Willamette leaders credit successful fall semester to community strength, support

by Daniel Johnson,

After reopening for in-person learning in August, Willamette nears the completion of its fall semester with few reported COVID-19 cases thanks to campuswide safety measures and policies.

  • Blitz and students celebrating Opening Days with masks on

When students, faculty and staff returned to campus to begin the 2020-21 school year, many expressed trepidation about how the fall semester would play out. Some had doubts about how long Willamette would remain open for in-person instruction as the spread of COVID-19 continued throughout the country. And others shared concerns as outbreaks at large higher-education institutions made national news.

In early September, after two weeks of being back in class, Willamette students, faculty and staff seemed to share a cautious optimism about the fall. After experiencing months of life in quarantine over the summer, many members of the WU community expressed a desire to reconnect with their friends and professors as one of the main reasons for returning to campus, and fortunately, reported cases of COVID-19 at Willamette remained low (19 total since March), particularly among the student population (six reported cases).

Community and campus leaders, including members of Willamette’s Reopening Operations Committee (ROC), credited the Willamette community’s strength and diligence to following new safety measures and policies as key factors in keeping COVID case numbers so low.

“I have been amazed at how much the community rose to the challenges that were presented, determined to make it work,” says ROC member Lisa Landreman, vice president of student affairs and dean of students. “It truly said something to me about how much this experience, and what we offer at Willamette, matters to so many. It was remarkable to me how much students, staff and faculty honored the protocols put in place and understood the balance we tried to manage every day between mitigating the impact of the virus and providing a quality educational experience for students.”

In working within and alongside local and state guidance, members of the ROC had the tough task of designing a campus environment that met safety standards while providing spaces conducive to teaching and learning. Along with adjusting the academic calendar, reconfiguring classrooms, providing access to a hybrid curriculum and upgrading campus HVAC systems, much of the hard work started and ended with a commitment by every member of the community to do their part in the spirit of Willamette’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born.”

“So much of the relative success we enjoyed this semester is attributable to our community's compliance with the WU Well U Agreement, which all students and employees were required to sign in order to participate in on-campus instruction, work and activities,” says Don Thomson, ROC member and director of Willamette’s Bishop Wellness Center. “Among other interventions, it includes aggressive mask and physical distancing policies, prohibits on-campus visitors, and requires symptom monitoring and reporting of any positive test to the university. In the end, none of our strategies would have been successful without the steadfast commitment of our community. We simply could not have done this without everyone’s help.”

Mitigating the spread of COVID-19

From the very beginning of the fall semester, campus leaders and community members alike understood that the pandemic would reach Willamette and that, inevitably, there would be cases of COVID-19 reported from campus. The primary goal of the ROC was to interrupt the transmission of the virus and mitigate its spread on campus, and according to Thomson and the ROC, there was “no on campus transmission within the Willamette community from any of the positive cases this semester."

“I am pleased not only with our low case numbers but more significant is that we have no cases of on campus community spread,” says Landreman. I believe this is a testament to the level of care our communities have for one another and their sense of responsibility to do their part.”

Interrupting the transmission of COVID not only took the dedication of every individual community member, but also every campus department, each of which faced its own set of challenges and had to adapt accordingly.

“I don’t believe there is any department that has not faced immense challenges because of COVID,” says Landreman. “Whether it’s Bishop Wellness Center moving to remote services and managing the COVID crisis, or Housing working with students to maintain protocols while also trying to build community, or athletics working to develop team and enhance skills for athletes in physically-distanced ways, all areas of student affairs required attention in new and intentional ways.”

And although the ROC and administrative leadership largely considers its safety protocols and mitigation strategies to have been successful, they also realize adherence to new policies and adapting to meet new standards hasn’t been easy for anyone, and that WU community members need to continue to be supportive as the academic year continues.

“We can’t take for granted that we understand what people are experiencing with all of the change being asked of them and need to understand that everyone responds differently,” says Landreman. “We need to check in with folks, listen, and recalibrate or adjust as needed and find ways to support our own well-being and that of those around us in recognition of our humanity.”

Oregon wildfires and election add stress to Willamette's fall semester

Along with attempting to refine safety measures and operational procedures during a pandemic, the Willamette community was further stressed by a devastating wildfire season in Oregon and a divisive national election that sparked protests from differing political ideologies at the Oregon Capitol building across State Street.

While the lingering smoke from the wildfires forced in-person classes to be canceled for several days and the fires themselves threatened the homes of Willamette families, the community’s strength shone through as Bearcats from across the region offered shelter, food and supplies, and also volunteered with local non-profit organizations.

“I am proud of how the entire Willamette community came together in response to the many challenges we faced this semester, including a return to campus amid a global pandemic and the worst wildfires in the state’s history, all against the backdrop of the divided political climate and fight for racial justice in our country,” says Willamette President Steve Thorsett. “The ways in which the community responded are examples of the kind of care, resilience and adaptability that has become the hallmark of Willamette University.”

Willamette Law finishes fall with a new dean, new initiatives and zero confirmed COVID-19 cases

Although Willamette Law wasn’t immune to the same challenges faced by the rest of Willamette’s campus, the school managed to complete its fall semester without a single confirmed COVID case coming from its side of campus while launching several initiatives with a new dean at the helm. Among its achievements, the school admitted the most diverse first-year class of any law school in Oregon, announced its Signature Strengths and launched a direct admit partnership with the University of Alaska Southeast, giving undergraduate UAS students and alumni a pathway to attend Willamette College of Law.

“Like other units on campus, our community faced the union of the pandemic, budget cuts, furloughs/layoffs, an overdue reckoning with systemic racism, wildfires and a polarizing election,” says Willamette College of Law Dean Brian Gallini. “Each of these events by themselves would have tested any institution, and to be sure, everything on that list posed separate unforeseen challenges. But I am a firm believer that you don’t grow inside your comfort zone, so we tried, as a community, to approach the challenges as opportunities to stand out as community leaders.”

Being in the dean role in an official capacity since July, Gallini has learned about Willamette’s reliance on strong community partnerships and culture of civic service, qualities and values he believes have kept the school focused and connected through the hardships it encountered this fall.

“I was surprised by the strength of the Willamette Law community,” says Gallini. “To be sure, I had a sense from the candidate’s perspective, but seeing in real time the resilience of our students, staff, and faculty, alongside my administrative team, has been energizing. I was likewise inspired by the dedication and generosity of the school's alumni, many of whom have given their time and/or have made financial contributions to Willamette Law's mission.”

Atkinson’s fall semester takes on a different look and feel but goes (more or less) as expected

For Willamette MBA students, faculty and staff, the fall semester was certainly far from normal. But even though the routines were different, interaction after class was reduced and the already small class sizes were even smaller, students and faculty seemed to take things in stride, demonstrating adaptability but also bringing the expectation that the fall semester would not be business as usual.

“I think flexibility and understanding have been key,” says Jonathan Scrimenti, assistant director of career management at the Atkinson Graduate School of Management. “Students are excited to be part of Willamette MBA regardless of everything that's going on for everything that naturally comes to mind: our stellar faculty, gaining knowledge, better career prospects, etcetera.”

“My academic experience was relatively consistent with what I expected,” says Thomas Arand MBA’21. “I knew that there might be times when classes would need to be remote because of COVID-related concerns and that it would be an adjustment for faculty and students to follow new guidelines/protocols. However, small class sizes and the ability to remain spaced out in classrooms allowed us to remain in-person for much of the semester, which was extremely beneficial for my own personal learning and engagement.”

Looking forward to spring

As Willamette’s winter break approaches, planning for the spring semester has already begun. But with COVID-19 cases on the rise nationally and in Oregon — and with regional and local guidance continuing to change in response — Willamette’s leaders and ROC are still carefully monitoring the public health landscape as they remain in close communication with health officials.

Currently, the university is planning to continue implementing the safety policies that have yielded encouraging results so far this year and intends for students to return for in-person classes in January. Self-quarantining will be encouraged after traveling, as well as limiting social interaction during what Willamette is calling a “quiet phase,” but Willamette leaders continue to express confidence based on the success they’ve seen so far and hope that COVID cases will subside again soon.

“I think we are all seeing some light at the end of this COVID tunnel, and with that comes new hope and new energy to imagine how we want to move our shared work forward,” says Landreman. “I’m excited to bring to fruition ideas we have about advancing our equity and inclusion work, enhancing our policies and practices to support students’ well-being, and continuing to explore the exciting possibilities that exist with our merger with Pacific Northwest College of Art.”

Another good sign for university leaders is that students like Arand are still focused mostly on school and the future, not the virus.

“This spring I’m looking forward to continuing with classmates in our classes and finding ways to build community even if it’s from afar,” says Arand. “I’ll also be curious to see what the public health situation looks like when classes resume and am hopeful that a potential vaccine brings some aspects of normalcy back to all of our lives. Finally, as someone who graduates in May 2021, I’ll be keeping an eye on the business-related effects of COVID and trying to understand what that means for me in terms of potential post-graduation opportunities.”

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