Those of us who have spent our careers in higher education have been preparing for years for infectious disease outbreaks that, thankfully, never materialized in the magnitude we feared they would. The threats of Avian Flu, SARS and MRSA prompted us to put plans in place and think carefully about the threats to campus health and the abilities of our institutions to withstand scourges that might cost lives and close our doors for weeks or even months.
The arrival of novel coronavirus (COVID-19), then, was something we had long anticipated in theory. But there is a wide gulf between planning for something as disruptive and deadly as this pandemic and actually experiencing it.
Universities and colleges in general are among our most vulnerable institutions in the face of an infectious disease outbreak, both to communicable pathogens being brought into our midst and the spread of those pathogens once they’re among us. Students live, study and eat in close quarters and regularly gather in large groups. The human interactions on our campuses profoundly enrich the academic experience but can also leave us open to a rapid spread of disease.
In the face of that, it is no small feat to put in place real and effective protection measures to safeguard students and employees – roughly 15,000 at North Carolina A&T – as well as campus visitors. We house approximately 5,000 in student housing, dining facilities that serve thousands of meals each day and routinely bring together large crowds for athletic events, performances, lectures and more.
Like many of our counterparts across the country, A&T brought all of that to an abrupt halt earlier this month, and transitioned all classes and class-related labs to an online environment. Nearly all of our residential students were sent home, and we began the challenging work of determining how to resolve matters such as refunds for unused housing and dining services, keeping research projects intact and moving forward, determining when it might be safe to hold commencement and so much more.
As we all know, we’re not out of the woods. We likely have months to go before the pandemic fully plays out and life returns to normal. Yet witnessing the nimble and inspiring response from colleagues and students to this unprecedented challenge gives me great faith that we will not only endure our current circumstances, but emerge wiser and more resilient on the other side.
I wish the same for you and yours.
- Chancellor Harold L. Martin Sr.
The richness of in-person human interaction brings a valuable dimension to higher education. It can also be a vulnerability in an event such as the COVID-19 outbreak.