The entire Lewis & Clark community faced challenges in adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic and reimagining the normal LC experience for the Fall 2020 semester. As the semester comes to a close, students, faculty, staff and administrators are now planning for what Spring 2021 will look like.
It seems there is a general sense, at least among LC staff and administrators, that this semester has been a success, especially as other college campuses across the country have had to shut down after spikes in on-campus cases of COVID-19. Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students Robin Holmes-Sullivan emphasized that the absence of these spikes at LC is partly due to the fundamental nature of the college.
“I would be remiss not to say that we’ve been really lucky,” Holmes-Sullivan said. “We already had small classes. We already had a small community. We already had a tight community. And all those things really, really paid off, I think, for us.”
Because of this success, many members of the community wonder if next semester might be accompanied by less strict COVID-19 policies on campus. In the Weekly Bark sent by Holmes-Sullivan to the student body on Nov. 6, it seemed as though some loosening of restrictions were already in the works.
“Recognizing how hard our student body has worked to keep the campus safe and healthy, next week, Campus Living will soon be issuing modified rules that will cautiously allow residential students to visit with one another across residence halls,” Holmes-Sullivan said in the email.
Of course, everything is subject to change as COVID-19 continues to spread at varying rates across the country, and LC is still taking the health of students very seriously.
In another email sent to students on Nov. 10, Holmes-Sullivan said that with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown calling for increased safety measures in Multnomah County and three new positive on-campus COVID-19 cases, these relaxed restrictions will have to wait.
On Nov. 6, the Office of the Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students detailed re-entry plans for Spring 2021. Like Fall 2020, students will be required to self-isolate for at least two weeks before returning to campus in order to reform the “bubble” that will be burst over the Thanksgiving and winter breaks. Returning students are expected to arrive on campus between Jan. 16 and Jan. 17 before classes resume on Jan. 19.
Also, like the Fall 2020 semester, the entire student body will receive free testing for COVID-19 on campus within the first week of classes for Spring 2021 to get a baseline idea of the health status of the LC community after potential travel during the holiday season. More information will be provided to students via email closer to the start of next semester.
As for next May’s commencement ceremony for graduating students, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Bruce Suttmeier said it is still too early to determine whether it will be completely virtual like Spring 2020’s commencement. The Student Life office will be talking with students and monitoring the spread of COVID-19 in Multnomah County as they decide what the ceremony will look like.
“Needless to say, graduation is a huge deal for students and families (and all LC community members), and after many years of hard work, we all want to celebrate this milestone in the most meaningful and joyful way possible,” Suttmeier said via email.
The success of this semester partly stems from the vast amount of preparation by the LC community over the summer and flexibility over the course of the semester.
According to Vice President of Admissions and Financial Aid Eric Staab, the college took steps over the summer to alleviate some of the stress associated with the decision of whether to return to LC in the midst of a pandemic. The initial reply deadline for first-year students was extended by a month from May 1 to June 1, and all students had until mid-August to decide whether to come to attend LC this semester or defer their enrollment. Holmes-Sullivan recognized the difficulty of that decision.
“I know (students) were worried, like, ‘We don’t know how this is going to go,’” Holmes-Sullivan said. “So it took quite a bit of courage for those students to come. And frankly, it took courage for those students to decide for their own health or well-being not to come.”
Over the summer, Holmes-Sullivan and her office were regularly in contact with other vice presidents and institutions like the University of Miami, Stanford University and Georgetown University to collaborate on how to make the community as safe as possible.
Although this national network provided the LC administration with valuable resources and efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 on campus have been successful, Holmes-Sullivan noted that the preparation for this semester was difficult and often messy.
“I think it has paid off for the most part, but … it was like sausage-making,” Holmes-Sullivan said. “It wasn’t pretty at times, obviously, so that’s kind of how we handle it.”
She also recognized the immense amount of work that went into this semester among LC faculty and how important they are to the liberal arts experience.
“I think a lot of people had to make a lot of sacrifices and do a lot of work to make (this semester successful), from the faculty who had to really prepare double all the time, sometimes triple, in order to make this hybrid thing work,” Holmes-Sullivan said. “(Faculty’s) pedagogical approach is the one reason why students come to a small liberal arts (college).”
Other members of the community have tried to keep the student body engaged in events and activities.
Tamara Ko, director of student engagement and special events, said that despite social restrictions dictated by LC’s COIVD-19 policies, creativity has allowed her office to still be successful in holding in-person events on campus.
“Obviously there are some events that we cannot replicate (from) pre-COVID, but there are some events that we could,” Ko said. “Some of those smaller ones are like when we did BINGO outside, we did an escape room last Friday. Obviously, again, not the exact same, but the spirit was the same. (We are) really trying to be creative, trying to think outside of the box.”
Moving forward into Spring 2021, Ko said that the main goals of her office are to get student organizations more involved in holding their own events and to expand the capacity of on-campus activities if state, county and college guidelines allow for it.
According to Ryan Jensen, general manager for Bon Appétit Food Service at LC, while there were serious changes made to the layout and offerings of dining services on campus for the beginning of the semester, the past few months have brought both challenges and opportunities for improvement.
“Over the course of the fall term we worked to make weekly incremental tweaks to our program to refine service and bring our assumptions closer to student expectation,” Jensen said via email. “A seemingly weekly barrage of incidents, test results and changing policies had us spinning in circles trying to maintain the difficult balance between helping the community adhere to requirements while also allowing everyone to have fun and be expressive.”
Looking ahead, Jensen said that the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Bon Appétit to expand its digital communication capabilities at LC.
“The biggest change that we have been working on since June is the rollout of a new mobile ordering app which we will begin testing right before Thanksgiving break that will allow more flexibility in dining location, timing and food choice,” Jensen said.
Overall, Holmes-Sullivan was optimistic about moving into next semester and has been particularly heartened by her conversations with students.
“I’ve really, really been impressed that when I ask students what they think about this and what we should do, they’re so thoughtful in saying what they think should happen and what they think that their fellow students are capable of and how they’re doing,” Holmes-Sullivan said. “They’re in this too. It’s not just us, you know, they’re in this as well.”
Holmes-Sullivan also ultimately thinks that the lessons of this semester will allow for LC to have a successful Spring 2021 that will hopefully look a little more like a normal semester as long as the entire community continues to work together.
“I’m hopeful that we will be able to re-establish that bubble a little bit sooner and then be cautious, but maybe a little bit more aggressive in making sure those social opportunities are available a little bit sooner than we did in the fall,” Holmes-Sullivan said.
Looking back on the Fall 2020 semester, Suttmeier summarized his feelings in an email sent to faculty and staff on Nov. 6.
“That amid the pandemic we’ve managed to teach our classes, advise our students, plan events like the completed ENVX and upcoming Ray Warren Symposium, expand activities in College Outdoors, athletics, and elsewhere, and stage an honest-to-goodness, full-blown musical like Cabaret — well, it’s nothing short of herculean,” Suttmeier said.