A welcomed return to Wheaton

With students returning to campus to begin a new academic year, the focus is on supporting their academic success, their continued social development, and their emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well being.

by Zachary Irish
Interim Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students

When I walked into President Hanno’s office on March 11th, I knew what I had to say, but I had no idea how to actually say the words. The Pandemic Response Team had been meeting since late January, and I was confident with our recommendation, but how could I, the Dean of Students, suggest students not return from Spring Break and the campus transition to remote operations? Since that day, I have spent significant time reflecting on how Wheaton has shifted to respond to the unrest in the world.

It has been over 100 years since the last world pandemic of this magnitude. However, 100 years ago students would not have been able to continue their coursework from around the world, connect with their faculty on Zoom or engage in a Friday night virtual BINGO game with their friends. We often criticize technology, its influence on everyday life and the positives and negatives of social media. But, thankfully, it has been technology that has allowed our tight-knit Wheaton community to stay connected through a time of great challenge and uncertainty.

The pandemic has brought the persistent issue of systemic inequities in our nation to the forefront, e.g. with the disparities in COVID-19 transmission rates and who in our nation have become essential workers. On campus, we have committed ourselves to more deeply examining the inequities that can sometimes be hidden for those with privilege and power, in the routine of what has been developed as everyday campus life. Thinking about how we keep our students, and our community, safe and supported, physically, socially, and psychologically, are top priorities for us. We are designing this support in ways that take into account the socio-political backdrop we currently find ourselves in.

During any on-campus semester, the majority of our students wake up, grab some food in the dining hall, go to class, perhaps go to the library to study, hang out with friends on the Dimple, in their club meetings, or in their room, go to sleep and then do it all over again. When remote learning began, the realities and challenges of this new way to engage in education emerged, such as learning in different time zones, teaching synchronous and asynchronous lessons and dealing with access challenges for many community members. Remote learning also opened a door into all of the realities of where we call “home.” As a community, we lived and witnessed a multitude of different living and studying situations that have reinforced, or taught us, of the resilience, strength and struggle of our classmates, colleagues and community. Our students, faculty and staff persevered on a daily basis to continue their coursework and engage in this community.

The summer months have also provided additional motivation for activism around systemic inequities as the country and world has witnessed, mourned, and awakened to incidents of police brutality, structural violence and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others. Social media has provided a foundation for advocacy and a call for action. With students at the forefront, our community has engaged in dialogue around mental health reform, sexual assault prevention, cis-sexism and anti-blackness that plague the nation. The fall semester will undoubtedly create space for these, and many other, difficult conversations and dialogue as we prepare for the Presidential election in November.

I am proud of the leadership, resilience, and commitment of our community around these social issues and look forward to continuing these critical conversations with students, faculty and staff. Together we will continue to work to address the systems on campus that perpetuate and hold up inequality, and hope to positively influence our external community in the process. As such, faculty and staff have engaged in community conversations around anti-racism, including the development of departmental plans and commitment to continue to engage in this dialogue. The work of the Pandemic Response Team to bring the community together again on campus, albeit challenging and unprecedented, is no match for the work that needs to be done to address these larger systemic issues within our culture and society. I believe we are all up to the task.

This semester will certainly be different than others because the world has changed. We have been asked to disconnect physically from one another, stay home if we are able, wear masks to protect others and be vigilant to ward off COVID-19. While this is the reality for some, we also know many in our community have been called to put their life, and the lives of their loved ones in jeopardy to take care of those most vulnerable, put food on their table and support their family. In addition, our community has been remote for almost five months, and we are eager to get back to campus. I am proud of the collaboration, innovation and dedication from this team, and I am excited to see all of the hard work come to life this fall.

Throughout the last few months, and certainly within the last few weeks, there have been many questions needing answers. Many of these questions revolve around the logistics of new policies and procedures, and how these will have an impact on our student experience. There are many questions also, about precautionary measures, PPE and campus modifications to prioritize the health and safety of our community. Some of the biggest questions and concerns for me arise around the topic of compliance. The research available states clearly, that a robust testing protocol and strict community behavior expectations such as wearing face masks and continued hygiene practices, are the keys to mitigating the risk of an outbreak. I want to reiterate today, that for our community to stay safe, we each share this responsibility, and individuals must take responsibility for their own behavior and actions. A group of student leaders have developed a Community Commitment highlighting the importance of adhering to these new policies and protocols, that each student will sign and commit to.

In addition to physical preparations for return, much of our time has also been focused on the student experience. We have several subcommittees focused on housing, campus events and student support to explore opportunities to build in this current reality. All of these conversations focus around providing the best student experience as possible, while prioritizing the health and safety of the overall community. Students will see some changes early in their time this semester with more grab and go options in the dining halls, and common areas closed off in some of the residence halls. Our campus events committee is working with state guidance to determine the best approach to allow student-run and student-attended events to eventually transition from virtual only, to a hybrid experience of both in-person and virtual. Meanwhile, our student support working group has been focused on establishing collaborative opportunities to engage our students whether they are on campus or remote. This working group is focused on development of strategies to support students in their academic success, emotional, mental, physical and spiritual wellness, and social development. Our Counseling Center is also looking to enhance its services by introducing tele-therapy services for students physically in Massachusetts while providing additional supportive case management and referral services to those students outside of the state. Additionally, we are implementing a new resource titled Thriving Campus which will increase the access for students to research and engage with resources off-campus.

Since we made the decision in March to move to remote operations, it has remained our mission to bring students back to campus as soon as safely possible. As such, it has been a priority for all of us to try to reimagine what Wheaton will look like in the COVID era. We will continue to look towards the local, state and federal regulations for guidance regarding our operations, and to look to our students to take seriously their shared ownership and responsibility to prevent our community from having to pivot to remote operations again. We are more prepared today than we were in March, and we are excited for the community to come back together so we can lead together, heal together and learn together.

Onwards towards the 2020-2021 school year!