Countering the Coronavirus

Eastern reopens safely while helping the community with critical health care needs

There was no template for starting a new academic year in the midst of a pandemic. So last spring, EMU joined institutions across the nation in an intense and important round of creative problem solving, to devise and implement a safe return to campus for its students, faculty and staff.

It was a year that began with a quick exit by many from campus in mid-March, continued with a summer of intensive planning and preparation and now offers hope, excitement and gratitude with the broad administration of vaccines. There was one overarching goal: Make the campus safe while preserving the vitality of the academic experience.

In the earliest days of the coronavirus everyone who could leave campus did so, requiring classes to be held virtually. The ingenuity and commitment of faculty was evident in every department as professors reimagined their in-person courses for online delivery.

In the music department, for example, Brandon Johnson, director of choral activities, used the platform Virtual Vespers to keep students singing together. He posted videos of himself conducting the classes’ numbers on YouTube, and students followed along as they recorded their individual vocal parts on the platform, where they were combined into one track. Mary Schneider, director of bands, enrolled her wind ensemble class in SmartMusic, a platform that provided accompaniment, from a single piano to a full band, to give students an ensemble experience while playing alone. The professors also introduced guest speakers, research assignments and online performances by world-renowned musicians into their curricula.

That same type of innovative teaching was happening in departments across the University. Thankfully, a team of instructors—led by Professor Michael McVey and Lecturers Sarah DeWard and Kimberly Pavlock—had already been working on an “Improving Online Teaching” course prior to the pandemic and were ready to help their colleagues hone their online teaching skills over the summer.

By the fall, some students were returning in person, but to a much quieter campus. Korrine Stevens, a sophomore from Canton and member of Tri Sigma, moved into the sorority house, but was one of only five sisters living there—half the usual number, to allow for social distancing.

“We each have our own bedroom,” Stevens, an exercise science major, says. “We can only have one guest per person, or up to 10 people in the house at a time, and visitors have to wear masks and stay physically distant.”

Korrine Stevens checks into Mark Jefferson Science Complex. Only 11 percent of Eastern classes were held in person fall semester. (Photo by Brynna Bashore)

These are among the measures Eastern enacted early on as part of its Safe-Return-to-Campus Plan, which also includes the now-ubiquitous reminders to wear masks, designated entrance and exit doors for campus buildings, and a comprehensive COVID-19 questionnaire for those entering, to ensure they don’t have symptoms or circumstances that might indicate infection.

As the year wore on, more COVID-19 information and resources were rolled out. For those who have tested positive or believe they’ve been exposed, the TeleHealth Clinic is just a phone call away, offering advice and assistance for those who aren’t sure what to do next. The clinic is staffed by nurse practitioners, and is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In the interest of transparency and for concerned parties off campus, the University has created an online dashboard of EMU COVID-19 information, including active cases and number of tests given. In February the University Testing Center, located in the Student Center, began offering Abbott’s BinaxNOW test, a self-administered shallow-nostril swab. Students living on campus are asked to get tested for the virus at least twice a month, and online reminders let residents know when they’re due. Tests are free for students, faculty and staff, and results are sent via email the same day.

There’s other testing going on, too. Eastern is monitoring waste water from campus housing locations as a preventative measure. Wastewater contains infectious biomarkers that can signal the spread or reduction of the virus in a population, allowing EMU and local healthcare officials to predict potential outbreaks in the University community.

Korrine Stevens studies at Halle Library to keep focused. COVID check-ins, building cleaning practices and mandatory face-coverings help keep the Eagle community safe. (Photo by Brynna Bashore)

Behavior Modification

Wearing masks, washing hands often and staying six feet apart have become routine on campus, but in-person classes often have additional protocols depending on the discipline. In Stevens’ chemistry lab in the Mark Jefferson Science Complex, one of just 11 percent of Eastern classes taking place in-person fall semester, maintaining social distance was a bit of a dance.

“Only one person at a time was allowed in the supply area to get a chemical,” Stevens says. “Students had their own space for materials and supplies, and we had to wear gloves, and wash the equipment after using it.”

Online classes provide the ultimate social distancing, and while Zoom video conferencing isn’t the same as meeting in-person, Stevens says online learning is comparable to the traditional classroom experience, and in her classes, students haven’t been shy about participating.

Unfortunately, fewer in-person classes also means fewer opportunities for direct interaction with friends.

“The campus is very empty,” Stevens, who also works as a campus tour guide, says. “Last year, I would always see someone I knew as I walked through campus. Now, I don’t see as many friends in-person. Of course, when you do see someone, they’re wearing a mask.”

Club lacrosse was another social opportunity for Stevens in the past, one she missed while sports were on hold, but she did find companionship in another arena.

“Quite a few students are using the Halle Library,” she says. “I like to study there because it helps me feel more focused than staying in my room.”

Stevens says she stays in touch with friends as much as possible given the current restrictions.

“The coronavirus situation can be hard, because I enjoy meeting new people,” she says. She’s been able to meet a friend for lunch occasionally, but many have decided to take classes online from home.

“One of my best friends lives in Illinois, so we do Facetime calls and stay connected that way,” Stevens said.

The pandemic also poses challenges for Tri Sigma’s fundraising and community service projects.

“Our sorority can’t host any in-person events,” Stevens says. “All of our meetings are on Zoom. But we’re still doing a bottle drive and a virtual 5K to raise money for the March of Dimes. We’re doing our best to continue serving communities.”

Considering the restrictions put in place that prioritize the health, safety and well-being of the campus community, Stevens says she believes Eastern is handling the pandemic well.

“The University keeps us informed and is taking the necessary precautions,” she says. “And the students are doing their part by being really responsible. We look out for each other, and are doing all we can to stay safe so we can hopefully be a little closer to normal for the fall 2021 semester.”

EMU President James Smith agrees. "I greatly appreciate the ongoing adjustments among our students, faculty and staff in what remains a very fluid and ever changing situation due to the pandemic," Smith says. "Our overall number of cases remains lower than most of our peer universities in the state, and this is due to how our students protect one another by wearing face coverings, maintaining physical distancing and following our #EMUSafe protocols."

When the pandemic began, EMU President James Smith joined other university presidents in a video to encourage students to stay strong.

Responding to community needs

As Eastern has adapted to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, some things remain the same, particularly the University’s commitment to community engagement by helping people and organizations in need.

One of the most pressing issues early in the coronavirus crisis was a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers. At a time when doctors and nurses treating coronavirus patients resorted to wearing bandanas and trash bags, Eastern came through with supplies:

  • The University donated more than 100,000 items of equipment, including gloves, masks, gowns, bleach, wipes, goggles and material for face shields to hospitals struggling to treat patients during the pandemic.
  • Students, faculty and staff from the Theatre Department turned materials from its costume shop into cloth masks for donation to hospitals.
  • Julie Becker, associate professor of apparel, textiles and merchandising, worked with Applied Textiles of Grand Rapids to launch an initiative to create 20 million masks.
  • The Engage@EMU PPE project produced 2,500 masks, 625 of them child-sized, for the City of Ypsilanti to distribute to those in need.

In addition, faculty in the College of Engineering and Technology built plastic intubation boxes for donation to hospitals; EMU police officers made Meals on Wheels deliveries; students, faculty, staff and alumni helped staff drive-through coronavirus testing stations; and the University provided temporary living arrangements at the Village Apartments to health care workers at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor and IHA, a subsidiary of Saint Joseph Mercy Health System.

In February 2021, the Washtenaw County Health Department and St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor hospital announced that EMU's Convocation Center would be the site of a mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic that allows large numbers of people to be vaccinated at one central location.

In these and numerous other ways, Eastern’s actions exemplify its recent designation by the Carnegie Foundation as an institution with exceptional community engagement.

“I continue to be amazed by our University colleagues and the great support we provide to the community,” President Smith says. “Such an effort is embedded in our mission, but to see our stated values play out in real, daily actions is gratifying, and sends a message about Eastern’s character and purpose.”­­

Go to the EMU Coronavirus Preparedness and Planning website to see weekly messages from President Smith.