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The Campus Responds

Jackson Street, near one of the busiest bus stops on campus, sits empty and quiet as classes moved online for the final six weeks of the Spring 2020 semester as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

The history of the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to be written. But when that story is finally told, one of the most crucial dates—at least for the University of Georgia community—will be Thursday, March 12.

On that day, in the middle of UGA’s Spring Break, the University System of Georgia (USG) suspended instruction at all 26 of its institutions beginning the following Monday.

Students who had already left for Spring Break were urged not to come back to campus. Those still on campus were encouraged to leave, while accommodations were made for students who couldn’t. Students who had left the country or had taken a cruise—common Spring Break activities—self-quarantined for 14 days upon their return.

Since the first cases of COVID-19 were discovered in Wuhan, China, in December, the novel coronavirus slowly began making its way around the world. The first case in the United States was confirmed on Jan. 21 and the first death on Feb. 6. While those numbers continued to grow, much of the country wasn’t treating the coronavirus as a significant threat yet. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus a pandemic on March 11. Everything hit home the next day.

On March 12, the NBA suspended its season after a player tested positive for COVID-19. That sudden announcement led to an unprecedented run of cancellations and postponements around the country—sports and otherwise.

Schools around the country also announced closures, and before the day was out, Georgia universities were put on hold for in-person instruction. Four days later, on March 16, USG then took the unprecedented step of mandating all classes go online for the rest of the semester. Classes would restart on March 30.

On March 17 came the seemingly inevitable announcement that UGA’s spring Commencement ceremonies were canceled. It was a tough blow to take. Still, there was a lot of evidence that the University of Georgia’s people were up to the challenge.

“The reality is that our university has never before faced a set of circumstances this complex and this challenging,” President Jere W. Morehead JD ’80 wrote in a university-wide email on March 23. “But as long as we continue to work together—as long as we remain focused on finding solutions—we will succeed. The spirit and determination of our UGA community will prevail.”

A Challenge Unlike Any Other

The University of Georgia has closed in the past. In 1918, the university shut down for three weeks in response to the Spanish flu pandemic. But the 2020 coronavirus response is something altogether different. With a few important exceptions—the police department, several research labs, and the physical plant, among them—campus sat eerily empty. But UGA never shut down.

The two weeks of suspended instruction did not mean two weeks of suspended activity. University departments and academic programs used the opportunity to test out their business continuity plans and, most importantly, dramatically increase their online learning capabilities.

UGA quickly ramped up two comprehensive websites to address the needs of the university community. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) Information and Resources site brings to bear the expertise of the entire university and acts as a multilayered clearinghouse for coronavirus-related news and updates. It includes resources for faculty, students, and staff; links to community and health resources; a comprehensive FAQ; and much more.

The Office of Instruction’s Teaching and Learning Continuity site is a faculty-focused portal that provides detailed guidance about how to prepare for online instruction, deliver class content, and work with students remotely.

When UGA’s campus closed in March, helped some 7,000 students move out of their residence halls. The process was staggered so as to follow social distancing guidelines. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

While much of this preparation was going on behind the scenes, professional and student staff in University Housing stepped to the forefront. After helping some 7,000 students move out of their residence halls (the process was staggered so as to follow social distancing guidelines), University Housing continued to support the more than 540 people who had to remain on campus—more than half were international students with nowhere else to go. For the remainder of the semester, resident assistants from across campus were crucial conduits in keeping students connected. They hosted virtual hangouts, game nights, and even Netflix viewing parties.

For students both on- and off-campus, the Undergraduate Student Emergency Fund and the Graduate Student Emergency Fund received a boost of some $800,000 in private donations to support those who couldn’t meet essential expenses because of the pandemic.

As terminology like virtual hangouts, Zoom meetings, and social distancing became as ubiquitous in the UGA community as it was worldwide, the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic continued to hit home harder and harder. On March 18, the first UGA staff member tested positive for the virus. The first student case followed the next day. Both eventually recovered. But as of May 8, 33 UGA students and staff had been diagnosed with COVID-19.

An Optimistic Future

The last six weeks of the 2019-20 academic year took place online. It was virtual and it was reality. And, in many ways, it was also a success. For a generation that grew up online, adjusting to coursework via computer and the internet wasn’t a huge stretch. Faculty, too, were able to adjust their teaching to accommodate what most everyone called at one time or another “the new normal.” However, many of those faculty would quickly add that there is no substitute for face-to-face instruction.

Midway through the six weeks online, on April 17, came the long-awaited announcement rescheduling Commencement. Provided the CDC and state health officials deem it safe to do so, the undergraduate ceremony will be held Friday, Oct. 16 at Sanford Stadium, and the graduate ceremony will be Friday, Dec. 18 at Stegeman Coliseum, in combination with the regularly scheduled fall graduate Commencement. President Morehead conferred the graduates’ degrees online May 8, the original date of spring commencement.

The university continues with online learning this summer. The Class of 2024 received their acceptance letters, and they are ready to come to a campus that yearns for their energy. UGA is planning to return to in-person instruction for
the fall.

The history of the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to be written. But when that story is finally told, the most crucial descriptions—at least for the University of Georgia community—will be perseverance, tenacity, and generosity.