Coping with a crisis

In a matter of days, COVID-19 changed everything at Yale. How can a tight-knit community stay together while keeping their distance?

Mark Alden Branch ’86 is executive editor of the magazine.

It’s like Yale went on spring break and never came back. Except it’s even quieter than that. Yes, the classrooms are vacant, but so are the libraries. And the offices. And the gym and the museums. And Yorkside Pizza, and Blue State Coffee, and Claire’s. The streets are virtually empty. No tour groups, no shoppers, and plenty of parking. As a passerby said to me on College Street one morning (from a safe distance), “It’s like a neutron bomb hit.”

It’s likely the same where you live. But Yale is a place that so values the principle of physical community that it once went to court to defend its policy requiring undergrads to live on campus for two years. There’s something especially poignant about seeing this university struggling in the midst of a pandemic to keep its newly far-flung community together through the tenuous connections of email and online conferencing.

The novel coronavirus outbreak of 2019–20 has messed with our sense of time. In mid-March, things suddenly began to change overnight, and it was hard to keep up with new and terrifying developments from day to day. But once most of us were largely confined to our homes and stripped of the routines that marked our hours, days, and weeks, time seemed to crawl. We’re finishing this issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine (from our respective homes) in the second week of April; by the time you receive it, the situation at Yale and in the world may have changed substantially, even vastly. But in these pages, we bring you an overview of your university in the early stages of the coronavirus: how Yale’s students, teachers, administrators, and alumni have been dealing with the pandemic so far.

The first public information released by the university about the coronavirus came on January 24, when Paul Genecin, director of the Yale Health clinic, issued an advisory to the Yale community discouraging travel to Wuhan. Two days later, a Model United Nations conference on campus was dissolved early after a participant from China developed a fever and a cough. (The student eventually tested negative.) “That was the trip wire to get ready for this,” says Genecin.

Yale’s reaction ramped up as March 6, the start of spring break, approached. Organizations were beginning to reconsider travel. The Yale Symphony Orchestra canceled a trip to Peru. The Yale Philharmonia and Yale Schola Cantorum canceled a northeastern tour with London’s Bach Choir. 

On Monday, March 9, the university started preparing faculty for the possibility of teaching their classes remotely. The Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, which provides tech and pedagogy support for faculty, began offering workshops to prepare faculty to use Zoom, a conferencing software, and Canvas, an online education management system. Between the workshops and the individual consultations, says Poorvu Center director Jennifer Frederick ’99PhD, “We worked with hundreds of faculty per day.”

At about the same time, several universities announced that they would move courses online after spring break, including Princeton on March 9 and Harvard on March 10. Yale at first said on March 10 that classes would be held online through at least April 5. But on March 14, the day the first confirmed case of coronavirus in the Yale community was made public, nonessential staff at the university were instructed to stay home and work remotely if possible. That same day, President Peter Salovey ’86PhD announced that students would not be returning to campus and that instruction would continue online for the rest of the semester. The undergraduate residential colleges, Genecin points out, “don’t just permit communal living—they enforce it. The ability of a respiratory virus to travel through the college is well known. When the students have colds, everyone has a cold. When the flu hits, there’s a lot of flu.” Allowing COVID-19 to flood the colleges was not an option.

Not all students were at home when the decision was made. About a thousand undergraduates had stayed on campus, and many more had traveled somewhere other than to their homes for spring break. “Getting the students home was a herculean challenge for heads and deans and so many others,” says Yale College dean Marvin Chun. “It involved having to ship them essential things like computers, and it also involved supporting their travel home.”

Tommy Atlee ’20 was skiing in Canada for spring break when he got word that he would not be going back to Ezra Stiles. Instead, he’d be going home to Southern California. “I really only packed ski clothes,” he says. “Once I got home I started thinking about all the things I was going to be missing, from books I need for my thesis to extra underwear.”

About 200 undergrads stayed on campus, most depending on packaged meals that Yale Dining prepares in the Trumbull dining hall. Alexander Sikorski ’20 couldn’t travel to his home in Poland, so he sheltered in place in Pierson College. “My suite usually has 12 people in it but now there is just me,” he says. “I have the whole room, and the common room, and the lower courtyard to myself.”

The first week of what Jennifer Frederick calls “remote temporary instruction”—distinct, she says, from preplanned, deliberate online courses—was a success, if you ask the faculty. In a survey at the end of that week, 80 percent of Yale College faculty responding said that their classes had been good, very good, or excellent. “That doesn’t mean the challenges weren’t very severe for some teachers and some students,” says Marvin Chun, “but overall, it was much better than we were anticipating.”

“My first class was actually a nightmare,” says Tracey Meares, the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law at the Law School. “I had 40 students, and there just wasn’t enough bandwidth to run an interactive class on Zoom. I kept freezing; the students couldn’t understand me, I kept going in and out. It took a lot of troubleshooting.” Things were fine after she discovered the fix, but Meares also says that she has had to purchase increased internet bandwidth at home to accommodate her teaching. “That’s fine for me,” she says, “but imagine what some of our students must be dealing with.”

While it is understood that the arrangement cannot replace learning in a real, physical community, Frederick says there have been bright spots. On Zoom, students can ask questions of professors in a chat window while a class is meeting. “One great thing we’re seeing is that some students are more likely to ask questions,” says Frederick. “Because the prospect of raising your hand and being put in the embarrassing spotlight is reduced in Zoom.”

John Harley Warner, the Avalon Professor of the History of Medicine, had never set up a Zoom or Skype meeting before he was forced to go online with his undergraduate survey course on the history of medicine. “It’s been a steep and scary learning curve, but I think the lectures have gone fairly well,” says Warner. “What I miss is the energy that comes from being in the same space with the students. As it happens, the lectures in my course scheduled for this week were on contagion, quarantine, sanitation, epidemics, and the germ theory of disease. The resonances with our present moment are unmistakable, powerful, and unsettling.”

Mark Oppenheimer ’96, ’03PhD, who directs the Yale Journalism Initiative, also teaches the classic writing course Daily Themes. A veteran podcaster who is one of the hosts of the Jewish-themed podcast Unorthodox, he decided to disseminate his Daily Themes lectures as podcasts instead of recording them on video. “I’d rather be in my students’ ears as they walk their dogs back home in Talladega or Tiburon or Taos, wherever they are from, than looking at them from the front of an empty LC 102, while they squint at a laptop,” he says.

The online video arrangements meant class sessions and meetings often revealed more about students and professors than is usually seen in a classroom. Pets, children, and other family members sometimes turned up in the background. One day at the end of Quebec and Canada from 1791 to the Present, taught by history lecturer Jay Gitlin ’71, ’74MusM, ’02PhD, a student’s grandfather leaned into the frame to say thank you. “He’d been following along and enjoying the class,” says Gitlin. The appreciative grandfather was Sir Paul McCartney.

But the online arrangement does not affect all students equally. Some may be in homes with a large family and little privacy or limited internet connectivity. Students are spread around the globe, so no class meeting time is going to suit everyone. And like all of us, students are subject to unusual stress and anxiety during the pandemic.

“I have students who are cooking meals and taking care of younger siblings while their parents are at work,” says chemical engineering professor Michael Loewenberg. “Some students have a reasonably good environment for study, and some have challenges. It’s an uneven playing field.”

Because of the circumstances, Yale College in March offered students the option to change their courses from a letter grade to pass/fail up to the end of the semester. Some students and faculty thought that didn’t go far enough. The Yale College Council, backed by a majority of undergraduates in a survey, wanted the college to adopt a “universal pass/no credit” policy in which students would for each of their courses either receive a grade of “pass” or have the course removed from their transcripts. Still others had argued for granting a grade of “pass” to students for every course in which they were enrolled, whether or not they were able to complete all of their work.

On April 7, after polling the faculty, Chun announced that there would be no letter grades this semester, and all transcripts would indicate either “pass” or “fail.” Students will also be able to withdraw from a class up through the last day of finals and not have it appear on their transcripts. Harvard, Dartmouth, and Columbia decided on similar policies, while the rest of the Ivy schools let students choose between a letter grade and pass/fail. 

Beyond the disruption to course work, the forced separation took a toll on the kind of day-to-day interaction that Yale touts as central to its educational model. “I think the core parts of my education—learning the actual material—have changed very little,” says John McKissack ’20, “but I’m missing these little interpersonal connections that happen spontaneously with a professor—after class or stopping by their office. These interactions are one of the reasons I chose Yale.”

Atlee, a first-year counselor, says he’s hearing something similar from students about social interaction. “They miss those serendipitous exchanges—flopping down at a table in the dining hall next to friends that you hadn’t messaged beforehand, or walking back from class with a classmate.”

Pauli Murray College head Tina Lu says that college administrators and students have worked to foster social connections online. “Alexander [Rosas, the college dean] and I have invited students to have lunch with us virtually,” she says. “We had a college tea on Zoom. We’ve had movie nights, where people watch a movie together online. The college council even put together study groups on Zoom where people log on and work quietly together. Meeting with the college council on Zoom has turned into one of my weekly highlights. It’s so lovely to see these kids.”

Still, says Lu, students are experiencing anxiety about big issues and disappointment about small ones. “Some students have gotten sick, and a lot are carrying tremendous mental health burdens. Parents have lost their jobs, and students who thought they were going to graduate into a good economy are now looking at maybe the worst economy since the Great Depression. In the midst of all this illness and grievous want, there are all sorts of little Yale things that people don’t feel right mourning. But it still matters that you didn’t get your commencement.”

University chaplain Sharon Kugler says that she and her team have been talking to more people in the Yale community than usual, and that anxiety is high. “Everyone is kind of living in this way where they can’t really make plans,” says Kugler. “And Yalies are planners. They are doers and problem-solvers, so to be in this space where that isn’t necessarily what this moment is calling for is very difficult.”

Graduate students had their own set of concerns. In the midst of research and laboratory work toward dissertations, they were suddenly without access to libraries, archives, and laboratories. Field work and human-subjects research was suspended, says Graduate School dean Lynn Cooley, and laboratory research not related to the pandemic was scaled back.

“Our students are naturally very concerned about their ability to make research milestones as they progress toward their degrees,” says Cooley. “Our priority is to find ways to ensure that they are supported to make up for any lost time. We’re focused on extending funding as needed for students in years four and onward.”
Although most graduate students live off campus, some of those living in Helen Hadley Hall and Harkness Hall were given permission to stay on campus. In order to reduce density, some students in those residence halls were moved to rooms on the Old Campus. “We hope we made it a little more comfortable by providing three meals a day free of charge,” says Cooley.

At the School of Medicine, where second-year students were about two-thirds through their first clerkship rotation, the initial plan was to keep students in the hospital, says associate dean for curriculum Mike Schwartz. “We thought it would be a great learning experience, and the students are considered essential to patient-care teams,” says Schwartz. But as the crisis worsened and shortages of protective equipment loomed, the students were called off the wards in mid-March. “We felt both the learning environment and their safety would be compromised.”
The arts schools faced similar problems with academic work that normally requires physical presence. More than 100 students in the School of Art signed a letter to President Salovey and dean Marta Kuzma in March calling for a partial refund of their tuition after classes there were moved online.

At the drama school, students coped with disappointment at the cancellation of shows that would have been the culmination of their graduate education. “At least half of what we do is work on production,” says dean James Bundy ’95MFA. Most classes found a way to work online, and at least one play—a production of the 2016 play Swimmers—was mounted on Zoom with actors in remote locations. “The play itself is about isolation in a sort of end-of-days scenario,” says Bundy, ”so it was very effective.”

Bundy adds that staff from the school’s scene and costume shops have been at work making hundreds of masks and face shields from their homes for health care workers. “To me, that is the most important work we’ve done in the last several weeks,” says Bundy.

With courses up and running again, the university had to make decisions about two big upcoming events: commencement and reunions. On March 25, Salovey announced that “we cannot come together in May to commemorate commencement activities in the traditional ways.” Instead, Salovey told graduates, “we will be welcoming you back to campus to celebrate your achievements when this crisis is behind us” and “find alternative ways to honor your hard work this May.” On the same day, the Yale Alumni Association announced that 2020 Yale College reunions would be canceled.

As we went to press, administrators couldn’t say just if and how Yale would start up again in the fall. Summer programs through June 27 have been canceled, but beyond that, decisions will depend on transmission rates, the ability to conduct contact-tracing and perform testing easily, and the availability of spaces where those infected with the virus could be isolated to protect the community. “I would say that there are a number of scenarios under exploration that would involve a delayed opening for students,” says Genecin. “I think it’s a fair bet that there will be some online options or parallel online availability even when classes resume, with the understanding that people might have to be quarantined or may have difficulty entering the country.”

And while Yale strove to figure out how to continue its operations, its hometown of New Haven saw confirmed cases rise dramatically in late March and early April. Although not hit as hard early on as New York City and its northern suburbs, New Haven began to act in mid-March, closing schools and limiting gatherings to fewer than ten people. On March 23, Governor Ned Lamont ’80MBA ordered the closing of nonessential businesses and other social distancing measures.

Yale New Haven Hospital, which is separate from the university but intricately linked through affiliations with the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health, was preparing for a peak of hospitalizations in mid-to-late April. The hospital set aside three floors in Smilow Cancer Hospital for the expected surge. The state set up a field hospital at Southern Connecticut State University for COVID-19 patients who require less care.

On campus, Yale set up a field hospital in the Lanman Center at Payne Whitney Gymnasium. A photo of the facility circulated widely on social media on March 21–22; since most people know the Lanman Center as a place for pickup basketball games and galas, the sight of it filled with hospital beds brought home to the Yale community just how fast things were changing.

The hospital was set up according to an emergency plan developed in anticipation of the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. “We kept equipment in storage on West Campus so that in the event something like this would arise, we would have a head start,” says Genecin. At press time, the Lanman facility was not yet in use.
On March 26, Salovey announced that the university had launched a fund to meet needs in New Haven created by the pandemic, including health-care, assistance to businesses, and relief for families. The university pledged $1 million to start and said it would match donations from faculty, students, and staff up to a $5 million goal.

Just a day later, though, Mayor Justin Elicker ’10MEM, ’10MBA, criticized Yale for turning down his request for rooms in residence halls to house first responders and health care workers exposed to the virus. Elicker said Yale had told him it wasn’t feasible, since students had left their possessions in the rooms when they left for spring break. But the University of New Haven agreed to move students’ belongings to make the rooms available. The next day, after Elicker’s criticism was widely reported in the media, the university announced it would clear 300 rooms in residential colleges.

People at Yale—and Yale alumni—had roles to play in the crisis far beyond the campus. Yale faculty appeared frequently to offer advice for decisionmakers and the general public. School of Public Health associate professor Gregg Gonsalves ’11, ’17PhD, offered an outspoken voice on Twitter and in the media for a robust response. History professor Frank Snowden talked about lessons from past pandemics, and experts from the Child Study Center offered advice about working from home with children. Yale’s Office of Public Affairs and Communications turned out frequent interviews with Yale officials and experts to keep both the university community and the wider world informed.

Although most research work at Yale was suspended, some researchers turned their attention to the virus and its treatment. School of Medicine faculty studied a device for sterilizing N95 masks for reuse; their preliminary finding showed it was feasible. And a published study by School of Public Health epidemiologist Alison Galvani modeled transmission rates and confirmed the necessity of self-isolation to avoid overwhelming the health-care system.

More than 300 students, faculty, and staff at the School of Nursing signed up to provide surge-capacity support at Yale Health and Yale New Haven Hospital. Volunteers from the School of Public Health worked on contact tracing—the effort to identify and inform people who have come into contact with patients who test positive for coronavirus.

Alumni also jumped in to help. Before it became apparent that Yale would fund travel home for stranded students on financial aid, alumni online crowdsourced a way to match up alumni with students in need of housing or financial assistance. Alumni in Hong Kong and Shanghai arranged for the shipment of 7,500 masks and other personal protective equipment to hospitals in New Haven and New York City.
Student Liam Elkind ’21 made the news for an extraordinary effort. He was one of three founders of Invisible Hands, a nonprofit delivering groceries and medication to vulnerable people in his hometown of New York City. The service provides more than material needs, Elkind told the Associated Press. “People are scared, and people are lonely. We’re all so separated, and one of the things we need is that social cohesiveness. This is one opportunity to get them that social connection they’re looking for.”

No one is happy about the pandemic, and beyond the death, suffering, and privation, it is bound to have long-term effects on the psyches of those of us who are living through it. But at Yale, just as throughout the world, there is assurance and inspiration in the experience of a common cause. “Everyone’s really chipping in and acting like a team and rising to the occasion. It’s just been extraordinary,” says Chun. “The challenges are tremendous, but I can’t imagine a better group of people to work with in facing those challenges.”

1 comment

  • Jeffrey Perot La Berdia
    Jeffrey Perot La Berdia, 9:09pm May 10 2020 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Informative insight into the pandemic effects on students and faculty life. As a former instructor, I feel real compassion and concern for the students.

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