June 17, 2021
The close of the 2020-21 academic year has finally given Susquehanna an opportunity to reflect on the more than a year of the university’s life that was engulfed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
There were peaks and valleys – but one thing is clear – we made it to the finish line. There was perhaps no greater symbol of this than the five commencement ceremonies held during the month of May – ceremonies for both the Class of 2021 and the Class of 2020, which had waited faithfully for 442 days to return to receive their degrees in-person.
None of this would have been possible without the unshakable commitment of our students and their families, faculty, staff, and the entire SU community.
“This past year tested the endurance of all of us,” said University President Jonathan Green. “I am so thankful for the steadfast support of this campus community, which allowed us to achieve what we all wanted – a residential experience for our students and an exceptional remote-learning experience for those students who couldn’t be with us on campus. It was a long road, with challenges, frustrations and ultimately triumph. And we couldn’t have done it without the commitment of all of us.”
Our success was not a foregone conclusion. At the start of the fall 2020 semester, most of the country’s colleges and universities were operating in a primarily online format, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education. Susquehanna was one of only about 21% of colleges and universities nationwide to embrace a hybrid format, which allowed students to complete their studies on campus and in-person or remotely.
Over the summer of 2020, campus leadership plotted and planned for the fall semester. Susquehanna’s Center for Teaching and Learning prepared faculty to teach in unprecedented circumstances. The Summer Institute for Hybrid and Remote Learning trained faculty in all the design principles and best practices for teaching a successful hybrid or online course, as well as provided guidance in applicable technologies and pedagogical practices.
The Department of Facilities worked tirelessly to implement new cleaning protocols and deploy sanitation stations, more than 13,000 signs to encourage proper hygiene and social distancing, and multiple tents for outdoor classrooms, as well as ultraviolet air filtration units for residence hall rooms and select classrooms.
“We knew if we were going to have a shot at completing a semester let alone the academic year on campus, we had to get out ahead of things, so we spent the summer of 2020 doing just that,” said Chris Bailey, assistant vice president for facilities and campus safety.
Before students returned to campus in the fall, the entire community made acollective commitment to maintain proper health and hygiene practices to give us the best chance at completing the academic year on campus, which we essentially did, save for a few days at the end of the fall 2020 semester due to a spike in Covid cases on campus.
“We persevered through the academic year with an attitude that placed the greater good above the individual and I think that our diligent work and shared sacrifice all contributed to our hard-won success,” said David Richard, professor of biology and Susquehanna’s Covid-19 coordinator.
As did an aggressive Covid-19 testing program. Susquehanna deployed an ambitious and ultimately successful program to test wastewater from residence halls to get early indications of Covid infections. More than three-fourths (77%) of the 61 students confirmed with COVID on campus through Nov. 19 were found as a result of wastewater testing, Richard said.
But the spring semester brought new challenges and we quickly determined that wastewater testing wasn’t feasible. Because many students reported being infected over the long winter break, the virus would appear to be present in the samples. So instead, the university began an aggressive testing regimen on-campus students, faculty and staff, conducting nearly 44,000 saliva and nasal swab tests over the course of the 2020-21 academic year.
Although we saw a slight spike in on-campus Covid cases in April, we made it to Commencement. On the weekend on May 15, we bid farewell to 510 graduates in the Class of 2021, and the following weekend, we welcomed home approximately 300 members of the Class of 2020 in their triumphant return to campus for their long-awaited walk across the Commencement stage.
“There were many points over the past year when we all longed for normalcy. Creating a residential experience for our students, even significantly modified, was an invaluable gift for them,” Green said. “I am so very proud of this community for all they have done to take care of each other and our students.”