Uncharted Territory: Pace Finds its Way During the Pandemic

By Alyssa Cressotti ’08, ‘18

This year was hard; for everyone. For you at home and for us at Pace—for our students, for their families, and for the faculty and staff charged with providing opportunity to everyone in our community. There was nothing easy or familiar about navigating the uncharted waters of making a university function during a global pandemic, but we did our best. Not everything was perfect, and we sacrificed a lot, but our hearts were in it. We started in mid-January and we haven’t stopped since. Our community came together in the face of a seemingly insurmountable challenge. We were resilient. Steadfast. Hardworking.

Through long days and even longer nights, people from all across the University worked together to accomplish what we set out to do…we brought our students back to campus and we kept our community safe. As the fall semester comes to a close, we look back on the journey that brought us to this point, and we look towards a brighter future.

Preparing for the Worst

With the goal of keeping the Pace Community safe, our emergency preparedness team regularly runs drills and tabletop exercises for a variety of scenarios—earthquakes, floods, fires, active shooters, bears on campus, chemical spills, loss of electricity, tornadoes. Clearly, some of these scenarios are more likely than others, but the University teams prepare for them, nonetheless. No detail goes overlooked: safety and security on the ground; meal delivery; managing residential students; communicating with our internal community, with the press, and with local law enforcement, there’s a plan and procedure in place to manage a crisis. But nothing could have prepared them for the long-term impact caused by a deadly global pandemic. 

In late January, while the coronavirus was still an overseas issue, leadership at Pace was closely monitoring the situation. While the pandemic was just beginning to make headlines in domestic news outlets, our biggest concern was for our students studying abroad.

“We had a coronavirus advisory team monitoring the spread of the virus, mainly because we had students studying abroad and a diverse international population,” recalls Brian Anderson, Pace’s director of Emergency Management and Environmental Health and Safety. “Once the virus hit US soil, we transitioned into a task force and we began to formalize plans in earnest of how we would react should we need to shift operations.”

The first recorded coronavirus case in New York was recorded on February 29 and while the news was inevitable, the planning process for how the University would respond should the rate of community infection rise was kicked into high gear.

The 35-member COVID-19 Task Force, comprising functional areas like health and safety, residential and student life, the Office of the Provost, facilities, dining and auxiliary services, communications, finance, and risk management began meeting daily as the virus crept closer to our campuses.

By March 11, the decision had been made to move all classes to a remote format, with the anticipation that in-person instruction would resume on March 30. In our communications to residential students, we encouraged them to bring their important belongings home with them as they headed out for spring break—just in case.

“I understood the health implications and that people were getting sick, and the seriousness of it. But at the same time, I was like ‘We get to work from home for a few weeks and then we’ll come back,’" recalls Interim Senior Associate Dean for Students Todd Smith-Bergollo. “It felt like a pause, not knowing it was the beginning of the most stressful year ever. So yeah, looking back to the thoughts then, it just seemed like it was going to be this thing that we'd get through quickly. We'd all work from home for a few weeks and we'd be able to beat the virus, and just not having any sense of what was to come.”

Making a Shift

On March 18, the Pace Community was notified that the shift to remote classes would be extended. As cases rose and guidance from New York State became more direct, the COVID-19 Task Force made the difficult decision to move to a remote format for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester.

Moving hundreds of classes to an online format and shifting all work at the University—including student-facing services—was not an easy decision to make, but the safety and well-being of the community was the highest priority. In just a matter of weeks, all of the University’s operations had shifted to remote. From Counseling to Career Services and everything in between, the University had to pivot. To stay in lockstep with New York Governor Cuomo’s orders, only essential personnel—information technology staff, safety and security, housing staff, and facilities staff—remained on our campuses.

One of the critical components to keeping a University community alive and thriving during the remote period was our access to the Internet and the software we all needed to do our jobs effectively and serve our students. For Chief Information Officer Paul Dampier, the infrastructure was there, but his concern was how well the community would adapt to it.

“I felt shock, horror. All of those negative emotions, initially,” recalled Dampier of the official pivot to remote for the Spring 2020 semester. “I think my biggest concern was how would people react to using online technology. Because I felt, from the IT perspective, we had all the technology in place apart from, perhaps, a fully comprehensive video conferencing system. We have different video conferencing systems, but when everybody goes online, that's a different kettle of fish.”

In addition to this seismic shift, the fear and worry within the Pace Community was pervasive—this was a global pandemic, hitting New York hard. 

“Because my role involved communicating with the faculty about the pivot and subsequent revisions to our modes of teaching and learning, what was most challenging for me was supporting people who were feeling anxious, afraid, and angry,” says Interim Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Joan Walker, PhD. “My own response to these emotions was to hold smaller town calls where faculty could talk with each other about their experiences. I also worked with our instructional designers at Pace Online and the Faculty Center and with Academic Technology and Educational Media to set up a large number and variety of professional development events. The coordination of these teams at that time—and our continued coordination now to support faculty success—has been outstanding.”

In addition to getting students and faculty up and running for online learning, there was also the matter of caring for the students who remained in Pace’s residence halls—either because they were unable to travel home or because their move-outs had been put on hold due to changing guidance from New York State.

“There's not much that I haven't done or seen in higher ed to be quite honest—I’ve been in this field for more than 20 years,” says Alerie Tirsch, interim associate dean for students and director of Residential Life and Housing for the Pleasantville Campus. “When we pivoted, I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is something I never thought I would see or be a part of, and I have no idea how to make this happen,’ literally. And that is not often something that I say in my job.”

Breaking Down Barriers

“My initial reaction to the news that we were going to pivot was ‘I know we can get this done, I know that we are going to be able to meet the needs of our students,’” recalls Interim Associate Provost for Student Success Hillary Knepper, PhD. “And that it would be a great opportunity to bring everyone together.”

And she was right.

As the COVID-19 Task Force continued to meet daily and plans were put in place for what would need to be done over the summer in order to bring the community back to campus for the fall semester, cross-functional relationships were formed and synergies created.

“Everybody came to the table and they rolled up their sleeves. There was no arrogance, there was no I-know-best attitude. There was nothing but ‘How do we make this work? What are the problems? What are the solutions? Who can make it work? Who can fix this?’” says Knepper. “As part of the task force, I was working with people that I'd never met before and seeing for myself how hard everybody works on a daily basis to keep Pace running.”

For Anderson, the coming together of the University towards a common mission was a critical part for successfully navigating an entire University through a global pandemic situation.

“I think the most surprising was just how quickly we all came together. For a university that can sometimes operate in silos, those silos seemed to go away very quickly,” he says. “We had different operating units, different kinds of people. We had students, staff, faculty, all involved in our planning, all working towards a common goal.”

For Andréa Sonenberg, PhD, professor of graduate nursing in the College of Health Professions and member of the board of directors of the New York State Public Health Association, once she was appointed to the role of Coronavirus Coordination Officer, she realized how critical the relationship-building aspect of her role could be.

“Coordination is what it takes, because it isn't just about strategizing, developing, and implementing a testing protocol; following up on the results; and isolating/quarantining students to keep the community safe. All of that goes into working with multiple players, and all of the different moving parts of the system. I met amazing people in the University that I never had met before, or was even aware  of their roles, who helped along the way,” she says. “And I couldn't have done it without them. Obviously, Brian introduced me to a lot of these players, but then once I developed my own relationships with them, we were able to accomplish things by expanding our smaller groups to work together in whatever facet of what I was doing.”

Preparing for the Return to Campus

As the months of remote work rolled on, the focus shifted from an immediate righting of the ship to a concerted effort to create smooth sailing for the fall semester. Once the University was able to get its bearings in a virtual format, planning for real success was swiftly becoming a reality. With New York’s phased reopening in process during the summer months, the COVID-19 Task Force alongside the Fall Reopening Group, which comprised faculty and students and was led by Biology Chair Marcy Kelly, PhD, began planning for an in-person college experience for the fall. The plan had to align with guidance from New York State and included not just health and safety protocols, but also methods for monitoring the health of our on-campus population (think testing and health care availability), containment of potential transmission (how we would assist the state with contact tracing and providing space for quarantine and isolation on campus), and planning for a potential campus shut down—in the event there was widespread, uncontrolled transmission of the virus. 

After pivoting the majority of a University’s workforce to a remote modality, the University saw upwards of 18,000 Zoom sessions per day. Which was great! But how do you make that work once people return to campus?

“We had to somehow be able to bring Zoom into the classroom, and we reached out to one of our vendors and actually said, ‘This is the issue we've got. We've got to be able to put a big screen in the Zoom station,’” explained Dampier. “Well, we coined the phrase ‘Zoom station,’ because we wanted a buzzword to hang it on and worked with the vendor to actually develop that technology and put it in place.”

The Zoom technology that was brought into our physical classrooms were 150 large format screens and audiovisual equipment that would allow our faculty to teach simultaneously to students physically in the classroom and to those tuning in from a remote location. Each station essentially gave the students and the faculty an almost seamless course delivery method called HyFlex, or hybrid-flexible.

Over the summer, Pace’s ITS Department teamed up with the Provost’s Office and the Faculty Center to bring our faculty, some of whom had never worked with Zoom, up to speed to make sure they were able to effectively teach for the fall.

“It's a challenge, it is absolutely a challenge to learn in a method in which you have not before, it's a challenge to teach in a method that you have not before,” says Knepper. “But when I saw the numbers of faculty who took the trainings to learn how to do a better delivery, how to improve their pedagogy…we had adjuncts stepping up, we had tenured full professors stepping up. We had everybody covered in terms of our community. So, I would say that we kept education accessible in a very dire time.”

In addition to the Zoom stations set up in classrooms across campuses, our Facilities team was hard at work ensuring that the physical classrooms and common areas of our buildings were set up for success.

“We had to learn new cleaning methods, learn about how to clean for a virus that we didn't know whether or not lasted on surfaces. So new protocols, new training, bringing on staff to make sure that they were cleaning the right way. That was a big one, making sure that they weren't contaminating surfaces as they cleaned one area and cleaned another area. The cleaning aspect was really important. Learning all about electrostatic cleaning, what that did, the type of products that we use, making sure we had the right products in place, making sure we had enough supplies on campus and projecting, we usually project on a semester basis, but we really had to project differently on what we needed and how much we needed,” explains Assistant Vice President of Facilities and Capital Projects Aisha Moyla.

And it wasn’t just cleaning and sanitization techniques that were being perfected over the summer break. There was also the small matter of ensuring social distance was maintained across the University and that students, faculty, and staff were kept safe during an in-person semester.

“We spent a lot of time talking to other people, other universities, other facilities, a lot of organizations, to see what they were doing, what their recommendations were, and that's where we learned a lot of information,” says Moyla. “I think that the hardest part of all this is really planning and trying to figure out what to do in this unknown.”

One of the biggest tasks for the Facilities team was making sure there was appropriate signage throughout the buildings on all of the Pace campuses—occupancy limits, traffic patterns and flow, where people could sit (and where they couldn’t), and so much more.

“Our project managers put together circulation plans for every single building on each campus, over two million square feet of space,” she says. “They spent a lot of time trying to figure out what made sense and then actually going out to the field and walking that to make sure it actually worked and making sure that they were still not violating any code compliance issues, any egress issues. This was on top of putting together the social distance planning for more than 300 classrooms.”

Another critical part to consider when bringing the students back to campus was what they could expect in terms of life on campus—were there going to be events? What about life in the residence halls? How do meals work? What would happen if students had to be isolated or quarantined?

“At some point in the summer when we started realizing we're going to have to change our protocols for everything. We're going to have to change our protocols for living in residence, how to host campus activities, how to keep students, staff, and faculty healthy,” says Interim University Dean for Students Rachel Carpenter.

One of the first changes was to the University’s guest policies inside the residence halls. Students are typically allowed to visit each other’s rooms, but to keep everyone safe, “Family Units” were created to help slow the spread of the virus while still giving residential students the sense of community they desired. Inside a student’s room or suite, they could take off their face coverings, relax social distancing requirements, and feel normal. But this new policy wasn’t without its challenges.

“When we announced the change to the guest policy we had a little bit of pushback because students wanted to visit with each other. But I think they really understood,” says Patrick Roger-Gordon, assistant dean for students and director of Residential Life and Housing in NYC.  “I think the culture in our state, given what New York went through in March and April, even our students who weren't physically here, the whole nation was watching what was happening here. And we were the epicenter and things were terrible and we worked really hard to improve.”

The education around the virus and the ways it spread was critical to helping enforce policies set forth by the COVID-19 Task Force. Once the decision was made to return to campus, the University began socializing these new requirements and policies through the #OurSafePace campaign and our Return to Campus website, dedicated to informing our community about the different procedures that were implemented to help reduce the spread of the virus on campus.

A Virtual Learning Experience

The introduction of Zoom stations and a mix of in-person and virtual learning began when the community returned to campus. The ways faculty and students had to reassess their definitions for teaching and learning this semester were incredible.

In the classroom, students sat six feet apart, faculty stood behind clear moveable partitions and taught to the students in the room and those tuning in from elsewhere, and all wore face coverings. Not an easy feat in even the best of circumstances.

“I think that this has demolished any preconceived notions that online or remote teaching is inferior to on-campus teaching. No pedagogy is perfect. But I think many people have seen that remote teaching has unique affordances that can and should be used post-pandemic,” says Walker. “On Zoom, I felt like a guest in students’ homes and residence hall rooms. Knowing that roommates and family members were overhearing our work, meeting students’ pets and seeing students ‘on their turf’ rather than in the classroom made teaching feel more personal to me.”

“I think that window into students' lives made faculty really aware of their students’ needs in ways that they might not have been otherwise,” notes Knepper. “I'm not sure everybody realizes that a lot of our students are really struggling to make it through.”

For Walker, she used class time and office hours during the first two-weeks of the semester to set up one-on-one meetings with her students to get to know them personally, something she believes really created a connection and increased the level of student engagement. “It’s something I want to continue doing, whether we’re face-to-face or not,” she says.

And that sense of connection goes both ways. For students, they had the opportunity to see their professors on their home turf—from kids and spouses wandering around in the background to cats jumping up to say hello, the virtual modality had a humanizing effect that traditional in-classroom learning doesn’t typically have. 

“As a faculty member, I think it probably makes you a little less lofty and a lot more like a partner in education,” says Knepper. “Continuing that accessibility was so important and also makes everybody think about the fact that people have lives beyond the classroom, beyond my classroom. I know they have another life and they know I have another life.”

Our Safe Pace

While life on campus may have looked and felt different this semester, Pace continued to be committed to ensuring the health and safety of our community.

“I think our students, whether from the tri-state area or from outside that area, understood what was happening here and what they were coming to be a part of. I think they recognize the importance of those measures we were taking, even though there was a sacrifice and a cost for that,” says Roger-Gordon.

 Through community training, daily monitoring with the PaceSafe app and careful adherence to policies regarding social distancing, the wearing of face coverings, good hand hygiene, and a regulated community testing plan, Pace was able to have a successful semester back on campus.

Once back on campus, Pace implemented a community testing strategy that was able to successfully test 25 percent of our on-campus population weekly. People coming to campus were selected for coronavirus testing at random based on ID swipe information—if you were coming to campus and interacting with the community, the chances were good that you would be selected for testing. This 25 percent randomized testing strategy developed by the COVID-19 Task Force and Pace’s Coronavirus Coordination Officer was able to detect early clusters of positive cases on campus, resulting in only two full quarantine situations in Pleasantville and White Plains.

“I am humbled by the dedication, commitment, and persistence of this amazing group of men and women,” said College of Health Professions Associate Dean for Administration and COVID-19 Task Force member Gerrie Colombraro, PhD, RN. “Through our on-campus testing initiative, we have tested more than 9,000 individuals since August 10, with just 121 positive test results for an overall positivity rate of just over one percent—a remarkable accomplishment!”  

When the students returned, they were able to host cross-campus events virtually via Zoom, connecting with students they otherwise would never have met if it wasn’t for the pandemic. From yoga sessions to club meetings, students were connecting with their counterparts on other campuses—strengthening the connection between all Setters.

“Students have forgone typical social interaction and many of the most traditional and fundamental aspects of college life,” says Walker of the students who returned to campus this fall, making Zoom critical to not only the academic portion of college life, but social as well.  

“I think really at the heart of it all, was figuring out it's not just about doing a social program. It's about engaging all of our students; welcoming our new students into the community, helping them feel connected, giving them information,” says Smith-Bergollo “There were so many important things that we needed to capture in these virtual social programs in ways that we had never tried to do before, so it was a huge experiment.”

Throughout the fall semester, the University rallied behind the concept of Our Safe Pace, a call for each of us—student, staff, or faculty—to do our part to create a safe and healthy community for the greater good. The message was woven into our training, into digital signage across campus, in emails to the community, across social media, and more. And for the most part, it worked.

We had some positive cases, but we were able to contain them. In late September, we had our biggest outbreak, with 18 positive cases in one of our residence halls. The county health department directed everyone who lived in that building—students, RAs—to quarantine for 14 days. And, as it turned out, even that went OK. There wasn’t a larger outbreak. Our students stayed healthy—and emotionally healthy, too, thanks to a lot of support from our Residential Life staff and other university leaders. 

“It was upsetting to think that I might not even have [the virus], but I’m stuck in quarantine,” said Kayla Slusser ‘23 in an article for the Pace Chronicle. “But thinking from a bigger picture now, we’re doing this so we can prevent having to all go home…It sucks, but it’s better for the long term than the short term.”

By starting classes early, the University was able to complete in-person instruction by Thanksgiving break, with the end of the semester, including exams, conducted remotely and finishing on December 6. The accelerated calendar was implemented to comply with public health guidance to avoid asking our community to disperse across the country and then return to campus, potentially contributing to virus spread.

Looking Ahead

As effective vaccines against COVID-19 have begun being rolled out to the nation, the team at Pace is looking forward to a bright spring. Right now, the students have gone home for winter break and the COVID-19 Task Force is monitoring the rising cases across the nation. They’ve shared their plans for bringing students back to campus for the Spring 2021 semester—barring any unforeseen changes to New York State’s travel advisory or reopening plans—and have high hopes for another success, albeit unusual, semester.

 The nature of the virus and the actions we all take will play a key role in the success of the Spring 2021 semester. As things change, so, too, do the University’s plans.

“We have a lot of work to do. The virus is at a very interesting place right now. How it behaves further this spring is really going to be dictated by our actions and the actions of our communities,” Anderson says. “If people are wearing masks, if they are listening to science, we will see that slowing the spread that we saw last spring, but we do need to work together and stay vigilant.”

“My hopes for the spring semester are that our students will return safely, that they will have a wonderful academic semester, that we will get some semblance of our normal student life,” Knepper says. “My hope is for tenacity,” adds Walker. “We’ve been through a lot and it’s not over yet. But we will get through this, if we continue to have patience and help each other.”