Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact that we are all interdependent was reinforced with every public cough, every canceled party, and every new infection. As our health and safety became more directly tied to the actions of others, responsible behavior became an act of care for our communities.
This sense of community and cooperation was a central theme during our discussions with pandemic response leaders from Northeastern University (NU), the University of North Florida (UNF), and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Despite unique challenges, all three successfully united their students, faculty, and broader communities to protect the campus experience. In particular, respecting the requirements of robust testing and contact tracing programs allowed these communities to safely continue in-person learning as COVID-19 rates surged.
“We’ve worked flawlessly together because COVID-19 threatened us all personally. No one on this planet wasn’t threatened by it,” noted UNF’s Emergency Manager, Bob Greenlaw.
For universities that excelled, the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic fostered equally unprecedented acts of teamwork.
A Strong Response
At the beginning of the pandemic, many universities went through a similar experience. In spring 2020, students were sent home and administrators were left scrambling to plan for the future – fast. New technology was licensed, and virtual classes began amidst all the uncertainty.
While some universities accepted this situation as the new norm, others fought back in defense of the student experience – including UIUC. UIUC Provost Andreas Cangellaris and his taskforce began an ambitious plan to bring 34,000 undergraduate students back to campus in the fall for in-person learning.
“We were driven by the desire to make sure that students weren’t being kept away from the life of a residential university. As we have seen over the past year, social distancing driven by health and wellness does cause emotional and psychological stress on everyone,” said Cangellaris. “Young people can’t afford to lose a single day of their social encounters that help them form who they are.”
At Northeastern University, Associate Dean Dr. Jared Auclair and team also stepped up to preserve campus life and the health of the community. NU set out to establish a brand new CLIA-certified lab to process COVID-19 tests for students. It was an investment of time and money that paid off.
“In mid-June, we made the final decision to make that investment and had a lab space identified by July,” he said. “From there, we had about six weeks to hire the staff, pick the tests, and get all the validations in place.”
The new lab could process 2,500 tests each week by the time students returned to campus. By October, capacity had increased to an impressive 20,000 tests per week. This achievement illustrates the power of collaboration and ambition.
Maximizing Existing Expertise
At UNF, the combination of unique talents and expertise from both staff and students was critical to the success of its COVID-19 response program. Bob Greenlaw, a 40-year veteran of emergency management, was tapped to lead a taskforce with the support of Dr. Doreen Perez. A retired Student Health Director, Dr. Perez was coaxed back to UNF during this critical period, which desperately needed people with her background and expertise.
“Like Bob, I’m retired Army, so we both had a lot of experience and training in teamwork,” she said. “I was in the Nurse Corps, and we would set up combat support hospitals in the field, so this was a bit similar. We were setting up COVID-19 testing and clinics ‘in the field.’”
This readiness to work as a team paid off. One key decision was to tap students from UNF’s School of Nursing to support the university’s pandemic response. As hospitals came under COVID-19 lockdowns, these students were unable to complete their required clinical training hours. The UNF COVID-19 response program presented a built-in solution for these students, who stepped up to become a valuable part of the team effort.
“Our nursing students were able to partner with us to do testing, and later, vaccination clinics to get their clinical time in. It was a win-win for everyone,” noted Greenlaw.
Winning Over the Student Body
Even the best laid plans would have been futile if the local student population wasn’t on board. Understandably, the pandemic response leaders encountered some skepticism. Getting buy-in from a demographic inclined towards close and frequent social contact wasn’t going to be easy.
“When we started this, my daughter told me, ‘You’re out of your mind if you think college students are going to wear masks everywhere,’” said Greenlaw. “I loved to show her pictures, because if you saw even one out of a hundred students not wearing a mask on campus, that was very unusual.”
At all three universities, students readily took ownership of their pandemic response and worked together to promote a culture of responsibility. This engagement of the entire community was critical to success at each campus. NU promoted its response efforts with a hashtag (#ProtectThePack), which helped students grasp the importance of taking care of each other as a community. At UNF, students manned tables handing out masks and encouraging one another to do their part to keep campus safe.
“Engaging the entire community is really significant as you deal with crises like these. I’ve seen how influential the voices of students are as they talk to peers about changing their behavior,” said Dr. Cangellaris, summing up the importance of student collaboration in UIUC’s campus pandemic response.
Administrators from these three universities also shared another important commonality: despite the chaos and sacrifices, their respective communities emerged stronger and more united than ever. Working together to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 highlighted how important interconnectedness is to the university experience.
“It’s part of what I believe that we, as universities, are trying to instill in people,” explained Dr. Cangellaris. “When you think about the common good, your personal interests should take the backseat. It’s the common good you’re going after.”
For information on how Thermo Fisher Scientific can support your university COVID-19 testing needs, download our free Guide to Asymptomatic Population Testing or get connected to a testing service provider.