Harris Rogers ’21 and Kaizad Irani ’22
As the world grapples with how to respond to and control the coronavirus pandemic, the majority of colleges and universities in the United States have begun to close campuses and adapt to the possibility of indefinite virtual instruction.
Although Vice President for Finance and Administration Ann McCorvey initially informed students via email on March 10th that the College did not “have plans to send students home and shift to virtual or remote instruction,” everything changed two days later. On Thursday, March 12th at 3:30pm, Davidson College joined other North Carolina schools in trying to stop the spread of COVID-19 by suspending in-person classes and asking all students to leave campus by the following Wednesday. This action is unprecedented in the College’s history. Davidson began evacuating one day before President Trump declared a state of national emergency.
President Quillen’s email asked for all students who were able to do so to vacate resident halls by Wednesday, March 18th to reduce the density of students on campus. Her email prohibited gatherings of 50 individuals or greater and promised “subsequent communications” would provide students with further information. The email also announced the transition to virtual campus tours, although in-person admissions tours continued through Saturday. After receiving President Quillen’s email, students flooded out of academic buildings and dorms with phones held to their ears as they communicated the news to friends and relatives.
The initial email on Thursday left students with a number of questions, including whether in-person classes would resume during this semester or whether they would be reimbursed for partially unfulfilled services, such as room and board expenses. Dean of Students Byron McCrae quickly sent a follow-up email to confirm that some students would be allowed to stay on campus, emphasizing that the College “will not displace an international student who cannot return home or a student who has no place to go.”
In the days since, the College has further clarified questions through the story platform on Davidson’s official Instagram account. Responses on the story confirmed that students will not return for the remainder of the semester. Additionally, the College will distribute refunds to students with unfulfilled room and board, as well as the remainder of their meal plans.
Davidson’s response comes during a rapidly intensifying global pandemic. As of March 18th, the World Health Organization (WHO) had reported 191,127 confirmed cases and 7,807 deaths worldwide. Of the confirmed cases, 81,116 were reported in China; however China has experienced a slowed spread of COVID-19, with only 39 new cases reported on Tuesday. The spread appears to be accelerating in other areas of the world, particularly in Western Europe and the United States. WHO reported 1,822 new cases in the United States on Tuesday. By Wednesday, March 18th, the United States had 7,038 total confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 97 reported deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
Dr. David Wessner, a professor of biology at Davidson and an expert in infectious diseases, emphasized that we know very little about this strain of coronavirus due to its “novel” status. According to Dr. Wessner, “we don’t have any historical facts or figures” upon which to base our response. The strain’s behavior is unknown, as “we haven’t been through a cycle of this coronavirus before.”
Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a member of the larger coronavirus family. Related viruses have historically caused international concerns. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) are both caused by associated coronaviruses with individual mortality rates of approximately 10 percent and 30 percent, respectively, according to Dr. Wessner. So far, COVID-19 has an initial estimated mortality rate of between 2.5-3 percent but appears to spread far more easily within human populations than these previous viruses. Each infected person spreads the disease to approximately two other people on average, according to Dr. Wessner.
However, Dr. Wessner asserted that we may see a decrease in the mortality rate as more cases are confirmed: “At first, only very sick people were being tested, and very sick people tended to die.” Therefore, as officials detect and confirm more cases with milder symptoms, the mortality may decline. Still, the rate will likely remain significantly higher than the seasonal influenza, which can have a mortality of around 0.1 to 0.3 percent, reaffirmed Dr. Wessner.
In regard to the potential spread of COVID-19 at Davidson College, Dr. Wessner believes that “it is already here.” He “would be surprised if someone didn’t come back without having been exposed,” as Davidson students travelled to highly impacted areas throughout the country and internationally while on spring break from February 28th to March 9th. A national shortage of tests has led to a limited ability to detect the virus, including at Davidson. According to Wessner, only around 250 tests were available for the entire state of North Carolina at time of comment. One quarantined Davidson student has since tested negative for COVID-19.
Following Davidson’s deadline for students to leave campus, most classes resumed Wednesday, March 18th via online platforms like Moodle, Dropbox, and Zoom, an online-conferencing software. Davidson’s Chief Information Officer Kevin Davis feels optimistic about the switch to Zoom, as the College recently obtained a new license that allows faculty to use Zoom conferencing with up to 100 participants.
“Zoom is a very popular system. We’ve used it here at Davidson for a number of cases, including meetings, and even in the Davidson in Silicon Valley program,” shared Davis. “So far, there has been training for faculty in terms of tips for using Zoom, and I have seen a lot of great faculty collaboration.”
While Davidson has used Zoom in the past, Davis acknowledged some of the challenges that can come from a campus-wide spread to remote instruction.
“I anticipate that the biggest challenge that the Davidson community will see is just getting used to using Zoom, like any other piece of technology. However, I really have loved watching our community come together and be proactive about learning the program, and we feel that Zoom is easy enough for most people to get comfortable with,” expressed Davis.
Along with ease of use, Davis pointed out some of the features he enjoys about Zoom, such as the ability to easily share computer screens with large groups of people and the program’s ability to run on limited bandwidth. Additionally, T&I is working to provide resources for students who may need support accessing online classes by offering laptop and Verizon internet hotspot rentals.
“Ultimately, this is a stressful situation for everyone, and we encourage everyone to reach out to us with any questions,” Davis said. “We want this transition to be as seamless and effective as possible.”
The Davidson administration’s response incorporated several forward-thinking policies meant to aid students. In addition to promised refunds, Davidson will provide student-employees who are unable to work remotely with a lump sum payment of the average of their hours worked prior to the announcement. In an article published March 16th, The Atlantic lauded the College for assisting students in need with moving costs by providing free shuttles and free storage. SGA also shared a Google document on March 13th in order to connect alumni with students in need of further help or resources. In an email Wednesday, Dean McCrae and Dean of Faculty Philip Jefferson also announced that students would have the option of pass-failing any and all classes from the 2020 semester, including those within a major or minor.
Beyond assisting in the transition process, campus officials have also continuously encouraged students to take individual actions to maintain their health and protect those around them. There are a number of practices that can help limit one’s risk of contracting COVID-19. The CDC recommends washing your hands frequently for 20 seconds; avoiding touching your hands, nose, and mouth; disinfecting common surfaces frequently; and wearing a face mask only if you are sick. Finally, avoid public spaces and practice “social distancing,” or remaining at least six feet away from others, when possible.
The College has used these recommendations to modify daily life for those who remain on campus. Specifically, Vail Commons (the only dining option still open) began serving all meals to-go beginning Wednesday night.
Though students will not resume in person classes this semester, questions linger about summer and fall plans. Those questions will remain unanswered, as the future of the pandemic is still largely unknown.
This disease, according to Dr. Wessner, “could be a seasonal infectious disease,” dissipating like common influenza as spring arrives and temperatures warm. However, until then Davidson will operate remotely for the first time in school history to strive to slow the pandemic.
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