PROVIDENCE — As Rhode Island colleges and universities send their students home for winter vacation, their presidents, deans, and provosts are taking a collective deep breath.
They’ve battled alarming COVID-19 positivity rates statewide, misinformation, and skepticism that their students could keep the virus at bay. Some colleges avoided major outbreaks, while others weren’t so lucky. But for the most part, the fall semester in the Ocean State was a success story.
“I just feel grateful that we were open, and that we did it,” said Kelli Armstrong, president of Salve Regina University.
The colleges supported one another along the way. University presidents met regularly, often in conjunction with the Governor’s office and the Rhode Island Department of Health.
“Although the populations we serve may be varied, we know we are part of a larger effort in Rhode Island to help students attain college degrees,” Armstrong said.
Leaders on every campus took on new job descriptions and learned new vocabulary. “There’s not a day that goes by now without using words like testing, isolation, quarantine, and PPE,” said Steven Sears, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Providence College.
But one word in particular defined their semesters: resilience.
Each university spent the summer planning rigorous safety measures for the fall semester. “But you can’t predict student behavior,” said Kent Kleinman, provost at the Rhode Island School of Design.
When students arrived on campus in the fall, several administrators were pleasantly surprised by their willingness to comply with public health guidelines.
“Students are highly motivated to do the right thing” and work together toward a common goal, said David Dooley, president of University of Rhode Island.
The time students spent away from campus in the spring reaffirmed the value of the residential college experience, said Ross Gittell, president of Bryant University. Although students had to readjust, they were grateful to be back on campus and followed public health regulations accordingly.
“We have experienced very few examples of willful non-compliance with our rules,” said Richard Gouse, president of New England Institute of Technology.
Fall 2020 involved frequent visits to COVID-19 testing sights, Zoom panels, outdoor movies, and six-foot-hugs. At art and technical schools, students and faculty innovated, finding a way to blow glass without breath and assembling and delivering kits to make remote learning hands on.
Salve Regina University held its fall festival with socially distanced activities. Johnson & Wales took its Ignite the Night ceremony for first year students online, with students hanging lanterns in their rooms instead of walking through the Triangolo Gates.
Being able to reimagine these events in a virtual setting created “a level of pride and excitement” that was contagious, said Marie Bernardo-Sousa, Johnson & Wales Providence campus president.
The semester was also full of gratitude, especially for the essential workers keeping campuses safe.
“My heroes are the people cleaning the residence halls,” said Sears, of Providence College. “My heroes are the people that are feeding the students. My heroes are the faculty that have to work now both in the classroom and online. My heroes are the counselors.”
Some colleges did experience COVID-19 outbreaks, but contact tracing programs showed that classrooms and on-campus facilities were not responsible for much of the transmission, said Russell Carey, Brown University executive vice president for planning and policy. Glaring policy violations, like large parties, were also not the norm.
The problem is “people letting their guard down” at smaller gatherings with friends they trust, Dooley said. URI asked its Greek Life members to shelter in place due to disproportionate positivity rates.
When people did end up testing positive, the issue that took schools by surprise was staffing.
“Contact tracing takes an army,” said John King, Roger Williams University’s vice president of student life. After the first week of effort, “we really had to reconfigure and realign.”
Providence College “didn’t have the staffing in place,” to handle student healthcare, quarantine, and isolation during a September outbreak, Sears said. Now they’re more prepared.
Establishing effective testing routines also proved challenging for some universities. Johnson & Wales conducted point-of-origin testing and focused on symptomatic testing, but midway through the semester, “we started seeing colleges and universities have spikes, and there was a spike in the local community that gave us pause,” Bernardo-Sousa said. So they moved to remote learning Oct. 5 to conduct baseline testing, and welcomed students back two weeks later once there was a more rigorous protocol in place. “That helped give a level of confidence to our community at large,” Bernardo-Sousa said.
Rhode Island College and the Community College of Rhode Island, which have large populations of students who commute to school, were able to operate mostly remotely. By doing so, “we eliminated thousands of daily interactions among individuals from every corner of the state,” said Frank Sánchez, Rhode Island College’s president.
For residential colleges, the virus’ toll on campus was not just physical, but also emotional. Students, faculty, and staff at several campuses reported experiencing anxiety, fatigue, and loneliness.
Usually academic life has rhythms, Dooley said. “COVID-19 disrupted all of those rhythms,” so administrators “never know what’s coming.” Dooley, who announced his retirement in May, said he just wants to have students over for dinner in his house again. “We haven’t been able to do that at all,” he said. “That has an impact on the morale and the energy people have.”
Some administrators are bracing for a spring semester that mirrors what they experienced this fall. “The vaccine won’t be administered broadly enough to make a substantial difference” to campus life, Kleinman pointed out.
But still, the COVID-19 vaccine, along with the lessons learned from the fall semester, offer hope.
At Providence College, “I’d like to be at a point where we’re thriving and we can have a graduation where all the families can come back and celebrate together,” Sears said.