Despite major disruptions to campus operations caused by a global pandemic, Elon remains committed to engaged learning.
The 2019 novel coronavirus, now impacting the lives of millions worldwide, first touched Elon from more than 7,000 miles away. Two Elon students slated to participate in the university’s program at The Beijing Center were called home in late January, just days after arriving in China to begin class. They would be among the first of thousands of Elon students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and friends whose lives were upended by the fast-moving and lethal virus. The spread of COVID-19 led to extensive social distancing efforts, stay-at-home orders and a displacement of students, faculty and staff from Elon’s campus.
At the same time, it required swift action by the university to adapt its model of engaged and experiential learning to remote learning, with Elon faculty and staff quickly pivoting to shift courses online and support the technology necessary to deliver them. More than 5,000 undergraduate students left campus for their homes where they completed the semester from afar, without the in-person connections and collaborations for which Elon is well known.
That work continues, as Elon prepares for a return to in-person learning on campus this fall, but with plans in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while being prepared for any cases that do occur. Some have compared this event to the devastating 1923 fire that destroyed the college’s Main Administration Building. The Elon community rallied together immediately to rebuild and lay the foundation for an even greater college.
“We will tell the story of a time when we opened ourselves up to each other — to a new method of learning, to responding to what the world needed,” President Connie Ledoux Book said in a video message to students in April. “Together we are writing Elon’s brave history about our response.”
A return from abroad
There was no indication when the two students had their spring semester in China disrupted that Elon would very soon be responding much more broadly to a global pandemic. The first inkling about the potential severity and far-reaching impact of COVID-19 came from northern Italy, where the number of confirmed cases rose rapidly within a matter of days. The region was north of Florence, where 21 Elon students and one faculty member were participating at the university’s study abroad program offered in partnership with Accademia Europea di Firenze.
Dean of Global Education Woody Pelton and his colleagues in the Isabella Cannon Global Education Center were joined by other campus leaders in regular meetings, closely monitoring changing conditions in Italy and other countries where Elon students were studying. Elon was guided by recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of State, which began restricting travel to several nations based upon the prevalence of COVID-19 cases. At that time, Italy was experiencing the next fastest outbreak following the virus’ spread from China.
Within a matter of days, it became apparent that students and faculty members in Italy were not the only ones faced with decisions about whether to remain in the countries where they were studying. Along with health concerns, the possibility of not being able to return to the United States became very real, prompting Elon to suspend The Elon Center in Florence on Feb. 21. At the time, Elon was one of just a handful of U.S. colleges and universities that were suspending study abroad programs. “Ultimately, we were able to get all students who wished to depart for home and with an online option to complete the semester,” Pelton says. “It was not the outcome anyone wanted or expected when they signed up in 2019 to study in Florence, but it will be a semester they will remember.”
Within weeks, it was clear COVID-19 was disrupting programs and plans far beyond Italy. By March 12, Elon recalled all students from continental Europe, with programs in other countries seeing cancellations in the following days and weeks.
A shift to remote learning
Students, faculty and staff on campus were heading toward mid-term exams and Spring Break in early March as the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. was starting to grow. The campus Emergency Operations Center began meeting to follow the developments abroad and address the growing likelihood that COVID-19 could disrupt campus operations, events and classes. North Carolina identified its first case in early March, as outbreaks in Washington and New York began to grow.
As it became more apparent the virus would likely spread to the local community, the university resolved to confront the crisis by relying on the latest and most reliable information, while keeping the health and safety of students, faculty and staff at the forefront. In a video message to the university community, President Book noted that “we have approached this difficult situation with facts and not fear.”
The university announced on March 11 that undergraduate courses would transition online for at least two weeks following the resumption of classes on March 23 after Spring Break, with students encouraged to remain home after the break. Nonessential university travel was canceled, as were all gatherings of more than 50 people. It would be the first major disruption of campus operations and the start of a widespread shift by the university to remote learning. Elon, well known for its relationships, mentoring, close collaborations and in-person connections, adapted its model to accommodate the need for students, faculty and staff to connect from afar.
The announcement came at the beginning of the CAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, which Elon was hosting for the first time at Schar Center. The tournament was canceled before the final games, followed by the cancellation of all spring sporting events. The timing of the announcement of the planned changes to classes provided faculty members time before Spring Break to begin preparing their courses for the shift online and preparing students to learn remotely. Speaking to her COM 100 Communications in the Global Age class before Spring Break, Professor of Communications Janna Anderson explained that they would have more flexibility, but that expectations would remain high, as would the level of support they would receive. “We want to reassure you that we are maintaining the same level of rigor and quality that you normally experience in a classroom setting,” Anderson told the class
Teaching and Learning Technologies partnered with the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, Belk Library, the Koenigsberger Learning Center, the Writing Center, Moodle Advisory Group Members and Associate Professor of Physics Kyle Altmann, the Faculty Fellow for Technology, to provide a wide array of training and support as faculty and students prepared for remote learning. In little more than a week, Elon shifted 1,800 classes online to engage more than 7,200 students, faculty and staff.
Thousands of students left campus for Spring Break on March 13 with the hope of resuming in-person classes on April 6. The plan was to have students return to campus to complete their classes and close out the academic year with the Class of 2020 walking across the stage to receive their diplomas, and then shift toward preparing the campus for the start of a new, and hopefully normal, academic year in the fall.
An engaging online learning model
With the start of remote learning on March 23, Vice President for Student Life Jon Dooley offered his encouragement to students now connecting with each other and their professors through videoconferencing tools such as WebEx, Microsoft Teams and Zoom. “I want you to know that the commitment of this community to support you has never been stronger,” Dooley said. “This will feel different, and it won’t be the in-person residential experience you’re used to. But relationships and community are at the core of an Elon education, and they have never been stronger.”
Dooley delivered the message from the rotunda of Alamance Building, standing next to the historic bell salvaged from the Main Administration Building after the 1923 fire. He noted that after the fire, classes were canceled for just a single day before students and faculty gathered in several locations to continue their academic work. That year, graduation was held for the first time Under the Oaks, the location for Commencement for decades and the spot where students formally begin their entry into the Elon community at New Student Convocation. “Resilience, adaptation and innovation are a part of our history and culture,” Dooley said.
Faculty members who typically engage with students in classrooms, their offices or in casual sidewalk conversations flexed their creative muscles to find new ways to connect with and support students across the distance. Take for instance Associate Professor of Art Anne Simpkins, who recorded video instruction resources for her students in the studio. Or Associate Professor of Music Todd Coleman, who worked with Alex Schmidt ’22 to share music via the notation software program Sibelius to continue the musical compositions they were working on. Professor of Physical Therapy Education Janet Cope took her human anatomy course, typically based in the School of Health Sciences anatomy lab, online.
Paul Miller, assistant provost for academic operations and communications, praised the widespread collaboration across the university as faculty members shared plans with their colleagues, solicited ideas from each other, learned to use new tools and found innovative ways to connect and communicate. The focus was on delivering the best learning experience for students, while integrating flexibility and adaptability. “You can’t overstate the commitment of our faculty to delivering this remote teaching during a very complex time,” Miller said. “It’s really astounding. We need to recognize that this is happening in real time, and across all our programs. It’s great work.”
On March 10, the day before the announcement that Elon would move to remote learning after Spring Break, Elon users hosted about 40 meetings using the WebEx video conferencing platform. Once remote learning began, Elon routinely saw more than 800 daily meetings as faculty, students and staff connected online. On Microsoft Teams, another popular video conferencing tool, use of the platform grew nearly 500 percent from February to April, with a daily average active user total of 2,510.
Remote learning and the expansion of remote working allowed alumni new ways to engage with their former professors and current students. Students in Assistant Professor of Performing Arts Charles Johnson’s Professional Practices course engaged via video conferencing with Matt Leckenbusch ’03 about his experience as director of theatre at Clemson University. School of Education alumnae Analiese Jaffe ’18, now teaching English in Ecuador, and Courtney Kobos ’19, who had been teaching English in the Czech Republic before being evacuated, connected by video chat with Assistant Professor of English Jennifer Eidum’s Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages class.
Students and faculty found new ways to share their art and creativity online. Members of the cast of the Department of Performing Arts production of “Hamlet” shifted from taking the stage in McCrary Theatre to joining each other on Facebook Live for a remote performance of the iconic work that received widespread media coverage. Seniors in the Department of Music performed their senior recitals at home, but streamed the beautiful music through Facebook Live. A virtual “Corona Choir” organized by Miles Carabello ’22 performed the Katy Perry hit “Rise,” with the YouTube video gaining thousands of views. “Just because we are all stuck in our houses doesn’t mean that we are alone,” Carabello said in reflecting on the impact of the performance. “Everyone else is bored and if you have a project in your head, you should act on it because nothing is impossible when you just ask.”
A supportive virtual network
Beyond the virtual classroom, Elon retained its focus on supporting students, whether on campus or hundreds of miles away.
Counseling Services, the Koenigsberger Learning Center, Belk Library and Campus Recreation and Wellness all adapted services to be offered remotely. Regular video updates offered students, faculty and staff advice and activities to stay healthy, physically and mentally, while at home during the pandemic. A new Staying Connected website offered a wide range of wellness resources and activities to assist the campus community, while a Lifelong Connections website offered to do the same for alumni all over the world.
While hundreds of Elon staff members began working remotely following a statewide stay-at-home order by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, there were many who continued to work on campus to provide for several hundred students who were not able to return to their homes during spring semester. For some students, their dorm room on campus provided the opportunity to stay further away from the COVID-19 pandemic, as outbreaks became more severe in New England and other locations around the country. Others remained on campus for financial reasons, while yet others, including some international students, were unable to return to their home countries due to travel restrictions.
Isabel Blanco Araujo ’20 was unable to return to her home in Venezuela and remained at Elon, tapping into the resources available on campus, attending classes online and working remotely for the Office of Admissions. “I’ve been going on walks around campus a ton,” she said. “It’s really nice to lay in the grass in Young Commons and just soak up the sun. I’m grateful I can spend time enjoying our beautiful campus in spring, enjoying something that everyone else is missing out on.”
A disrupted spring, a hopeful fall
By the end of March, it became apparent it would be impossible to safely resume in-person classes at Elon. That decision also meant that to protect the health and safety of students and their families, members of the Class of 2020 would be unable to gather on Scott Plaza and Young Commons on May 22 at Commencement, surrounded by their friends and family to celebrate all they have achieved during the past four years.
It is truly that everyday courage, those Elon values, that we wake up and we show up, and we work hard, taking action when we see things that need to be done, and raising our hand when we see where we can make a difference.”
In President Book’s April 10 video message, she noted that while the campus was in full bloom, she missed the energy that Elon’s students bring to campus, and had been impressed by the courage and determination she saw in members of the Elon community.
“It is truly that everyday courage, those Elon values, that we wake up and we show up, and we work hard, taking action when we see things that need to be done, and raising our hand when we see where we can make a difference,” Book said. “I am so proud of this student body, and the Elon values you’re demonstrating.”
With a commitment to ensuring a proper recognition of the Class of 2020, Elon held a virtual degree conferral ceremony on May 22 to welcome them officially into the Elon alumni family. These newest Elon graduates will be invited back to campus in the next academic year with their friends and family for an in-person celebration of their substantial accomplishments, a recognition of what they have meant to Elon during their time at the university.
Even before the conclusion of the spring semester, Elon began looking to the fall and what a return to campus will look like. That included an announcement on April 20 by President Book of a Task Force on Fall Semester 2020. Headed by President Emeritus Leo M. Lambert, it included faculty and staff leaders from across the university. “While so many things associated with this threat have been beyond our control, I am confident we will emerge from this experience stronger, wiser and with a greater appreciation for the values and strengths that truly make Elon a remarkable place to learn and work,” Book said.