Sewanee adjusts to global coronavirus pandemic

By Colton Williams

Due to the threat of the global coronavirus pandemic, Sewanee will move to online learning for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year. “The reality of COVID-19 is beginning to reshape our lives in fundamental ways,” read Vice-Chancellor John McCardell’s email on March 14. “Sewanee is no exception.”

Spring break has been extended another week with virtual classes to begin on March 30. Originally, in an email on March 15, Dean of Students W. Marichal Gentry instructed students who were currently off-campus to come to Sewanee to retrieve their belongings between March 18-23. Due to the quickly evolving nature of the pandemic this decision was reversed, with Gentry saying on March 17 that “students must not return to campus unless they are already en route.”

On March 18, McCardell announced through email and video that Commencement for 2020 has been postponed. 

Previously, McCardell sent a short video to the University community, saying “at least in my lifetime, I’ve not had to face, or deal with having to face, a challenge more daunting than the challenge that we face right now.”

One of those challenges will be the adjustment both students and faculty will have to make in transitioning to an online learning format. 

“Our amazing team of Faculty Technology Coordinators and other staff from Library and Information Technology Services are organizing a series of virtual training opportunities, which will take place next week,” said Associate Dean of the College Betsy Sandlin. “We have also put together a comprehensive web resource that describes tools and strategies. In addition, we are offering one-on-one support as needed. Early in the process, I put together a google form that asked what the faculty most needed help with; we are using that form to guide the shape of our training sessions and other materials.”

Sandlin added that “Many faculty members have mentioned that they will miss the frequent, informal interactions with students. We all love teaching and love to work with our students.  But, we will persevere and make the best of a challenging situation.”

Dr. Clint Smith, assistant professor of biology and expert on coronaviruses, spoke to the Purple to give background about the pandemic. “While SARS-CoV-2 is a newly emerged coronavirus, many of us have likely been infected with a coronavirus in our lifetime,” Smith said, adding that SARS-CoV-2, the name of the virus that causes COVID-19, is different from other coronaviruses in that for “some/many unknown reasons, SARS-CoV-2 was able to spread globally,” unlike MERS-CoV or SARS-CoV. 

“I think a big misconception — established early on — was that this virus was a version of seasonal influenza,” Smith said. “The narrative that SARS-CoV-2 (and COVID-19) was just a little more deadly than seasonal influenza really appeared to dampen the potential severity of the epidemic (now pandemic). With the exception of the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, the US has largely been unaffected (or completely unaffected) from recent emerging and re-emerging epidemics: Zika, Ebola, Chikungunya, SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV etc. This, I’d imagine, worked along with the influenza narrative to support that SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 was a Chinese problem. It was a South Korean problem. It was an Italian problem. It wasn’t our problem.”

Smith continued, “And, perhaps this combination of limited exposure to past epidemics, the early narrative coming from the federal government, and underfunded public health entities helped get us here… An emergent virus in one country should be viewed as a world-wide problem – not just the problem of one country.” 

Dr. Sarah Naramore, visiting assistant professor of history and an historian of American medicine, said that “The 21st century is characterized by social media and instant news and we don’t know what long-term effects that will have. On the one hand, we can prepare for what’s coming before it arrives. On the other hand, we don’t seem to be very good at making sense out of large amounts of raw information or responding without panic. That’s where slowing down and taking time to think can be helpful.”

She added that “We haven’t had to deal with something like this in a long time and I think it should ask us to reconsider how our social systems work and how they could work better. In short, the moment should be ‘historic’ in the sense that we should reevaluate our systems and priorities.”

As for Sewanee, McCardell said that the University community will “receive a series of communications that will keep you informed as more details are finalized.”

The Purple will continue to cover the COVID-19 pandemic and its implications for Sewanee, particularly in regards to the ongoing concerns of room and board, international students, local businesses, the loss of seniors’ spring, and the transition to virtual learning.