Living and Learning Together, Safely

December 14, 2020

Last August, MBU opened the 2020–21 academic year under “Back to Baldwin,” a comprehensive plan for returning students, faculty, and staff to navigate an altered reality.  

And the Mary Baldwin community not only came back, but stayed at Baldwin during a fall semester like no other. 

It took hard work, nimble adjustments, and, most of all, a university-wide dedication to protecting each other’s health and safety.  

“I thank each of you for your efforts,” said President Pamela Fox, reflecting on the past semester in a recent video message. “You put your faith in MBU and in one another that we could live and learn together, safely. And we did.”

Putting safety first #FortheFamily

The safeguards for living and learning during COVID were many and ongoing, and the MBU community banded together to follow them #FortheFamily.

Face coverings, distancing, hand hygiene, and careful symptom monitoring were a way of life. Meals in Hunt Dining Hall were largely to-go or distanced and reserved by time slot to control capacity. Classrooms were modified for safety, with the facilities team arranging new layouts for 85 rooms across campus, as well as the auditorium, computer labs, and meeting spaces. Extracurricular activities often took place outdoors or virtually. 

Visitors were also limited on campus, and the MBU Admissions Office pivoted quickly to digital communications and virtual opportunities to convey the value of attending MBU to prospective students. Instead of large in-person visit days, they hosted virtual visits throughout the fall, including a recent online event with nearly 120 participants.

In addition to contact tracing and quarantine protocols, MBU’s Pandemic Team enacted surveillance testing and heightened safety measures at strategic points throughout the semester. 

MBU had 18 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among students, faculty, and staff since the summer, and a mass testing clinic on November 17 tested 377 individuals with zero positive cases. To date, the MBU Contact Trace Team has spent approximately 80 hours of time performing contact tracing.

The MBU campus community adapted to living and learning during the pandemic through rigorous adherence to safety measures.

Amidst the restrictions, however, there was great generosity of spirit. 

The MBU family looked out for one another, offering resources, reminders, and helping hands to maintain health and wellbeing as much as possible through the challenges that arose.

The Office of Student Engagement, for example, facilitated 419 virtual counseling appointments as well as drop-in sessions on topics including COVID stress and anxiety surrounding returning home.

“One thing I’ve always appreciated about the MBU community is how it’s always there for students and staff regardless of how big or small their problem is, and that has not changed with COVID,” said Laryn Weeks ’23.

In-person learning makes a difference for residential students

The driving force behind these university-wide efforts was to provide the best opportunities for learning during the pandemic. For residential students, MBU’s primary goal was the continuation of in-person courses and a modified, but nonetheless valuable campus experience. 

“There’s just something about learning in person here that makes you feel empowered, and that you’re learning something new every day,” said Jamie Saunders ’23, who studies marketing and communication on campus.

Beloved traditions such as Founders Day were held in a new way in fall 2020.

During a semester in which stressors were at an all-time high, MBU faculty worked tirelessly to support their students both academically and holistically. Like teachers across the nation, professors juggled running courses for both in-person and virtual participants, who joined class online if they were feeling unwell, awaiting test results, or in quarantine. 

“There were certainly days that we spent a significant time discussing the state of the world and having ‘normal’ conversations in addition to course material,” said Beth Easterling, associate professor of criminal justice and sociology. “I think this was important for the mental health of all of us on campus this semester. Human connection cannot be underestimated.”  

Students came to class craving conversation and connection, as Angela Wilson, assistant professor and director of teacher education, noticed in her section of MBU 101, a course designed to acclimate new students to the university.

“Discussions among first-year students became more rich and substantive as virtual and in-person participants candidly exchanged ideas, perceptions, and concerns, making connections and building relationships through their common experiences,” Wilson said.

In-person classes met throughout the semester, with virtual options for those feeling unwell or in quarantine.

Donovan Branche, assistant professor of business, saw an opportunity to give her students practice in what will likely be the future of work, grouping students together from different class sections and online vs. in-person status for collaboration across formats.  

“I purposely grouped these different types of students together to give them practice in completing projects in the real world,” she said. “The students did an amazing job of coming up with inventive ways to complete the projects. It was the perfect example of the innovation of our future generation.”   

The Office of Information Technology undergirded academic efforts by rapidly increasing the internet capacity 400% on campus, as did the Center for Teaching and Learning by providing resources for 282 Canvas courses for hybrid teaching. 

MBU’s essential workers go to heroic efforts for students’ sake

Behind the scenes, essential staff members went above and beyond to take care of students’ needs so that they could focus on their studies and get the most out of their college experience.

To facilitate health and safety protocols, the facilities department installed 350 hand sanitizer and hand soap stations across campus, stocked and distributed 8,000 face masks, and erected 280 feet of protective plexiglass.

The housekeeping team volunteered to take on extra duties during the COVID era, like learning and operating the IsoKlean fogging system in all common areas and pulling extra shifts on the weekends in order to keep all residence halls sanitized regularly. While students are on winter break, housekeepers are using the time to ensure that they return to a thoroughly cleaned and sanitized campus.

“MBU’s housekeeping team has never wavered in their commitment to keep our students safe and healthy,” said Misty Miller, housekeeping supervisor. “This team is an incredible asset to the MBU family, and I am extremely proud of their successes during the fall semester.”

Student activities were re-envisioned: MBU athletes practiced and scrimmaged with each other in the absence of conference play; the performing arts found a new home in the outdoor Rose Theatre; and the second annual Women's Leadership Symposium was held in a blended format.

To ensure the efficiency of a vital campus service during the pandemic and a presidential election year, the MBU mail system underwent significant revisions — including disinfecting protocols for packages, surfaces, and electronic devices; a new email notification system for the entire MBU community; and extended mailroom hours. 

“Now, more than ever, it is crucial for students to feel connected to family and friends at home,” said Jennifer Dick, logistical services associate and mailroom manager, who with a team of student workers delivered more than 5,000 packages and 900 letters over the semester. “I hope that we have been able to assist with this as well as to distribute the essential items to them that they need to live and study successfully at their home away from home.” 

The MBU community engaged with pressing issues of social and racial justice including a Black Lives Matter teach-in and vigil for Breonna Taylor.

Looking ahead to January

By working together to protect each other, every member of the MBU family has made a positive difference in the fight against COVID. Looking back on the achievements of fall semester gives campus great hope for a successful spring.

“We will continue to be there for one another this spring and beyond, in our shared mission to pursue lives of purpose and professional success,” Fox said in closing to her video message.

Looking forward to January, the Pandemic Team has communicated initial protocols for residential students’ return, including two rounds of mandatory COVID-19 testing and an automatic period of heightened safety measures. The MBU community should watch their email over winter break for necessary updates.

MBU students celebrate the fall weather before they left campus at Thanksgiving for remote exams and an extended winter break.