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Reflections on our Seventh Semester During COVID-19

VP for Student Affairs
June 23, 2022 Peter Konwerski Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

As the Rensselaer community celebrated Commencement on Saturday, May 21 and as we prepared for the arrival of nearly 1,000 juniors for our summer semester the following day, I reflected on the start of our eighth semester living through COVID-19. NASPA’s recent Compass Report: Charting the Future of Student Affairs is top of mind as I plan for a summer retreat for our Student Life staff and look ahead to the fall semester. From my point of view, while the five imperatives discussed in the report are crucial, the need for greater, systematic staff care is essential.

Naturally, I continue to work to find ways to recognize my staff for their seventh successful semester leading through a global pandemic. While it has been a grind, this was a very difficult spring. During fall we had roughly 100 positive COVID-19 student cases on campus. At the end of spring we tallied over 1,200 cases, a ten-fold increase! While we required vaccines and boosters, weekly testing, isolation of positives, and masking indoors, the variants continued to cause havoc. During Commencement week, we tightened up protocols, increased testing, and adjusted events to help ensure our students made it safely across the stage at graduation. Unfortunately, a handful of students did not get to commence in person, due to positive COVID diagnoses days prior to the ceremony.

The implications of our spring surge was significant for everyone on our team. The executive director of health services, our campus MD, called and provided daily medical attention to each sick student; our Class Deans helped students navigate coursework; the student living and learning team provided accommodations and oversight; dining and transportation services delivered hundreds of additional meals; and our faculty adjusted classes to meet the needs of students. Many other departments across campus also dedicated their time, going above and beyond to assist our students just like colleagues across the country did to protect, safeguard, and support their students.

On the planning side, we continue to adjust, create contingencies, and conduct tabletop exercises as a result of Delta in the fall, Omicron in the winter, and BA2 in the spring – to modify how to keep our community safe. Simply put, it has been exhausting to operate under pandemic conditions. The personal, physical, and emotional toll is immense, and I know many, including myself, feel that strain. It is hard to imagine we are still at this, but unfortunately we are, with no clear end in sight! Will we require COVID-19 testing in fall, masking indoors next winter, and modify programs next spring? It is almost unimaginable to consider the operational changes we have endured – many for the better, including virtual engagement, online services, telehealth, counseling, and advising. That stark reality of how much we’ve changed came to my attention as I overheard a member of my team remark, “That is the first time I have seen you in person in two years,” as they met a colleague who stopped by my office. Or an upper class student who commented, “I have no context for our URM Graduation Ceremony since it hasn’t been in person since 2019.”

Having some sense of the imperatives outlined in the Compass Report through the Scott Academy Board, we are fortunate NASPA is emphasizing staff wellbeing, care, professional development, and talent management. I am excited about the intersections being strengthened between educational associations, professional preparation programs, institutions, and individuals on campus. A great deal will continue to change as the field evolves in the coming days, semesters, and decades. Challenges around retention and success, changing demographics, and the physical health, safety, and emotional wellbeing of our students will continue to be our top priorities. But this will require talented, supported staff with the drive and motivation to sustain success day after day, as my team has been doing for the past seven semesters.

As I reflect on the quality, caliber, and commitment of my staff within our Student Life team, I am privileged to lead them and am proud, humbled, and honored to support them. They inspire me daily, as do my VPSA colleagues, and all my higher ed friends who have been managing throughout the pandemic. While we are all more resilient, we are not all healthy and well. In fact, many cannot help but be exhausted by the pace, change, and challenges we have faced. I am hopeful that as we look forward, we see better days ahead for campuses, communities, and the broader health of our global society.