by Erin Papakostas ’23 (she/her/hers)
While preparing to move onto campus this past August, Jack Magner ‘23 received an unexpected email. As COVID-19 cases were starting to rise on Davidson’s campus, the school prohibited guests from being in residential rooms. It was August, and COVID-19 cases were beginning to rise as more students began moving in.
In response to reading the email from the college, Magner remarked, “The communication on that email was framed in a way that was more so blaming students than it was talking about the systemic reasons that the cases were going up.”
Magner shared his worries on Twitter and posted screenshots of his tweets to his Instagram stories. His tweets reflected his concern about town members adhering to COVID-19 guidelines while on Davidson’s campus, dining while social distancing, and athletic practices.
The college responded to Magner, who was satisfied with the response and did not take his concerns further. Davidson College’s Chief Communications and Marketing Officer Mark Johnson explained how Communications determines which questions to answer on social media, town hall meetings, and on the FAQ page.
In an e-mailed response, he commented, “questions often are posted on social media for purposes other than for eliciting an answer. We try to respond when a questioner truly seeks information or the question requires an institutional response or the answer would be helpful to the community or any combination of those things.”
Since the start of the pandemic, Davidson’s community’s needs have changed drastically. The college has worked to satisfy those needs and communicate information that ensures the safety and wellbeing of everyone. In order to quell anxiety and confusion, the college kept faculty, students, and staff updated throughout the spring and summer about what to expect in the Fall 2020 semester.
Magner received notice about Davidson’s new move-in day policy in early August. He was bothered that even though his move-in day was pushed back, the college maintained its policy regarding the date by which a student could choose to move back home. His time to deliberate the decision to stay on campus the entire semester decreased from eleven days to just three days.
Ellie Lipp ‘22 also received a new move-in date from the Residence Life Office (RLO). Lipp’s parents took time off from work to help her move in, but they had to change their schedules when Lipp got notice that her move-in date had changed.
“I wish the administration would have recognized the stresses of having to transition to a new environment while you’ve already started classes,” she said.
Lipp was a hall counselor last year. When students were sent home at the start of the pandemic, she commented that RLO was frantically trying to find the best solutions to support students as they transitioned home.
“Eventually they got a solid plan in place, but the initial message was basically, ‘hold tight while we figure it out,’” she said.
According to Lipp, RLO addressed issues as they arose and made adjustments based on student needs, such as by allowing students to stay on campus if necessary and coordinating with the Student Government Association (SGA) for students to store their belongings.
Lipp was the first Davidson student to enter quarantine on campus, and she was in constant communication with her bosses at RLO at the time.
“Simultaneously, as I appreciated [the support], I was getting all these messages from my coworkers having no idea what to tell their residents,” Lipp stated. Her fellow hall counselors were struggling to respond to their residents’ questions.
Ben Sempowski ‘23 is currently a hall counselor and remarked that RLO works to ensure students are clear about how COVID-19 policies affect their roles as student leaders.
When the RLO student staff members returned to campus earlier this semester, they received specific training about how to respond to various coronavirus-related scenarios. Each week, members of RLO have a meeting with their residential areas, allowing students to talk about their concerns as well as providing the Area Coordinator—a live-in coordinator who supervises the student staff of a residential area—the time to share pertinent updates. According to Sempowski, any time the COVID-19 response team releases an email with an update or policy change, like when the visitor policy changed on August 27th, hall counselors receive an email within a few hours clarifying what the changes mean for them.
As August approached, students and staff prepared for orientation. Macy Lawton ‘22 was an Orientation Team Leader (OTL) during first-year orientation this year. Lawton said the OTLs were in constant communication with each other and the Student Activities Office throughout this past spring semester and the summer.
She commented, “Any questions that we had as OTLs about what the school was thinking about the fall, even if [Student Activities] didn’t know the answer, we talked about it more than I was hearing from anyone else.”
Orientation went smoother than Lawton anticipated and she was grateful that her Orientation Team Members (OTMs) were patient and realized that she did not have all the answers. Roman Fenner ‘22 was also an OTL. He remarked that the OTMs were tasked with the responsibility to inform first-year students about the college’s COVID-19 policies, even though they too were adjusting to a different campus than previous years.
“One of the things we were trained on was how to handle those tough questions and how to respond and be informed but also be positive about it. It was really hard to be positive about it,” Fenner said.
When students transitioned to online classes last spring, the college originally instructed faculty members to make their own decisions about virtual learning until the administration released a wide-spread plan of action, according to Dr. Amanda Martinez, Chair of the Communication Studies Department. She said it was especially worrisome for junior faculty who did not have the same liberty to make decisions as tenured professors did.
“A lot of us on the faculty side felt a sense of relief that leadership and top-down communication was actually a good thing because it horizontalized the communication in a way that was less ambiguous,” Dr. Martinez said.
Every department has different dynamics surrounding communication, and the pandemic’s impacts have not been limited to one group of faculty in particular, according to Dr. Martinez. For many faculty, explicit communication needed to come from the administration.
“I do think that people felt — and this is just related to the anxieties surrounding experiencing and living through a pandemic — like they wanted more information, more clearly, sooner,” Dr. Martinez said.
Dr. Martinez explained that one cause for concern among professors was course evaluations. Administrators framed them as optional, and they would no longer have to count for junior faculty who are more vulnerable to the data from the assessments. Dr. Martinez would have preferred not to administer evaluations at all; given the circumstances, she felt course evaluations seemed unnecessary.
“I know that some of us pushed back,” said Dr. Martinez. “Let’s just not have course evaluations because people are going to feel this extra anxiety, like they still have to be performing in a way as though they’re not experiencing stress and anxiety because of the pandemic, and the remote shift that was sudden.”
On May 21st, President Carol Quillen hosted a town hall event, moderated by SGA representative Wren Healy ‘23 and geared towards answering questions from the classes of 2022 and 2023 about the upcoming semester. Lipp believed that students were looking for concrete answers at the town hall, but many came away with more anxiety.
“That town hall for me was like placing a Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” expressed Lipp. “I think it might have incited more anxiety than it helped, but at least they were trying to communicate with us and providing that platform to share our concerns.”
Johnson described the thought process behind Davidson’s communication to students, commenting: “We focused on unprecedented topics [through various channels], such as: how the campus is being cleaned, how classrooms and facilities have been reconfigured, how meals are served, even how the ventilation system works. We worked to emphasize safety protocols to the campus community and campus visitors through emails, social media messages, signs and posters.”
Fenner said that it was difficult for OTMs to answer questions from first-years about interacting with students outside their residence halls, what clubs would look like, and general concerns about establishing themselves on campus during a pandemic. He commented that the Town Halls did not discuss the practicalities of social life, which put a burden on OTMs.
Sempowski, whose mother is a member of the Facebook Group for Davidson parents, said that every day before the fall semester started, she saw comments from first-year parents confused about Davidson’s policies.
“It sounded like their children weren’t communicating what they were being communicated,” he said. He recognized that first-year students might not have been accustomed to regularly checking their college email, which could have led to a disconnect.
To communicate with students over the summer, the college opted for channels such as email, social media, and Zoom panels. The number of emails were overwhelming for some Davidson students.
“It seemed like it was a lot of emails for a long time that were like, ‘we don’t know how things are going to look,’ and that was less reassuring than what a lot of people were looking for. I would have preferred something more clear,” Lawton said.
Sempowski felt similarly, commenting, “We got an email every other day with some changing of information or reiterating the same information. It felt overwhelming at times with the information that we were receiving about coming back.”
As the semester progresses, Davidson continues to use email to update students on campus-wide policy changes. However, some noted that one email is not sufficient to expect students to process and successfully execute the changes.
“Emails get piled up and sometimes people aren’t checking those all the time,” expressed Fenner. He added that students should not be the only ones responsible to remind each other of the new policies. Fenner suggested the college use the SAFER system to remind students when a major policy changes.
“The transparency has to be clear when it comes to protocols and procedures and shifts. I think we need repetitive communication around that because sometimes it’s really easy to go back to business as usual,” Dr. Martinez said.
Magner thinks multiple information channels might be helpful for students, calling for “any way to put that information in places where students are interacting on a daily basis, on the place where you log your symptoms, just to constantly remind students what the new policy is.”
He acknowledged that posting flyers around campus to remind students to maintain the proper health guidelines is a step in the right direction, but he wondered if professors or residential advisors could also play a role in reminding their students when the college changes a rule.
Sempowski added that, while the COVID-19 dashboard has proved helpful, he thinks the college should release the number of students in quarantine. “One case is small, but if that one person came into contact with 20 people, and then those 20 people are in quarantine, that’s information that we should know,” he said.
Sempowski said that he was originally confused by the different styles of classes and did not understand that “hybrid” classes would mean something different to every professor. He commented that he was surprised to discover that each of his classes has a different format this semester.
Dr. Martinez explained that professors had control over the teaching mode for their classes this semester, and these decisions were based on individual circumstances and safety needs. When the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) banned international students from entering the country if enrolled in online classes, Davidson faculty worked to create a model that was inclusive to the international population.
Since students are now more isolated from one another, they no longer have the luxury of engaging in authentic interactions to share information with one another. As a result, individual students might become confused about all the information they receive. Similarly, faculty members no longer have the same channels for informal debriefs to share opinions and discuss information with one another. “The professors joke about it as being ‘meetings before the meeting’ or ‘meetings after the meetings,’” Dr. Martinez commented.
To act in place of those casual interpersonal interactions, the COVID-19 Response Team began releasing the “Davidson Non-news,” a rumor debunking series that supplies clarity on hearsay. During a time of crisis, Fenner emphasized how rumors can be dangerous, so the college’s attempt to clarify its policies provides reassurance to the Davidson community.
“That’s a nice thing about Davidson: they handled student critiques and modified their plan,” Lipp said. “And it’s showing by our COVID numbers — we’re not spiking, and we’re a month into school.”