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W&M adapts, transforms and innovates to meet challenges of pandemic

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     Carey Bagdassarian, senior lecturer of interdisciplinary studies, teaches a class in an outdoor learning space near the Sunken Garden on William & Mary's campus.  Photo by Jim Agnew
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Since early days of what would become the COVID-19 pandemic, the William & Mary community has engaged in the herculean work of managing and adapting to operations during a global public health crisis. 

“In March (2020), we set out goals that were simple to describe yet incredibly difficult to achieve in such an uncertain and constantly changing environment,” W&M President Katherine A. Rowe said in a message of gratitude at the end of the fall semester. “Our goals have been, and continue to be: to safeguard this community’s health and wellbeing, to the best of our ability – so that students can continue to learn and live together and faculty and staff can continue in the work they are passionate about.”

Such adaptation required unprecedented creativity and resourcefulness from employees, who rallied to adjust academic, administrative and staff operations to safeguard the health of the W&M community.

“Faculty and staff adapted to telework, new research requirements, blended learning and a transformed campus environment,” Rowe said. “More than 500 staff and administrators took on entirely new jobs, working flat out to create a robust testing, quarantine & isolation and case management program, mentoring for students studying off-campus and more.” 

William & Mary transformed its operations in innovative ways – while safeguarding the health of the community and ensuring that students maintained momentum toward their degrees.

Adapting pedagogy & learning environment

Faculty and staff adjusted to new ways of teaching and supporting student learning, all while charting unknown terrain. Classrooms were reconfigured to meet physical distancing guidelines, a testing program was established and the university’s Healthy Together Community Commitment was created to establish a set of shared norms for the university’s community.

The Studio for Teaching & Learning Innovation offered an assortment of resources to help faculty members throughout the transition to remote teaching and learning, from daily webinars to drop-in sessions and new tutorials. STLI is currently partnering with students and others across the university to identify new possibilities and innovative approaches to carry forward what has been learned this year. 

The Reves Center team had to kick into high gear to bring back hundreds of study abroad students last spring, pivoting to new virtual and in-country alternatives for students and maintaining support for hundreds of international students stranded outside the U.S., while launching new programming by hosting virtual discussions and debates about pressing global issues throughout the pandemic.

William & Mary faculty across several departments developed a variety of creative — and even ingenious — solutions to conducting lab sections in a pandemic, finding new ways to impart to students practical, hands-on experience in a laboratory environment – with or without access to the lab.

Hundreds of William & Mary undergraduates managed to participate in faculty-mentored research projects this past summer, because Charles Center and William & Mary Libraries staff figured out a way for students to conduct research during COVID-19 restrictions.

“Academic advising had to evolve with the changing modality of our meetings with students,” Shelly Laurenzo, associate director of W&M’s Office of Academic Advising. “Thanks to Zoom, when we met with students, we were often meeting with the entire family, the entire world around a student. We were able to take an even more holistic approach to the advising process, pulling in our colleagues in other departments, which we will continue to do going forward.”  

William & Mary Libraries overhauled its physical and virtual offerings to the university community. Library workers teamed together to reconfigure work/study areas in Swem library  to accommodate physical distancing protocols.

Carrie Cooper, dean of W&M Libraries, explained that a significant contribution to the de-densification effort was removing shelves and increasing the natural light in the largest open study space in Swem. The library’s Read & Relax space doubled in size, adding 10,000 square feet of study space.

Pivoting the entire campus to remote and hybrid methods of teaching, learning and working required the persistent support of William & Mary Information Technology. The office was tasked with developing – and delivered –  sustainable solutions to all the new modalities of operating that followed the shift to remote work and life, explained W&M’s Chief Technology Officer Corinne Picataggi.

“As divisions across the university explored how best to thrive during the pandemic, IT was often at the table to partner by taking on new work, designing solutions and offering expertise,” she said. 

Building & sustaining community

William & Mary’s Campus Living team was tasked with finding ways to safely house students in the close quarters of residence halls. The team created a completely contactless check-in process and found new ways to conduct student orientation programs

“Creating ways to promote togetherness while necessarily prohibiting joining together in person took on a new art form,” said Maggie Evans, W&M’s Associate Vice President for Campus Living and Director of Residence Life.

William & Mary’s Student Engagement & Leadership Office found innovative ways to promote togetherness on campus by using outdoor space -- adding new lighting, Adirondack chairs, fire pits, swings and hammocks. The team advised 450 student organizations on how to continue their work, both virtually and in-person.  

The university’s Student Affairs staff stepped up to support William & Mary’s COVID-19 response, attending to the physical and mental health needs of students during the pandemic. A case management team was established to help guide people who tested positive or were in close contact with someone who had, and Richmond Hall became the first location of quarantine and isolation housing for students.

The university’s Conference & Event Services shifted gears completely to manage Q&I housing, which has been a 24/7 operation since August. Kathleen Mazzitti, director of events for University Advancement, shifted from coordinating large-scale events to leading the COVID-19 testing coordination team that executed all COVID-19 testing for the university. Athletics staff were retrained to take on testing protocols for student-athletes to implement the regular cadence of testing required to compete.

The university also launched a dashboard to provide the community the latest data on current cases among students and employees. Additionally, a Public Health Advisory Team was created to provide the COVID Response Team with expert guidance, based on medical research, scientific data, guidance from federal and state agencies and consultation with professional peers.

Throughout it all, William & Mary’s Cohen Career Center team has kept their eyes on the future. The team reached out to students and recent alumni to help foster deep human connection and support students in a difficult job market. 

Charged by the Office of the President, William & Mary stood up a new Career Pathways Team, pulling together 76 professionals from across campus to support students and alumni in the economic downturn that resulted from the pandemic.

“The team made care calls to all W&M seniors using data to reach and connect with those who needed career support most,” said Kathleen Powell, Career Pathways Team leader and associate vice president for career development at the Cohen Center. “We provided a continuation of services and programs without missing a beat!”