the semester in effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. All employees, except those needed to keep certain operations running, were told to work from home. Less than a week later, on March 24, Gov. Jim Justice issues a stay at home order, directing all West Virginia residents to stay at home and limit movements outside their homes beyond essential needs.

 

March 19: President Gee announces WVU would hold a “virtual” commencement experience in May and an in-person ceremony in December.

 

April 1: Gov. Justice names WVU’s Dr. Clay Marsh as the “Coronavirus Czar,” calling on him as an expert and leader in the state’s efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

 

April 8: President Gee announces no in-person classes through summer and the cancellation of all events and camps through June 30.

 

April 17: WVU announces it expects $20.2 million from the federal stimulus package enacted to provide significant relief to higher education. The first installment of approximately $10 million provides emergency assistance to help students with financial need stemming from COVID-19-related disruption of campus operations, including food, housing, course materials, technology, healthcare and childcare expenses.

 

May 1: WVU announces plans to bring students back to its three campuses in the fall.

 

May 5: The WVU community raises more than $500,000 on #GivingTuesdayNow for a WVU Foundation emergency fund to help students affected by COVID-19.

 

May 6: WVU announces procedure for students to retrieve belongings from residence halls.

 

May 8: Temporary furlough is announced, affecting 875 staff employees, as part of cost-saving efforts in response to the pandemic. Employees are expected to be able to return to work no later than the end of July.

 

May 11: The WVU Foundation launches special fundraising effort for emergency scholarship funds to WVU students who have lost their financial support to attend college.

 

June 3: Return-to-campus plans are announced. Find out more at wvu.edu/return-to-campus.