Pandemic tests resilience of Manchester community

The rock outside of the Academic Center along East Street symbolizes Spring Semester at Manchester University.

Spring semester’s opening convocation encouraged Manchester students to “be resilient and to be bright lights for others.”

When President Dave McFadden ’82 chose that topic, he had no idea how resilient the MU community would need to be.

COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that has claimed lives and upended economies across the globe, was spreading stealthily in the United States on that late January day as Manchester students in Cordier Auditorium heard stories about facing adversity to achieve a college education.

By late March, all of those students would face their own version of adversity, finishing spring semester courses remotely, having their student teaching and other field experiences cut short, and missing the opportunity to compete in spring athletics.

“I recently saw a quote that said, ‘Adversity does not build character, it reveals it,’” said McFadden. “We dealt with some unprecedented adversity at Manchester this spring, and I think it revealed our character as individuals and as a community. People rose to the occasion. They pulled together to make things work. It was a remarkable exercise in resilience.”

By early March, the nation was coming to grips with the dangers of COVID-19.  McFadden told students to take their laptops and course materials with them at spring break in the event Manchester moved to remote teaching.

Indeed, as Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a Stay-At-Home order that aligned with orders in neighboring states, McFadden decided that remote teaching would begin the week after spring break.

Residential students returned long enough to pack their belongings and head to their permanent homes to complete their courses online. Only 33 students stayed on campus for the rest of the semester. Many of them were international students, while others did not have internet access at home. Most moved into Helman Hall, where each student could have a private suite and bath.

Meanwhile, Manchester University was open virtually and pushing forward with spring semester, though both campuses were mostly deserted.

Faculty, with varying degrees of experience in remote teaching, adapted their curriculum for new delivery platforms.  “Some faculty had to learn to teach remotely, and in a short amount of time,” said McFadden.

“They have been open to new technologies and new pedagogical strategies,” added Leonard Williams, dean of the College of Education and Social Sciences. “They have been willing to experiment, reassuring students, and themselves, that it is OK for things not to work on the first try.”

Williams added that faculty met virtually several times to discuss strategies and technical difficulties, sharing tips on how to use a piece of software, record a lecture, lead a virtual class discussion, or provide academic advising at a distance.

They were also resourceful, said Mark Huntington, dean for natural and health sciences. For example, Huntington said, “A chemistry faculty member set up a basement laboratory at home and made videos of laboratory procedures and experiments for the students.”

Pharmacy Dean Tommy Smith said he was “in awe” of what faculty were able to do, creating virtual learning communities for students and delivering high-quality courses. “I feel so fortunate to work with staff and faculty who are so deeply dedicated to our students and their colleagues.”

Remote learning was new to our students, too, McFadden explained. “Some struggled without the structure and personal connections that being on campus provides.”

In addition, students were dealing with the pandemic like everyone else. Stay At Home orders meant job losses, furloughs and financial hardship for many of their families. Some students took jobs, if they could find them, to help their families. The economic downturn and the staggering uncertainty of the virus itself created new anxieties for students contemplating their plans for employment or graduate school.

Non-teaching colleagues from offices across the University faced big adjustments too. They started working from home, if they could, often learning on the fly how to meet with colleagues virtually using Microsoft Teams or Zoom. New temporary procedures were set up for all kinds of everyday functions from accounts payable to moving the mail.

Working from home created challenges for nearly everyone, whether they coped with a slower internet, felt isolated from their office friends, or were trying to work and homeschool their children at the same time.

“These were uncharted waters,” McFadden said. “To some extent, we all have worked outside of our comfort zones.”

As Spring semester ends, the University is planning a traditional Commencement for the Class of 2020 in October. Plans are also moving forward to dedicate the new athletic stadium at Homecoming on Sept. 26, provided such gatherings fall within the advice of public health experts.

Until then, Manchester is adapting to rapid changes and embracing new ways of delivering education to students.

“Many of us are learning that we are stronger in the face of adversity than we could have imagined,” said McFadden. “But I didn’t know in January quite how resilient we would need to be.” 

By Melinda Lantz ’81