One year later: A look back at the COVID-19 pandemic through the eyes of Augustana administrators

Augustana students, faculty and staff were on spring break exactly one year before last Thursday, March 11, when they received an email in their inbox with the subject line “Special Message from President Stephanie Herseth Sandlin.” 

The email came as a shock to some and confirmed what others had feared: COVID-19 had arrived in South Dakota. This announcement initiated a year of disruption, adaptation and unpredictability.

Throughout this time, Herseth Sandlin and other administrators worked to find answers to the Augustana community’s questions. Dean of Students Mark Blackburn, Associate Vice President of Safety and Logistics Rick Tupper and Athletic Director Josh Morton were among those tasked with guiding Augustana through the pandemic.

Spring 2020

Blackburn sent the first email concerning COVID-19 on Feb. 28, announcing that the university was monitoring reports of the virus after it had originated in Wuhan, China. Five days later he wrote that all spring break international group travel programs would be postponed.

On March 10, the South Dakota Department of Health confirmed five cases of the virus in the state and campus leaders scrambled to determine the safest route forward. Herseth Sandlin sent her initial email the day after. 

Tupper said right away, there was little instruction given to universities by the federal and state governments. While administrators kept track of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research and what other schools were doing, they made decisions based on what they thought was best for Augustana students at the time.

“What became very evident early on is, while everybody’s in the same boat, there was really a lack of real guidance and leadership nationwide,” Tupper said. “I think everybody was looking for someone to stand up and say, this is what you needed to do. I realized that we’re just going to have to start making decisions on our own.”

That’s exactly what administrators did. First spring break was extended a week to March 26. Students then were instructed to attend online classes until April 14, and all university business travel outside of Sioux Falls was suspended through the same date.

Herseth Sandlin said that window of time gave both faculty and students time to transition into at-home learning and online instruction.

“I think it helped,” Herseth Sandlin said. “Both faculty and students overcame that first really big barrier, which was psychologically — and logistically for faculty — how do you transition the curriculum to an online experience?”

When Herseth Sandlin announced the extended 2020 spring break, Blackburn said that he thought the virus would be around for just the break or maybe until summer.

“It totally blew my expectations of how long it was going to be,” he said. “And then when you look around the country, you see things are going a little chaotic.”

Herseth Sandlin announced in an email on March 24 that, with the support of the Board of Trustees, online instruction would continue for the remainder of the spring semester. She recalls that the decision to keep students at home during that spring was the wisest and most prudent decision to make at the time but that it was a disappointing one for many in the Augustana community.

“I think that the burden, the challenge, was just overcoming the disappointment around that and [focusing on] how we could create meaningful virtual experiences,” she said.

Faculty members were forced to suddenly shift to online instruction, a dramatic change that most weren’t prepared for.

“We’re an in-person university, [so] we didn’t have a lot of bandwidth to set up remote learning,” Tupper said. “So when we went to them and told them, ‘well, you’re going to have to teach online remotely,’ they all had to scurry to try to build an online component for each of their classes.”

On Thursday, March 12, the day after the university first announced that it was extending spring break, the NCAA announced that all winter and spring championships were canceled and the NSIC announced that all conference competitions were canceled. 

Morton said he will not soon forget meeting the tennis teams at the airport last year following their last competition before the season was canceled.

“They were the last team[s] to arrive back in Sioux Falls whenever they got it shut down,” he said. “You knew that might be the last time we’re gathering for a while at the time. You thought a while might be a month.”

Morton said he knew that the virus was serious, but he knew he could rely on the athletic department’s medical staff to help him determine what the virus was capable of and how it could be effectively kept at bay.

“By about mid-April, I caught myself, and I pledged from then on that I don’t need to play amateur doctor or amateur epidemiologist,” he said.

During this time campus was silent with most of the community working from home, and the doors to all buildings except the Morrison Commons locked.

“It was eerie,” Tupper said. “When you walk around a campus, you’re used to seeing people walking on the sidewalks or going into the buildings. It was just a ghost town.”

Students who couldn’t get home were moved to Stavig, Granskou and Tuve and campus staff provided them with food during that time.

Graduation was held in the Elmen parking lot with faculty and staff sitting in their cars and seniors weaving through those cars, getting applause and picking up their graduation boxes. 

The night was capped off with a virtual Italian dinner, where employees cooked the same meal in their own homes and ate it together over Zoom. 

“It was kind of this way to be creatively together in community,” Herseth Sandlin said.

Summer

Once the spring semester ended, it was up to campus employees to determine how — and if — the campus would be able to open back up in the fall for in-person teaching.

After the Board of Trustees met in April, Herseth Sandlin said they began looking at creating the Scenario Planning Task Force to determine safety protocols for the fall semester.

“This is adaptive leadership,” Herseth Sandlin said. “We’re asking people to be leaders in different ways and to do it in an adaptive way. We are in uncharted territory here.”

It wasn’t until student affairs was discussing the move-in process that it really hit Blackburn that the virus was here to stay.

“We were creating policies for our students about the mask policy, guest policy,” he said. 

Blackburn said a lot of the policies they were changing hadn’t been modified for years, so he shifted gears.

“Let’s […] figure out how we’re going to maintain and sustain this fall semester because we’re going to be in a world of hurt with this pandemic.”

The Scenario Planning Task Force created the Viking Flex plan, essentially splitting the semester into two parts. If they were able, masked and socially distanced students would attend in-person classes from August 26 to Nov. 20 with no fall break. Then, after Thanksgiving break, they would continue online classes from home until Dec. 4. 

Tupper, who was a member of the Scenario Planning Task Force and a part of the risk assessment team, said he attends a meeting at 8:30 a.m. every weekday devoted to COVID-19 as well as other meetings on the topic sprinkled throughout his week. The pandemic dominated the entire summer conversation, he said.

“We have talked COVID-19 for the last year, and it was a struggle sometimes when you’re talking about one topic nonstop,” he said. 

Logistical planning happened over the summer months. Employees measured each classroom in every building on campus to determine how many students they could safely fit with social distancing. 

“Our campus was really designed for very personal class experiences, which means classrooms are small,” Tupper said. “Suddenly, a lot of the classrooms we couldn’t use because you couldn’t get more than four to six people in [them] by the distancing.”

The summer also came with some tough decisions.  An email from Herseth Sandlin to faculty and staff on June 25 stated that a decrease in enrollment for the upcoming school year coupled with unreimbursed COVID-19 costs for the spring semester created a need for at least $3 million in cost reductions. 

As a result, employees experienced salary reductions, 14 non-faculty positions and 3 continuing term faculty positions were cut and 16 faculty members volunteered to take early retirement. A freeze was placed on new hires, which resulted in increased workloads and changes in structure for many professors. 

Fall

Students gradually moved back to campus in the weeks leading up to August 26 as they prepared to begin in-person learning in the fall. Move-in day was organized in time shifts and designed to limit as much contact as possible.

Blackburn said this fall was one of the most efficient move-in weeks Augustana has had since he’s worked on campus.

“I remember vividly our moving process,” he said. “We did a kind of segmented time that really went very, very smoothly.”

It was at this time that the safety precautions were implemented, but Herseth Sandlin said these guidelines were subject to change based on the spread of COVID-19 and feedback from the campus community.

“I just wanted people to feel that we weren’t just saying that we were putting people’s health and safety first but that they saw that we were […] taking their feedback, hearing their concerns and ensuring that we were taking every precaution to minimize the spread of the virus in the classroom setting,” she said.

Morton feels that opening campus was about as successful as it could have been.

“I tell people all the time [that] I feel like we managed things in the fall,” he said. “Certainly we had our ups and downs with the virus, but I really feel like we had a plan in place that we could adapt to. Certainly there [are] decisions where you probably would do over — do differently, but I am proud of the way that we had a methodical approach to get back.”

Tupper noted that when in-person instruction first began, he was worried about controlling high-traffic areas.

“What scared me going into this were two things: residence halls and classrooms,” he said. 

Many students living in residence halls were given individual rooms, and students were instructed to only have four students in a room at a time. Vindicator cleaning solution was placed in every bathroom for students to spray after touching doorknobs and sink handles. 

Students were required to wear masks in all classrooms and buildings on campus, professors sanitized all tables after instruction, desks were spaced incrementally and plastic dividers were used to separate instructors from students. 

Tupper said he was happy to see that neither residence halls nor classrooms were problem areas for transmission. He said most of the exposure was in off-campus housing, where as many as seven students could have been living together at one time.

“What we saw is obviously at those places, they didn’t have the mitigation plans,” he said. “People weren’t wearing masks. “They weren’t cleaning it. It spread like wildfire in those types of environments.”

Before moving back to campus, students signed a pledge to follow all COVID-19 guidelines — self-monitoring for symptoms, wearing masks in all buildings, disinfecting any surfaces that they touched and quarantining if they displayed any symptoms. 

Students were advised to “exercise good judgement” when traveling off campus, and if any rules were broken, students could be removed from campus housing. 

Herseth Sandlin said she and other campus leaders expected that some students would break the rules — and they did.

“The compliance with the pledge and the protocols we knew was going to be a challenge,” she said. “But I think everyone — again, the kind of community that we are — we weren’t going to be militant about policing and enforcing, but rather helping each other develop these new habits.”

At some points in the semester, COVID-19 cases became worrying, Tupper said. At its peak for the month of September, Augustana reached a high of 35 active cases with 122 members of the campus community in quarantine.

October remained quiet, but cases surged in the two weeks following Halloween. As of Nov. 2, there had been a total of 187 confirmed cases, and by Nov. 11, that number had increased to 236.

Every weekday Tupper would track the numbers, keeping an extra column in the spreadsheet devoted to counting down each day until Nov. 20, just for his own sake. He and seven other employees communicated with, contact traced and made arrangements for students, faculty and staff that tested positive or had close contacts. He remembers having 55 students on the worst day.

“It was overwhelming,” he said.

Students who tested positive were instructed to contact the campus clinic and either head home, to a quarantine house, to the Ramkota Inn or another quarantine location for 10 to 14 days. 

Tupper said at first, they made a few mistakes with on-campus quarantine housing.

“We know that there were some students that early on went into quarantine that you know, maybe they didn’t feel that these are the best places or how they were getting their food provided to them,” he said. “Those were the lessons that we all had to learn along the way.”

Blackburn said the university wasn’t ready for the facilities needed to properly quarantine students.

“There was a time where our quarantine houses were full,” Blackburn said. “People were getting sick left and right, and we had to go out and reach a hotel.”

He said the university was understaffed in this instance.

“There was one time when we had 19 in a day,” Blackburn said. “It was like a puzzle piece, trying to put things together.”

While Herseth Sandlin said she didn’t believe that the university necessarily made “mistakes,” she did question the decision to eliminate fall break.

“The judgment of not having a fall break really took a toll,” she said. “And yet if we had put in a fall break, it would have elevated people’s anxiety about where the students would go and what they might bring back.”

The pandemic shifted the campus’s entire IT infrastructure. The university invested in the Canvas learning management system, which would help keep assignments and classes organized. Enhanced technological capabilities and training allowed professors — some more easily than others — to accommodate remote learning. 

But it came at a cost for professors.

“It has taken a real toll on faculty and staff because really virtual settings create more work, not less,” Herseth Sandlin said. “In addition to the caring concern I have for our students’ mental health and well being, I have the same concerns for my colleagues’ mental health and well-being.”

Despite this, Blackburn said in terms of school and teaching students, he feels Augustana instructors have done well.

“We were very smart in terms of understanding that hybrid model,” Blackburn said.

Emphasizing the teamwork between athletics and the rest of campus, Morton said the biggest focus was making in-person learning happen, which he said the university was able to achieve by about 87% at the end of the semester.

Blackburn said he learned that even when meeting in person isn’t an option, time can still be optimized.

“We can still meet virtually and still be efficient,” Blackburn said. “Some of those things might not be the most ideal. But I think we just learned how to adapt in a lot of significant gateways.”

J-Term

J-Term came with more knowledge of COVID-19, the promise of vaccines on the way and more testing options for students. Students were encouraged to get tested before returning to campus to keep active cases low.

Stephanie noted that the pre-arrival tests helped.

“There were a total of 12 positive cases identified during January following the return of students and staff to campus,” she said. “After the holidays, five of those 12 positive cases were identified during preventative asymptomatic testing.”

Most of the COVID-19 restrictions from the previous semester were still in place. Many of the J-term classes were held exclusively online, but there were a few that met in person with online flexibility.

Spring 2021

The spring semester began on Feb. 2, and Herseth Sandlin said so far, things have been operating much more smoothly than in the fall. Faculty and students have become more comfortable with hybrid classes, staff members have determined which protocols seem to work best and the promises of vaccines have sent ripples of hope across campus. 

Herseth Sandlin said getting this far has required the participation of the entire campus.

“It really has been this all-hands-on-deck, constant, adaptive leadership of applying lessons learned every day, every week and knowing that we’re all in it together,” she said.

According to Tupper, COVID-19 case numbers have dropped significantly since the fall — an indication that the current protocols appear to be working.

“The spring numbers have been much more manageable,” he said. “I think the most we’ve had to deal with in one day was 15 people.”

With the vaccine distribution well underway, Blackburn said he feels optimistic about the rest of this year. He predicted that the COVID-19 vaccine will become a common dose much like the flu shot.

The athletic department has been able to incrementally allow fans to come to games live, which Morton feels has been successful.

“We’d love to get to a point where we can have normal spectator attendance yet this spring, but we’re going to start slow and try to build on that,” he said.

Morton said that not all of the decisions made by athletics, including both restricting fans right away and later allowing them at events, have been the most popular. But he believes that they were smart, data-based decisions that were ultimately successful.

“The way that we made our decisions weren’t always popular, with both the athletes [and] our coaches sometimes,” Morton said. “But I think it was always with the idea of [the] health and safety of everybody being the most important thing.”

Now, that winter sports have ended, Morton said he feels hopeful for the spring season.

“It was a really successful winter,” Morton said. “Now [with] moving outdoors [and the] vaccine becoming more available, I’m really optimistic that our spring sports will compete to the fullest.”

After the fall, Herseth Sandlin said the university “applied lessons learned to that calendar to make sure we had a break.” Easter and spring break have been combined, meaning there will be one fewer break than previous years.

Because of this experience, Blackburn said Augustana will be better prepared for unforeseen events in the future.

“I think this pandemic taught us to slow down a little bit and look at yourself because things could change in a minute,” Blackburn said. “[This experience] gives us the preparation and the muscle memory to withstand some of this stuff.”

Overall, Herseth Sandlin said that the spring semester has been a culmination of lessons learned so far and though there is still more to discover, she said she believes the university has done well despite the odds.

“I really think that we hit the right balance in terms of offering an on-campus living and learning experience that yes, had significant new protocols in place for health and safety but wasn’t so restrictive that it diminished the overall student experience.”

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