A COVID-19 Report Card

Now that our semester is officially complete and grades are in, we can look back with some relief on our in-person portion of the semester. Nothing was normal, but things did go as planned, starting with the precautions we took—universal mask wearing, social distancing in the classroom, disinfecting seats and tables, and regular COVID testing.

From August 13th through November 20th we administered 25,198 COVID tests and had 28 positives. That’s 1/10 of 1%, which I think is amazing. While the entire campus deserves credit, our students deserve congratulations for doing all they could to help us reach this milestone. Throughout the semester, I continued to hear, from first year students to seniors, that they were truly thankful to be on campus. Even student athletes, who saw their fall contests cancelled, appreciated their six weeks of training, conditioning, and practice.

I attended a couple of faculty workshops on tips and techniques for classroom enhancement on Zoom. Faculty helped fellow faculty to better deliver the curriculum. The admissions staff pivoted to interactive virtual events for prospective students. Our counseling and tutoring programs offered video options. Our dining service Sodexo implemented grab and go choices, and the list goes on.

We redefined “Home for the Holidays” by ending our in-person semester just before Thanksgiving. Students and faculty completed the term remotely, without having to return to campus and risking any spread of the virus.

Now we can look ahead to spring semester classes, which are scheduled to begin February 1st, almost three weeks later than usual. We chose this starting date based on concern about COVID in the winter months.

Hopefully, the current troubling trends nationwide and in our region will reverse and vaccines will begin to be administered widely by then. Regardless, we will have the same protocols and testing regimen in place, leaving nothing to chance.

Our campus has proven that when times are tough, Bison are tougher. We’re looking forward to a happy new year of eventually returning to education, athletic competition, and social life as usual.

An Extraordinary Thanksgiving

It was just me and my husband Dave on Thanksgiving Day this year. We were initially planning an outdoor afternoon of fun and feast at my son’s house, but the weather forecast for cold and downpours squashed that idea. We were thankful for Zoom, because that’s how we saw our two kids, their spouses, and four grandkids.

We typically spend the holiday together in person. Three years ago, my daughter-in-law asked if she could take over the hosting and primary cooking responsibilities. Gotta love it! I can’t wait to get back to that newer tradition.

The arrival of Thanksgiving coincided with the end of in person classes at Nichols, but not without a culinary celebration—our annual “moonlight breakfast” on Sunday, November 15th. There was a socially-distanced seating option and a take-out option offered due to COVID-19 restrictions in Massachusetts. Many faculty and staff were there (including myself), and students seemed in high spirits even though it was far from our normal routine.

Given the prediction that COVID-19 would spike again once cooler temperatures arrived (which did happen), the decision was made during the summer that it would be safest to send students home for Thanksgiving break and finish the semester remotely via Zoom.
The efforts of our students, staff, and faculty, COVID-19 protocols and testing schedules, and removing any breaks that we would normally have during the fall semester made it possible to achieve our goal of being on campus and offering in person classes until November 24.

Meanwhile, I’m thankful that there is a light at the end of this COVID-19 tunnel, with vaccines on the horizon.

I do hope students, staff and faculty took a moment to truly appreciate all we have to be thankful for this year. And I hope they remain safe and healthy.

Our New Normal

We’re entering our seventh week back on campus. The new normal is mask-on-mask communication and teaching, COVID testing at least weekly, and lots of outdoor time and activities. We have been five weeks with ZERO positive tests out of 9,493 tests! Overall, we’re at 4 positive test results out of 12,323 as of October 2.

Once I knew we had the option of COVID testing and getting timely results through the Broad Institute of Cambridge, I felt very comfortable that testing, along with measures we’ve taken on campus and in the classrooms, would keep our community as safe as possible.

Students seem truly grateful to be on campus and are doing all they can to keep the herd safe. I teach a senior PDS class this semester, and they have been very determined to finish their senior year on campus.

Thanks to excellent weather the past six weeks, we have been able to make extensive use of the great outdoors. Tents near Lombard and Daniels Auditorium have allowed students to study, take a boxed meal, or get together in the open air. Intramurals have started up for softball, wiffle ball and kickball. Outdoor movies are shown (weather permitting), food trucks make an occasional visit, and the list goes on.

While fall sports competition has been cancelled, our teams remain active. During the first two weeks of the semester, masked student athletes did individual strength and conditioning at social distances until we saw how testing was going. In mid-semester, athletics transitioned to workouts and practice in groups of 10 by team. Currently, the majority of our teams are transitioning into phase two of our approach which allows for larger groups and move involved practices.

There are always concerns making decisions during a state of uncertainty. That said, I always believed we had a solid plan for in-person classes and residential students this fall.

Celebrating the Class of 2020

On the morning of Saturday, May 2nd, Nichols celebrated Commencement as usual. Not really. Commencement in the time of COVID-19 has turned into a unique experience for almost every college in the country. It posed a challenge to make this occasion as meaningful as possible to our seniors, their loved ones, and their friends.

While the graduates have been promised an in-person Commencement at a later date, I wanted students to come away from the celebration event feeling recognized, properly honored, and loved. They spent four good years at Nichols, made strong friendships, learned much, and now are headed to success in their chosen careers.

For me, this felt bittersweet. I missed being able to see students in person during the end of the semester and their typical senior week events. Nevertheless, we stayed upbeat and celebratory while still being mindful that we were celebrating in the midst of an international health crisis.

“The disruption you experienced this semester is unprecedented. but can there be a better class number than 2020? I think not,” I intoned on Zoom. “I remember joking about this during our Fall 2016 welcome event. I said that you would be able to look back on your time at Nichols with perfect 20/20 vision. And will you ever.”

This celebration also conjured numbers of the digital kind. At our peak, we had over 750 people around the country and beyond watching live at the same time. By the following Monday morning, we counted nearly 3,000 views. The livestream garnered 150 comments, and across our social media channels, the event resulted in over 168,000 impressions on Saturday alone.

As I reassured the graduates in virtual attendance — in real time or asynchronously, “Think of the story you will tell in the years and decades ahead to your children and grandchildren. With your perfect hindsight, you’ll say, ‘Back in my time, in the Class of 2020, we made history!’”

Yes, we did.

Going Up!

One of my favorite springtime activities is the annual Elevator Speech Competition, for which I serve as a judge and rapt audience member. This year I had to fulfill both roles online for the first time. And, so did the Nichols students who presented via the videoconferencing app Zoom and were streamed live to an audience far from campus.

The Elevator Speech Competition requires students to make their case to a potential employer in about the time it takes that conveyance to reach the higher floors. And at Nichols, it’s become a study in the personal accomplishments, self-awareness, and self-confidence of students reaching for their own career heights.

A majority of the competitors in 2020 were first-year students. They were amazingly poised and articulate. Many talked about adversity they had overcome. All were quite brave giving a speech from their homes via Zoom.

It was hard selecting a winner. For the first time, there were two first place winners. Alex Stroshine, a senior Finance Major and a 4+1 student simultaneously pursuing her master’s degree, focused on the importance of balancing self with others and embracing change. Hannah Vangel, a transfer student and junior psychology major, talked about the importance of a growth mindset and, in accepting her prize, noted how welcoming she has found Nichols since she arrived.

This year’s competition joined other spring semester activities—from the annual academic awards ceremony in April to the Class of 2020 Celebration earlier this month—all taking place virtually. These occasions demonstrated the commitment in all areas of the College to ensure our students stayed connected and had good experiences over the last six weeks of the semester. While not quite as good as being there in person, the events certainly celebrated, honored, and showcased our amazing students.

The 2020 elevator speeches of all participating students now live on YouTube.

Another thing these students have in common: They are all definitely going up!