Inside administrators’ scramble to prepare as COVID-19 crept closer to campus

On the first day of spring break, Duke’s campus was mobbed. 

The warm afternoon sun beat down on a crowd of rowdy students pouring into Krzyzewskiville, eager to inaugurate another game day with a bit of revelry. Soon, they entered Cameron Indoor Stadium and packed tightly into Section 17, facing down the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thousands of other fans, equally unaware they were witnessing Duke’s final game of the season, meandered through crowded concourses and squeezed into their seats. 

Around two hours later, the Blue Devils had defeated the Tar Heels. Students and visitors rushed the quad to continue the longstanding tradition of burning campus benches. Hundreds pressed close to the fire, eager to mark the moment by snapping a memorable photo. No masks were in sight. “Social distancing” had not yet entered mainstream vocabulary. One last hurrah of normalcy in a college experience torn asunder by the threat of COVID-19. 

The next morning, campus was bathed in quiet, the quads emptied of their normal hustle and bustle. It has stayed that way ever since.    

Within a matter of days, as students were scattered across the globe on spring break, President Vincent Price announced that classes would transition online. Students were discouraged from returning to campus, and dorms were shuttered except for those granted permission to stay. The jarring message was the product of a long series of hastily drafted emails, midnight meetings and pandemic protocols that would permanently alter the remainder of the semester. 

In the aftermath of Duke’s response, The Chronicle spoke with key administrators to discuss the decisions that shaped the University’s actions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They described a hectic, ever-changing environment that involved communication with not only other institutions but also various levels of government.

Mary Pat McMahon, vice president and vice provost for student affairs, had been a part of Duke’s COVID-19 response standing committee since January. And as she surveyed the UNC postgame festivities March 7, McMahon had an inkling she was witnessing something special.

“When I was standing among all those celebrating students at the bonfire on the West quad after the UNC-Duke game, I recall thinking that it might really be a possibility—and how strange it would be—if that moment was our last gathering for the term,” she told The Chronicle.

On that night, benches went up in flames. Days later, Spring semester would suffer the same fate. 

DKU: A model for Duke’s response

Before the coronavirus threatened Durham, administrators were mainly focused on the implications for Duke Kunshan University. DKU’s campus is located around 400 miles from Wuhan, China, placing it relatively close to the virus’s initial epicenter.

In January, several administrators visited DKU to meet with students and discuss plans for the semester when they would come study in Durham. Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education; John Blackshear, interim dean for academic affairs in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences; and McMahon surveyed the scene as the outbreak began its spread. After returning to Durham, they would maintain close contact—virtually, of course—with their colleagues in China.

DKU’s weeklong spring festival break, in observance of the Chinese New Year, began Jan. 24. One day later, administrators announced that classes would be postponed until Feb. 17 and mandated that only essential personnel be allowed on campus. International students were allotted $1,000 for a flight home.

By the end of January, DKU had extended its hiatus and announced that courses would shift online starting Feb. 24. This provided a trial run of sorts for Duke’s Learning Innovation team, which tackled the logistical challenges of turning a university designed for face-to-face learning into an entirely remote enterprise.

The team largely relied on existing technologies, such as Sakai, to communicate information, and adopted Zoom, previously unlicensed in China, for remote course delivery.

Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit organization focusing on academics and technology, described the difficulties of implementing the technology in a case study of DKU’s response.

“While Zoom allows for synchronous video conferencing, there were concerns about relying excessively or exclusively on synchronous meetings, particularly because of the various time zones where faculty and students were located,” the report states. “Coordinating synchronous meetings was going to be extremely difficult and make everyone’s participation more challenging.”

Equity was a driving ideal in mounting DKU’s shift online, and there were concerns that synchronous classes would disadvantage students in inconvenient time zones. Although there were drawbacks to asynchronous classes—faculty were worried that they might be more “isolating” due to the lack of connection with peers—DKU encouraged professors to implement an asynchronous teaching style.

“This is a tradeoff, and other institutions might have made a different decision, for instance if their students are less geographically dispersed and had more consistent access to the internet,” the report says. 

As a relatively new institution, DKU had a standardized syllabus framework that eased the transition process. The Center for Learning and Teaching at DKU coordinated webinars for students and faculty, incorporating 24/7 support from both the Durham and Kunshan campuses. Because many students were away from campus on break when the announcement was made, some laptops had to be mailed, and faculty worked to move reading materials online.

Although implementing online classes at Duke would be more complex and occur on a larger scale, Bennett explained that the work at DKU informed the Durham campus’s eventual transition.

A growing threat

Duke’s initial response to COVID-19 was largely focused on overseas interests, such as DKU and study abroad programs. However, it became increasingly clear that the virus would soon threaten the University’s main campus.

Vice President of Administration Kyle Cavanaugh is Duke’s emergency coordinator, charged with responding to weather threats, fires and pandemics. He led the COVID-19 emergency standing committee, which as of mid-May had been holding daily meetings since the end of January. 

The group began relatively small, Cavanaugh explained, consisting of a few infectious disease physicians, but eventually expanded to nearly 30 members encompassing a wide swath of constituencies at Duke.

“As it moved from being a global, international focus to one that was really impacting our campus, we then have continued to add individuals on to that group,” Cavanaugh said. “That included groups from Student Affairs, from the provost’s office, from all of our facilities operations—it’s grown to be a very large group that’s been working intensely during the last couple of months.”

Initial efforts were focused on developing protocols to account for travelers who may have brought the virus back with them. For example, an individual showing COVID-19 symptoms who had recently passed through Wuhan was admitted to Duke Hospital Jan. 24. Although the test was negative, the hospital began developing protocols for patients with the virus.

By the end of January, Duke had banned University-funded travel to China. As the situation worsened, McMahon sent an email mid-February addressing international students’ concerns about potential spring break travel plans, noting that guidance would continue to shift in the coming weeks.

Throughout February, as the outbreak burgeoned in China and spread to other areas such as Italy and the state of Washington, Duke’s emergency team continued monitoring the landscape and discussing potential contingency plans. 

“Because of DKU's trajectory, the concept of not having students return [to campus] was always somewhere in our frame of consideration,” McMahon explained.

Matthew Rascoff, associate vice provost for digital education and innovation, and Learning Innovation Director Shawn Miller spearheaded the eventual effort to move learning online. They noted that preparations for emergency remote teaching for the Durham campus began in late February, a time when administrators were continuing to evaluate multiple options in a rapidly shifting landscape.

In the week leading up to spring break, Duke's warnings and preparations grew more serious. 

“AT THIS POINT, WE STRONGLY ENCOURAGE YOU TO RECONSIDER ANY INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL OVER SPRING BREAK,” McMahon wrote in capitalized boldface to students Feb. 29, highlighting COVID-19’s spread to South Korea, Italy, Iran, Japan and Hong Kong. Students traveling outside the country were encouraged to use the Duke Travel Registry to ease tracking of potential troubling situations.

On March 6, the Friday before spring break and last day of in-person classes for the semester, McMahon announced new self-isolation policies. Students visiting a Level 2 or Level 3 country, as designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, would be required to self-isolate off campus for two weeks before returning to Duke. 

Additionally, East House underwent preparations to house students who might have COVID-19, according to Joe Gonzalez, assistant vice president of student affairs and dean for residential life. 

Crews installed equipment to establish a negative air pressure in the dorm, designed to prevent pathogens from escaping the building. Preparations also included installing washers and dryers, setting up vending machines, providing medical supplies, and furnishing rooms with bedding and linens. 

Gonzalez explained that because the University’s response shifted in favor of sending students home, East House was used to house only a “handful” of students—around five.

“You tried to plan and prepare, but then the circumstances changed, so you just had to start over and plan again—keep elements from what you’ve done before that still make sense, but develop completely new elements with the new circumstances,” Gonzalez said.

It was under these auspices that students celebrated a Duke victory March 7 and embarked on their spring breaks. When asked whether administrators considered alerting students before break that they might be unable to return to campus, McMahon explained that the situation was shifting too rapidly for such a warning to be practical. 

“I don’t think it was clear on the Friday before spring break that we were going to be where we were on that Tuesday,” she said.

Gonzalez agreed, explaining that shifting classes online while the majority of students were off campus—and the majority of their items were on campus—made logistics much more complicated. Ultimately, however, it wasn’t a statement administrators felt comfortable making given the circumstances.

“In retrospect, it would’ve been great if we could have encouraged students to take everything with them,” Gonzalez explained. “But at the time, people were expecting to come back, so it wouldn’t have made sense to tell them to do that.” 

‘A cruise ship that you can’t keep from docking’

The dominoes began falling March 6, when the University of Washington—embroiled in Seattle’s snowballing number of COVID-19 cases—announced its shift to remote learning. On March 8, Columbia University suspended classes for two days in preparation for online course delivery, and two days later, even bigger dominoes tumbled as Harvard University announced that its courses would resume online after spring break.

In Durham, McMahon described a flurry of meetings and conference calls each day as colleges took drastic action to curb the potential of cases spreading on campus. 

Duke administrators were in constant contact with their colleagues at other universities, alongside local, state and federal government regarding the latest advisories, Cavanaugh and Bennett added. 

“As we watched the CDC and the global picture shift rapidly in those next couple of days [following the Duke-UNC game], we realized that action was needed,” McMahon noted.

On the afternoon of March 10, she said, administrators agreed to transition to online courses and extend spring break by a week to accommodate the shift. Provost Sally Kornbluth explained that the decision was not made by a single person but was instead “based on intense ongoing discussions with the senior leadership team as a whole.” Later that evening, at around 7:30 p.m., Price announced that classes would shift online indefinitely via an email to the Duke community. 

“President Price and I were in complete agreement that this was the best option to both keep the campus safe and sustain our critical educational mission,” Kornbluth wrote in an email to The Chronicle. 

Jack Bovender, chair of Duke’s Board of Trustees, wrote that none of the actions taken in that period required explicit Board approval. Nonetheless, Price and other senior administrators regularly consulted trustees during the process.

Cavanaugh and McMahon cited the importance of maintaining student, staff and faculty safety, in addition to the health system’s capacity, as influences behind the decision.

Director of Student Health John Vaughn, who advised administrators in the discussions surrounding Duke’s COVID-19 response, explained that colleges face a number of unique challenges when considering how to operate amid a pandemic.

“Anyone in Durham can be affected by COVID, but if you’re working at the mall and you get sick and you go to the [emergency room], that’s managed one way. You’re told to go home and isolate,” he said. “Well, students are on a college campus. A college campus is like a cruise ship that you can’t keep from docking. Our students live together, study together, work together.”

If Duke decided to bring employees back and an outbreak erupted, Vaughn explained, workers could simply be sent back to their homes in the area. But the calculus is different for students, most of whom live a significant distance from campus.

“We can’t tell you to fly in from Texas or California or New Jersey for class and then go home a week later, so we have to think about those kind of things,” he said. “If we bring students back on campus, how do we manage them? Because we’re going to have them here.”

Vaughn also cited compliance concerns, questioning how well students would follow safety recommendations if they were to return to campus.

But he stressed that administrators also considered potential impacts on Durham when they chose to cancel in-person classes and encourage students to stay away from campus. Although most students don’t fall in the most vulnerable groups for COVID-19, he said, they had to account for the possibility of spread as students came into contact with residents of the city.

“We have an obligation, as a member of the community, to think about the elderly people and the poor people in the community who don’t have access to health care,” Vaughn explained. “And that’s why a lot of what we did was certainly to keep our students safe, but also to keep our community safe.”

As the University elected to implement remote learning, administrators’ work was just getting started—the apparent finality of that decision-making process only opened up more logistical challenges. 

The aftermath

In the time leading up to and following the March 10 announcement, administrators recalled working long days to shepherd the University through an uncertain stretch. Cavanaugh noted that he’d been working 18 hours a day, 7 days a week for some time, and McMahon said her work schedule stretched from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. during the busiest period.

The timing of Duke’s decision added to the burden administrators had to carry while negotiating the complex logistics of moving a university online. Because students were on spring break, no one knew how many on-campus residents were still in their dorms. And moreover, students who had left campus were now separated from the items they had left behind in their rooms.

McMahon and Bennett sent an email to students March 11 encouraging out-of-town students not to return to campus. Later in the message, they noted that students would be allowed to move their items out of dorms by March 22, provided that they register to do so within the next two days. 

However, they soon grew worried that such a policy could have grave public health implications and would go against their goal of de-densifying Duke’s campus, so they revoked the option March 12.

“It became more clear that some people were thinking ‘OK, I’m going to come back and get my stuff,’ and if that volume of people all came back, then we risked people getting ill,” McMahon said.

On March 13, Gonzalez unveiled a plan for University volunteers to enter students’ rooms and ship essential items, such as technology and academic materials. The list of essential items was designed to be as comprehensive as possible, he explained, while accounting for the limited number of volunteers.

The Keep Learning team also triaged forms submitted by on-campus students who wanted to remain in their dorms. McMahon noted that in a four-day period, the team pored over 4,000 requests from students asking to stay in the dorms or return to claim their items.

Many applications were initially denied to maintain adequate social distancing on campus, including requests from some students whose countries were already deeply ensnared in the pandemic. 

“Then we realized that wasn’t the right thing, so we walked that back,” McMahon said. 

McMahon and Gonzalez described the mid-March stretch as rife with challenge after challenge, from logistical minutiae to big-picture dilemmas. 

For example, as key hubs of student life such as the Bryan Center and Brodhead Center were modified to comply with social distancing requirements, administrators faced questions about where the extra furniture should be stored. And with student groups on domestic trips scattered across the country, McMahon explained that tracking their schedules also became important.

Challenges also abounded for the Learning Innovation team, tasked with shifting the University online in only a matter of weeks. Rascoff and Miller, who oversee the team, explained that a major focus was harnessing expertise gained from DKU’s transition while avoiding “burnout” for employees who had long been laboring to assist students and faculty with the move.

“Given our recent experience with DKU, we knew Duke faculty and students would be able to weather this situation - but the lift would be larger,” they wrote in an email. “Our small team had already worked around the clock to help with DKU’s remote teaching efforts, and now we would be doing it again for Duke, without a break.” 

Team members whose responsibilities typically lay elsewhere were pressed into service, responding to faculty questions or organizing workshops and webinars. 

But alongside classes came grades, which became a hot-button issue as the pandemic exposed inequity among students' living situations.

As other universities adopted optional or mandatory pass/fail grading schemes, Bennett met with other faculty members and administrators to develop Duke’s policy. He announced March 18 that classes would shift to a default satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading system, with the option for students to opt in to receive a letter grade by April 20, three days before the last day of classes.

In the weeks following the choice, some students circulated petitions asking for universal S/U or universal S policies. After consultation with his team, Bennett reaffirmed the current opt-in policy in an April 8 letter to directors of undergraduate study. He explained that one plan wouldn’t satisfy every student and that approximately 65% of peer colleges had chosen an opt-in plan like Duke’s.

“For every student who advocates for a change to a universal S/U policy, we receive a message indicating strong support for the current approach,” Bennett wrote in the letter.

The grading policy would remain the same, with only a slight deadline extension in response to a resolution passed by the Duke Student Government Senate. The resolution called for students to see their final grades before choosing between letter grades and S/U. Although administrators said that such an extension was impractical due to logistical constraints, the deadline was pushed back to the first day of finals.

Overall, administrators praised students’ response to the ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic.

“I’ve seen our students at their very best in this, and I recognize that the variation of stressors are extraordinary,” McMahon said. 

Vaughn acknowledged the impact that in-person class cancellation had on the traditional college experience. But he emphasized the public health impact of the decision.

“It sucks, I think about the seniors who are graduating in all this, and so much of the college experience students want is being here, and you felt really bad that’s being disrupted. But at the end of the day, it was about keeping people healthy and safe,” he said. “Because you’re all going to go home to your parents, and maybe grandma has health conditions—there were so many unknowns.”

Playing the long game

In a world gripped by COVID-19, canceled and virtualized events would soon lose their novelty, becoming just another element of an upturned way of life. The Last Day of Classes concert went virtual, commencement was postponed for the Class of 2020 and summer classes shifted online

As uncertainty enshrouds the future of the coronavirus’ spread, Duke is considering a number of options for the Fall semester. Price appointed Team 2021, a committee chaired by Cavanaugh and Executive Vice Provost Jennifer Francis, to provide recommendations on charting the University’s short-term course.

In late April, Cavanaugh explained that Duke would likely make a decision regarding Fall semester after June 1.

“Because there’s such a high level of ambiguity of what the future will look like, we’re going to try institutionally to get as far into the year as we possibly can—certainly understanding all of the anxiety and all of the complications and complexity that creates,” he said. “But the longer we have, the better information we’ll have, so the institution can make as informed and safe a decision as possible.”

In mid-May, Cavanaugh noted that the committee was undertaking an “enormous amount of assessment and scenario working” to inform a recommendation.

Although Duke has announced that students will return to campus this fall—with details including how many will return and what the calendar will look like to be announced by the end of June—it won’t be business as usual. Vaughn explained that optimizing the student-to-space ratio would be a challenging aspect of welcoming students back.

“What would need to be in place is appropriate environmental precautions—that includes sufficient hand sanitizer in public places,” he explained. “We’re gonna have to get more information about spaces too. How many students can share a bathroom? How many students can be on the same floor of a residence hall?”

In addition to simple living space, he added that the University would likely need to have alternate facilities available for students who tested positive for COVID-19. Reliable and accurate testing would also be a must for the campus to support an in-person learning environment.

“I’m pretty sure to bring students back on campus, we’re gonna have to have a policy where everybody on campus—staff, faculty, students, visitors—wears masks,” he said. “I think that’s gonna be a requirement.”

Extensive contact tracing, where trained professionals identify other individuals an infected person may have come into contact with, would also be vital. Vaughn explained that he and others have been meeting with the county health department, which is responsible for contact tracing, about a potential Fall semester. He floated the idea of training Duke employees whose jobs were disrupted by the pandemic to be campus contact tracers.

Vaughn also set out the need for “clear policies on social gatherings and compliance.” The University would need to find a reliable method of curtailing parties and other events, typical keystones of an in-person college experience that would fall by the wayside. 

Confronting an uncertain future, universities are grappling with how to balance financial well-being and traditional classroom education with public safety guidelines—and Duke is no exception.

“We do our best to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Vaughn said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Keep Learning team is part of Duke Learning Innovation. The Chronicle regrets the error. 


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