The Pandemic Pivot of March 2020

Meditations and Musings

— Chancellor's Blog —

the signature of Ronnie D Green

The Pandemic Pivot of March 2020

In the first M&M, I mentioned that March 11-13th are three days permanently burnt into my memory. In the span of those days, we worked to operationalize the reality of COVID-19’s initial arrival to Nebraska and Lincoln and announced drastic measures to safeguard our university community while continuing our educational mission in the midst of global chaos and uncertainty.

We were faced with deciding how to protect our community of over 31,000 UNL family members (and their extended family and community members) from the invisible coronavirus that most of us had yet to make a part of our lexicon. We did not know how infectious it was, how it was transmitted, whether it could be adequately treated, what its pathological implications were across our populations, whether our health infrastructure could handle its invasion, or how long it would be before we had answers to hundreds of questions.

We also knew that we were in week 9 of the spring academic semester, were in a peak of the year in terms of research and creative activity across our academic enterprise, and had the busiest time of the year ahead with the usually high-intensity month of April on campus and the end of the year (and academic career) for thousands of our students set to complete their degrees in May.

Our international team had already spent multiple weeks interpreting what seemed like daily changing CDC guidance, working with our students spread around the world, many of them in the areas of growing risks in Europe, to get them safely back to the U.S.

The first domino fell with the Nebraska State School Activities Association announcing on March 10th that the boys high school state basketball tournaments in Lincoln scheduled to start on March 11th – an annual pilgrimage event in Nebraska – would be limited to families and staff only in the stands. Then came March 11th – and the emergency call to my office for a Big Ten board meeting at 3 p.m. The news – the NCAA had issued the same declaration for March madness and the NCAA basketball tournaments. The Big Ten women’s tournament had concluded the weekend before – and the men’s tournament was to tip off at 5 p.m. in Indianapolis. The second game to follow that evening pitted our Huskers against Indiana (the de facto “home” team and thus a big Indiana Hoosier crowd). The board made the decision to proceed with the games that night with fans (they were already there and entering the arena for the opening game) – but would go to only families and staff for the remainder of the tournament. Then came our game that night. Husker Jane and I were watching it on BTN in between nonstop university phone calls, including media (and a growing number of students, parents, and faculty members) asking why we were the only Big Ten institution to not announce a shift to remote learning. The announcers began talking about our friend and coach Fred Hoiberg not feeling well on the sidelines – then the cameras panned, and he was being led from the arena to safety. All I could think was, oh, my God!

After a flurry of calls to Indianapolis with our athletics leadership, and finally with Carol Hoiberg assuring me Fred was OK, we breathed a sigh of relief. Our team made it home safe the next day, as did Fred and Carol – blessings counted -- COVID-free.

The next morning, our leadership team was back in the conference room in 201 Canfield early. After more than two weeks of assessing the risks and developments – and without a single documented case of COVID-19 in Lincoln or Lancaster County (at that time, there were 14 cases in the state, all in the greater Omaha area) – we made a similar decision but took a different route than most of our higher education peers. Our spring break was scheduled for the last week of March, which made us amongst the latest in the country. At the time, I remember seeing that as a difficulty for us – but as my trusted friend and talented interim EVC Richard Moberly convinced me – it was the opposite. It gave us the option of flexibility. He astutely argued that we should cancel our classes the week of March 16th, which when followed by spring break, would give our faculty and staff two whole weeks to make the transition to remote instruction. Granted, it was still light speed, but, compared to so many institutions who had turned on a dime, it was an eternity. So – I called Steve Joel at LPS and Mayor Leirion Gaylor-Baird, both of whom were now on speed dial – and let them know we were announcing that classes would be canceled beginning on March 16th, that we would encourage our undergraduate students to return to their homes if possible and thus safely depopulating the campus. And that we would resume classes through remote instruction beginning on March 30th. At the time we were not even sure if it would be for the remainder of the semester….

What we did know was that we were doing all of this to protect our community in the face of unanswered questions – and upon the advice and counsel of our medical community and professionals. We needed to mitigate the risk of overwhelming our health care system as we were observing from what little was known from Wuhan, China and then Italy and Iran. The term “flatten the curve” had entered our lexicon. It would be another nine days before Lincoln documented its first COVID-19 case and months before the numbers began to appreciably grow. UNL would not see its first community member diagnosed until April 9th, with very low observed numbers for the months to come.

What followed, while surreal, was humbling and at the same time amazing. Our students and Student Affairs professionals went about this disruption as if they had long prepared for it and knew how to deal with it. They adapted, organized with teams and our students’ families, and under very trying circumstances calmly and pragmatically helped all but about 350 of our students relocate to their new realities. It caused me more than once to “tear up” as I twice daily ran the routes around campus in the week that followed, seeing a reverse of “move in” happening in mid-March. Concurrently, our faculty and staff across campus were pivoting to figure out how to deliver another 5 weeks of instruction across the institution in a completely new way, including teaching classes that were hard to envision being taught “remotely.” How would one teach an organic chemistry lab without the lab, a piano or vocal studio without the studio, an art or ceramics or dance class without the studio, a “remote” design class, a case study capstone class in groups, a “fill in the blank” class needing the banter of the class and instructor, a flipped classroom on Zoom, or a Law class (think torts class from Harvey Perlman) with the Socratic method “remote”? The creativity, adaptability, and resilience came fully out as our faculty rolled up their sleeves and figured it out.

And then there were the lay-awake-at-night-and-wonder questions – would the internet crash, would Zoom be able to handle the load, would our cybersecurity be challenged beyond its capacity, would our students be able to have the internet access they needed to tap in remotely, would we be able to keep as many of our international scholars on campus safely so they would not lose their opportunity for a Nebraska education? And how would we be able to maintain our research and creative activity momentum and our extension and outreach mission when we were moving our collective UNL family to home offices across the area and state?

March 30th came, all of the computers powered up, and after a little scare from a Zoom blip in the first few hours, IT WORKED. While it was beyond surreal – I still remember driving in to campus that morning and not seeing a single car or human on R Street -- people adapted, made the best of a very tough situation, creativity emerged in more ways than can possibly be captured, lives were touched, grace was shown in immeasurable ways, and we marched on.

There was a host of follow-on decisions to be made – how to refund students for lost housing and dining services, how to close down and eventually furlough employees in revenue generating units like the Lied Center for Performing Arts, Husker Athletics, and the Nebraska Alumni Association. How to think about commencement – as a celebration rather than classic Husker commencement exercises. Such a critical celebratory moment was being “taken,” how do we make it special. As we pivoted to virtual communication - via video, Zoom town halls and meetings – how to do that in a meaningful way and with cadence that allowed our community to be informed and encouraged. How to keep up our admissions and recruiting for a fall semester that was still up in the air. How to continue and not lose any of our research capacity – particularly in funded research across our enterprise, but do it safely.

And, two that rose above all others – how could we keep everyone safe – and at the same time not put the University in to financial exigency?

That story was written very quickly – and I will always say in a way only possible in Nebraska.

In short, we:

...completed the semester successfully with no incident related to COVID-19. We culminated it by graduating, on time and without a lost step, our second largest graduating class in Nebraska history.

…had a wonderful graduation “celebration,” giving our graduates across the world the personal touch of a graduation celebration box delivered to each them, and a collective celebration on NET highlighted by a great commencement message from John Cook, greetings from a host of Huskers including Warren Buffett, and the promise of being in person in the future.

…adapted in our research programs and our labs continued to operate successfully across our campuses, minimizing the disruption to progress as much as possible, with our proposals submitted setting an all-time record for the year.

…stepped up with a production pipeline at NIC for massive quantities of hand sanitizer made in partnership with the Nebraska ethanol industry. This effort provided badly needed PPE to first responders, the health care and nursing home sectors across Nebraska, and the entirety of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.

…spurred innovation at NIC in partnership with Virtual Incision and other private industry partners to produce thousands of face shields in response to a request from the health care sector, from design to manufacture.

…pivoted with Nebraska Extension, as they have done so many times before (think the impacts of the bomb cyclone and flooding of 2019) to deliver in as uninterrupted ways as possible our outreach across the state-wide campus of Nebraska – including how to successfully still have a summer youth season in 2020.

…made the hard decision to cancel all summer events and conferences on campus, to keep instruction remote for the summer terms, and to attempt to GROW our summer offerings and enrollment to give our students more options and opportunities of access in what was certain to be a disrupted summer from their previously planned internship, study abroad, and work experiences.

And, by the third week of April – while we were still trying to study the curves and predict a peak date for COVID-19 infections in the first wave of the pandemic, we had already asked ourselves the question of what should we do about plans for FALL 2020?

And without a doubt, we knew that we needed to make every effort to have ACCESS as our number one priority. Many in higher education were debating this, many were deciding to postpone the decision, some were deciding that there was no way other than being fully remote.

I knew without a doubt that we needed to apply every bit of ingenuity, grit, adaptability, flexibility, and rigor possible to re-convene our academic enterprise on campus and in person.

Next time – why was it so important that Fall be on campus and in person?