The email landed in the inboxes of students, faculty, and staff on July 20, 2020.
Dear Trinity University Community:
Your health and safety are our first priority, and I write to you today to share significant changes to your plans for on-campus residence and learning for Fall 2020.
The thousand word email went on to describe how “Town Trinity'' would reopen in a radically different way. Of course, planning for the reopening of campus began well before that email was sent; in fact, a multidisciplinary team of task forces began contemplating what the Trinity experience would look like just as the Spring 2020 semester was winding down.
“It was an enormous undertaking. We really began the process on March 11, when we informed the Trinity community that we were shutting down campus and finishing the semester remotely,” says Tess Coody-Anders ’93, Trinity’s vice president for Strategic Communications and Marketing, who would also lead the University’s reopening effort. “Soon after, we were asking people to continue to address their daily responsibilities, but to also think cross-functionally about completely unpredictable and unknown scenarios. And almost everyone was doing this remotely, for the first time ever. It was exhausting but essential work for everyone.”
Re-examining the Academic Experience
Priority No. 1 was a revised academic experience that upheld the rigors of a Trinity education, while acknowledging the significant limitations at hand. In what format would classes be taught, and for how many students? How would faculty adapt their curricula? What would the technology look like, and would the internet remain stable? What if a professor or student got sick?
“Preparing for life on campus during the pandemic for a diverse faculty was challenging and stressful, but what sticks out in my mind is that everyone I spoke with or heard from—both faculty and staff—was more concerned about doing what was best for Trinity's students than what was easiest to accomplish,” says religion professor and vice-chair of the Faculty Senate Chad Spigel, Ph.D. “Despite the challenges, despite the stress, despite the budget cuts, despite the uncertainties, and despite the pandemic, Trinity's faculty and staff stepped up to make sure that Trinity succeeded in providing a top-tier education to its students.”
Adapting the Trinity model of collaborative and hands-on experiential learning to a virtual world was one of the largest challenges.
“We pride ourselves on how much Trinity faculty and students work together in meaningful ways, from discussions in classes, to working in labs, to undergraduate research, to students co-authoring articles with their faculty mentors,” Spigel explains. “Recreating these high-impact learning experiences when the majority of learning was taking place virtually was challenging and required a lot of creative and out-of-the-box thinking. But at the end of the day, I believe we were successful.”
Creating Healthy Residences
If academics is the cornerstone of Trinity, then on-campus residential life is its central pillar. Deborah Tyson, Trinity’s director of residential life, and her team encountered a seemingly endless list of added challenges to their already demanding jobs.
“The presence of a highly contagious virus in a congregant living environment changes everything about the way we had to go about our days building community, enforcing policies, supervising the resident assistants, and more,” Tyson explains. “All of the key elements of our responsibilities hinge on personal contact to guide, support, and mentor students toward healthy decision making and maturation.”
Tyson says these past few months have tested the mettle of her team, and while everyone encountered difficult circumstances, they showed their resilience.
“I am both humbled and proud that the residential life staff team from day one has met the challenges that we are facing while remaining on campus day in and day out with the students,” Tyson says.
Preparing a "Plexiglassed" Campus
Of course, the entire Trinity campus needed to be physically transformed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Classrooms, workspaces, and common areas were upended and retrofitted with plexiglass partitions, socially distanced seating, and walkways indoors and out. For Osvaldo “Ozzie” Crespo III, Trinity’s director of environmental health and safety, it was a team effort.
“Our department is a team of two; Jake Hernandez and myself. I am blessed to work with someone with such drive and tenacity. Also, Ryan Hodge in the Center for the Sciences and Innovation fabricated each plexiglass partition on campus, and Tom Watson and Ruben Torres in facilities services did great work with affixing signage and delivering the plexiglass,” Crespo explains. “I am also grateful for how patient and understanding our staff and faculty were during our workspace evaluations.”
Along with physical changes to campus, ITS oversaw significant technology upgrades, including robust audio/visual hardware that helped make remote learning a more immersive experience. For students living and learning off-campus, ITS instituted a program to provide laptops and Wi-Fi for those who needed it most.
When fall planning began, perhaps one of the biggest deficiencies for Trinity was its medical infrastructure. Unlike large universities with medical schools, Trinity had only limited medical expertise. Trinity’s health and wellness work group, led by Dr. Gary Neal, senior director of counseling and health services, quickly brought on outside public health and medical experts to help guide the University in making important decisions.
In other cases, Trinity employees went far outside their job descriptions to implement a substantial testing, tracing, and quarantine infrastructure. Marc Powell, Trinity’s head athletic trainer, oversaw the University’s robust testing program, administering more than 5,800 tests during the semester. Ivan Pendergast, Trinity’s emergency management coordinator, functioned in many roles, including communicating with parents whose students were placed in quarantine or isolation.
“Even though they were rightfully frustrated with the situation, they were thankful to Trinity for what we were doing to protect their children,” Pendergast says. “I am proud to have served here with the amazing leaders that we have.”
As arduous as the process was, it brought out how innovative, agile, collaborative, and quick on their feet Trinity’s faculty and staff are.
“Seeing my colleagues from every corner of Trinity University coming together to help the University successfully reopen in a way that retained the core of what we do at Trinity and in a way that was safe for our faculty, staff, and students is probably what made me proudest,” Spigel says. “I've been working at Trinity for 12 years, and this was the first time I really got to see first-hand how interconnected we all are and how much each and every member of the Trinity community contributes to the success of the university.”