Picture of the university oval entrance and Grawemeyer Hall lit up at night in green to honor COVID-19 victims.
Grawemeyer Hall and oval entrance is lit green to honor COVID-19 victims.

On March 6, 2020, Kentucky recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19.

Five days later, March 11, the World Health Organization classified the virus as a global pandemic. That same day, UofL President Neeli Bendapudi sent a campus-wide email introducing a dedicated website for COVID-19 updates and announcing immediate changes to the spring semester, including the extension of spring break and the suspension of international and non-essential domestic business travel.

Further, classes were to be delivered remotely starting March 18 through April 5. As we know now, that remote class model continued through the duration of the spring semester and even spring commencement was delivered virtually. Though our campus remained open and functioning, much of our operating model was turned on its head.  

When the first coronavirus patient was admitted to UofL Health on March 17, the global headlines that had peppered newspapers since the beginning of the year became deeply personal. 

“Each day seems to bring with it new issues and new complications,” President Bendapudi wrote to the campus community. “And yet each day also brings hope and confidence and resilience because it is clear we are working together, and working with one singular purpose: to keep everyone healthy and informed as we move forward.”

During those early and dark days, the CDC issued a laundry list of precautions to stay safe against this new and complex threat. Chief among those guidelines was maintaining a social distance of at least 6 feet from another human being, no doubt a challenge on a busy college campus like ours.

As such, the spring 2020 semester became like no other in the 200-plus-year history of the University of Louisville. Remote instruction was extended to the end of the semester, including finals, students were moved out of campus residence halls. Recreation facilities were closed, faculty and staff shifted to a work-from-home model and commencement was postponed. There was confusion and sadness, anxiety and fear.

President Bendapudi urged the UofL community to, “Anchor yourself in what matters most to you. Reach out to someone for help … Reach out to see if someone else needs help. Let us be patient with one another. Together we will persevere through this tumultuous time and come out the other side a stronger, more unified university community.”

Anxiety from the unknown

Staff Senate Chair John Smith was tasked with making sure the needs of UofL’s staff employees were taken care of and that they were as informed as they could be. Those early days were the toughest for him, when things were shutting down “like dominos” and discussions were taking place about budget cuts and staffing.   

“When we saw other colleges and universities shutting down for the rest of the semester, we knew right away there was going to be a tremendous financial hit to the university and we were going to have to navigate that in some manner,” he said. “Knowing how much of our budget is dedicated to personnel costs, I knew we were going to be looking at furloughs and pay reductions. I hated every second of those discussions.”

Those discussions lasted for weeks. Solutions were largely elusive.

“There was so much unknown. How is the state system going to function? What happens to people who receive a furlough? It was a very real roller coaster,” Smith said.

The furlough and pay-reduction conversation was just one challenge, however. Employees also had to navigate NTI, VPN, internet connections, child care, their own health and the health of their families. The one topic employees revisited most with Smith was how much anxiety they were experiencing – anxiety about getting the virus from pumping gas, or about how long it was going to be until they could see their friends and family, or about how long their child would be out of school.

“Usually you can see the other side of something, but this was new for the entire world,” he said. “The not knowing was the hardest part. It just seemed so overwhelming for so many people at the same time.”

For senior Sabrina Collins, UofL’s SGA president, the toughest decision early on was whether or not we should bring students back to campus for the fall 2020 semester without knowing what the state of the pandemic would be.

“Last spring, most people thought COVID would be long gone by the fall,” she said. “As we approached the start of the fall semester, it became clear that would not be the case.”

Like employees, students were also hit hard in a number of ways. Collins said many were impacted financially, unable to work and struggling to navigate the unemployment process. Many were also not included in the 2020 stimulus package.

“In addition, students today are facing unprecedented mental health challenges, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic,” she said.

Points of pride

UofL worked to address some of those challenges, adding counseling sessions, hosting “coping with COVID” webinars and virtual group workshops and ensuring critical social networks didn’t dissipate. A number of traditional campus events continued in a virtual format, for example.

As the pandemic raged on through those early days and into the summer, we started to learn a little more about how to navigate this relentless virus. At UofL, we took an all-hands-on-deck approach to research, care, prevention and community.

For example, from the onset, our nationally networked lab enabled researchers to safely study coronavirus, our engineering students produced 3D printed face shields for healthcare professionals, our business students started a company to meet demand for reusable face masks, 3D printed swabs developed at UofL filled a gap in test kits and we launched a decontamination program to alleviate a mask shortage for health care workers.

In April, UofL researchers developed a technology believed to block the coronavirus from infecting human cells. In July, UofL began a clinical trial on a new treatment for critically ill COVID-19 patients meant to lessen some of the most severe respiratory effects. In early December, UofL received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense to develop and test a nasal spray to prevent COVID-19.

This is nowhere near a complete list of UofL’s work against the COVID-19 pandemic, yet all of this work that should incite plenty of pride.

For Smith, however, his pride comes from a place that’s a little more personal. He’s most proud of the way UofL staff employees “dug in” during the crisis. A few volunteered to take furloughs to protect others, for example.

He is proud of President Bendapudi and the board of trustees for raising a “significant” amount of money for our employee SHARE program, and Physical Plant for keeping campus sanitized, Public Safety for keeping campus safe, Housing and Dining for keeping students sheltered and fed, the fitness centers, our academic advisors, our researchers, our enrollment management staff, our Delphi Center that moved classes online quickly, and so forth.

“These are examples that really show what we are all about,” he said. “The concern for each other was tremendously apparent and encouraging. Hope is a powerful thing. Staff did a great job giving hope to each other at a time when so many things were unknown.”

As this past year has poignantly proved, our collective challenges were created by more than the global pandemic. The global protests for racial justice in the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd also hit home, particularly for many of our students. It was those students’ response that made Collins most proud.

“Our students really showed up for one another and for the Louisville community,” she said. “It is inspiring to see UofL students demanding change and working to peel away layers of institutional racism at our university in our city.”

Post-pandemic changes

Without question, the pandemic has changed so much more than just pedagogical models and some of those changes are predicted to stick around.

Smith said remote work – at least a hybrid model – might linger for some employees and he would advocate for such a model.

“The ability to work remotely or in a hybrid situation may help us retain some valuable people. Aside from that, the ability to work remotely can really make a positive difference in someone’s quality of life,” he said. “Obviously there are some jobs that can’t be accomplished remotely, but I hope we take this opportunity to embrace the opportunity for those that can.”

He also hopes we continue some virtual meeting components to allow more opportunities for people to engage if they have restrictive schedules or travel.

Collins said some students have done well in an academic environment where there are more options for course modality, while acknowledging others have struggled in an online environment. The future should therefore reflect a range of needs, she said.

“I am glad to know our decision to change the online course pricing to match the in-person rate will persist into future years,” she said. “This change allows students to have more flexibility regarding the courses they are taking. I hope that as UofL moves forward, we continue to collect student feedback on hybrid courses so we can provide course options that best meet the needs of our students.”

Of course, in light of a global pandemic, UofL Health is also experiencing tremendous changes. UofL’s chief medical officer Dr. Jason Smith told WLKY the pandemic will change the delivery of health care, for example, among other things.

“This is going to be something that we are going to take lessons learned, both good and bad, and begin to adapt it to all areas of our lives,” he said. “And I don’t think it’ll ever quite be the same after COVID … Delivery of health care is going to be different. The science behind vaccinations and the use of vaccines is going to be very different. How we disseminate information is going to be very different. We are probably just on the cusp of beginning to understand the impact of this.”

That said, one year later, we also seem to be on the cusp of a post-COVID world, with plenty of reasons for hope and optimism. We were the first hospital in Kentucky and one of the first in the country to start administering the COVID-19 vaccine, for example. We’re planning an in-person commencement ceremony in May at Cardinal Stadium after enduring two virtual commencements in a row. And, we’re resuming an in-person course schedule in the fall. We’ll do all of this fully aware of how this crisis changed our community – individually and collectively.

“There was a point in time where it was like the entire university said, ‘OK, we have got to start moving forward again,’ I have seen it with our students. I have seen it with our staff. I have seen it with our faculty. I have seen it with our administration,” John Smith said. “Witnessing that synergy has been very powerful and encouraging. Seeing it happen across the board has been inspiring.”

Alicia Kelso
Alicia Kelso is the director of social media and digital content. She joined UofL in 2015 as director of communications at the Brandeis School of Law. She also serves as a senior contributor at Forbes.com, writing about the restaurant industry, which she has covered since 2010. Her work has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Bloomberg, The Seattle Times, Good Morning America and Franchise Asia Magazine.