Because of COVID-19, it was a spring semester like no other. This is the story of how it unfolded at Missouri Western.
Although a case was first reported in China in December 2019, it wasn’t until early January when the first cases were being confirmed in the United States and most people started hearing about the “corona virus.”
About the time students left for spring break on March 7, University officials had begun to closely monitor the COVID-19 situation; the global number of reported cases had surpassed 100,000. By March 10, Missouri Western personnel had created a COVID-19 response team and began working with the local task force. All international travel was suspended, including the study abroad trip to Japan for students that President Matt Wilson was planning for May. Missouri Western also initiated enhanced cleaning and sanitizing procedures on campus.
On the Thursday of spring break, March 12, it was announced that spring break would be extended for one week, and University officials took the extra time to figure out the balance of the spring semester. By this time, several universities in the United States had gone to all-online classes for the rest of their spring semesters.
At the same time, the NCAA suspended all basketball championships in all divisions, and a cancellation of the rest of the spring sports seasons subsequently followed. On Wednesday, March 18, the University announced its plan for the 2020 spring semester.
“There is nothing we wanted more than to welcome our students back to campus and have everything back to normal,” President Wilson said. “Unfortunately, that was not the situation we faced. But I was confident that we would rise to the occasion and emerge stronger as a Griffon family.”
Instead of students completing the semester totally online, faculty were asked to offer two methods of alternative course delivery for most courses: supplemental materials to cover course content for the remainder of the semester, and a spring semester “capstone” experience. Those experiences could include an exam, a research paper, a PowerPoint presentation, a business plan or another option. If they had a passing grade at midterm, students had the option of earning the credit hours for their courses with no grade. Exceptions included those degrees with certifications or licenses that required grades for all courses.
Sarah Weber, assistant professor of art, developed two capstone projects for her students in their fibers course. Since they had learned hand-sewing techniques in class earlier in the semester, they sewed protective face masks for hospitals. For the second project, Stitching Stories, students called a resident at Living Community of St. Joseph and asked them a series of questions about their past. They then created a visual interpretation of the conversation.
“Due to COVID-19, senior citizens in nursing homes and assisted living centers are isolated and cannot see their families,” Weber said at the time. “And this project promotes healthy morale and genuine interaction between students and the elderly.”
Nathan Scott was elected president of the Student Government Association right before spring break, so he conducted SGA business virtually and worked with those student organizations that did not have a chance to elect new officers before spring break. “We did whatever we could to pick up the pieces so we can start strong in the fall,” he said.
In a phone interview in late March, Scott said he was still considering his options on how to finish his courses for the balance of the spring semester. He noted that he was really glad students had some options rather than the University just going 100% online. “This was a situation that called for flexibility, and I was very glad Missouri Western was flexible.”
The residence halls stayed open throughout the semester for students who needed a place to stay and the cafeteria provided to-go meals. Students who didn’t return to campus will receive prorated room and board credit on their account that can be used for summer tuition, fall tuition or fall housing. Graduating seniors will be issued a refund for the prorated amount.
By the time Missouri Western had announced its alternative semester on March 18, St. Joseph’s K-12 schools were closed, along with East Hills Mall. Bars and restaurants were only allowed take-out or delivery, and gatherings of more than 10 were prohibited by the mayor of St. Joseph.
On March 20, President Wilson announced a remote work policy for employees, emphasizing that students could still receive services via phone and email. A few days later, campus access was restricted to the public in response to St. Joseph’s emergency declaration that strongly encouraged people to remain in their homes and avoid public places. On March 28, it was announced that a Missouri Western student had tested positive for the virus. A few days later, the city extended the shelter-in-place to April 24 and the University’s work-from-home policy was extended to that date, as well.
As the silent spring semester continued, many got creative and started offering virtual events to students and the community. International Student Services held its Tea and Talk series via Zoom, and four music students gave their senior recitals on Facebook Live. Graduate student Elizabeth Alkier defended her capstone portfolio for her Master’s degree via Zoom, and Admissions created a virtual campus tour for prospective students.
Admissions staff also created a website and held a virtual spring Griffon Showcase for prospective students and their parents on April 4. Marissa Steimel, director of new student initiatives, said 41 students and their families participated. The website even gave them an opportunity to chat live with Missouri Western personnel.
“It was definitely a different experience, but the folks who attended asked great questions and seemed to enjoy interacting with the current students, faculty, and staff,” she said. “They appreciated our efforts to still get them information about Missouri Western, even though we couldn’t hold the on-campus event. We had students from all across the state participating, which was cool to see!”
Steimel said they are looking into offering more online events in the future.
“Griffon Showcase provides a unique opportunity for prospective students to get a feel for campus, our University, and the Griffon family, and we didn’t want our future Griffons to miss out on that experience due to the unforeseen circumstances of COVID-19,” she said. “So we completely recreated the event into a virtual showcase. Our campus community quickly came together to still provide a successful ‘visit day’ despite the unexpected change in plans.”
Dr. Teddi Deka, professor of psychology, and the Missouri Western chapter of Alpha Chi Honor Society decided to hold an MWSU No Conference Conference for students who were preparing to travel and present at conferences this spring. She asked students to upload their presentations or powerpoints on Google Drive, and she shared them with the campus community.
Since the spring commencement ceremony could not be held, it was rescheduled for the Sunday of Family Weekend, Sept. 20.
“Commencement means so much to the graduates who have worked so hard to earn their degree,” President Wilson said. “We wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to celebrate their accomplishments, even though we couldn’t hold the ceremony in May.”
Graduates also have the option of walking in the December 2020 ceremony.
In April, it was announced that all summer courses would be online only.
Dr. Elise Hepworth, professor of music and president of the Faculty Senate, said the importance of her research in community and relationship building increased exponentially after on-campus classes were cancelled for the semester.
Her choir class met virtually during what would have been their weekly rehearsals, and she worked very hard to maintain the culture that they had developed throughout the academic year. Dr. Hepworth lined up guest speakers for each of those classes, including internationally renowned composers and professional musicians. One of the classes featured Yoga for Musicians.
The hard part for the seniors, she said, is that they did not get any closure because they did not get to experience “the last” of each event. She’s planning a “family reunion” for her students when the pandemic is over.
In her role as Faculty Senate president, Dr. Hepworth spent a lot of time in virtual meetings with President Wilson and faculty members. She said faculty were impressed with the administration, and they were pleased with the decision of how to finish off the semester’s classes.
“I spent a lot of hours with President Wilson, and I can unequivocally say that students are always his top priority,” she said.
Abby Wolff: A last semester to remember
Editor’s note: It’s probably safe to say that every senior will long remember the spring semester of 2020. At the end of March, I spoke with Abby Wolff, a theatre/cinema major with an animation minor from Kansas City, Missouri, who had been looking forward to graduating this May.
Q. How did you feel when you found out you couldn’t finish your last semester on campus?
A. To be quite honest, I was devastated. There was so much coming in March and April. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to a place I love so much. Cleaning out my dorm room was surreal and heartbreaking.
I was working on two shows at the time when things were starting to shut down. When our season closer “She Kills Monster” was finally canceled, I sat with my fiancé, Ben, and we cried over the loss of a project that was so loved by many people.
I think letting myself grieve was hard because my future in-laws were stuck in Italy and they have it so much worse. However, when I finally let myself process all the emotions I was feeling, I was reminded how our feelings are valid, even when we think we’re being silly. The biggest lesson that this whole thing has taught is that it’s okay to be sad!
Q. How have your classes and professors been since there were no more campus classes?
A. I don’t know about the other departments on campus, but the TCD department has been absolutely incredible. We’re a little family, and the professors have been checking in with students consistently. They were transparent with us in asking for our patience as they figure out how to do this crazy form of schooling, but overall, I am so proud to have faculty leaders like them. If I’m struggling, I know I can reach out to any of them.
I decided to take the credit for two of my classes. My two acting classes are doing some revised theatre projects that I’m very excited for in the coming weeks. I am working on the final draft for my short play that I’ve been working on for Playwrighting and have weekly coaching with Dr. Paul Hindemith for voice. While I really miss the classroom, it’s nice to still have a way to connect with peers via Zoom.
Q. Did you lose your job because of the pandemic?
A. Yes, I was one of five technicians in the Potter theater (on campus). Since coming home, I got a job at Walmart doing online grocery orders for folks in my community. I had a long conversation with one of my co-workers about rigging and carpentry (he thinks I’m very cool). It’s a steady job and I feel like I’m helping people, though my heart wants to be back in the theater.
I’m also working to try and use Zoom to have weekly art workshops for students who are stuck at home. Since I was 15, I’ve been teaching music and art lessons to kiddos from my church and community theater.
I believe that art heals and that it is the perfect distraction for times like this. Plus, it’s a nice little side hustle and gives me time to practice my communication skills. Teaching over video is a whole different beast than being face-to-face. It’s a good challenge and keeps me on my toes.
Q. Any other comments?
A. This came at the worst and best possible times. It’s the worst because my senior year was cut short and there was so much I wanted to do before saying goodbye to Missouri Western. But also, it’s the best because having this time to reset and refocus before entering the professional world is very helpful.
I’m balancing finishing school, planning my wedding and working to start my life outside of my parents’ home. While I’d rather be in St. Joseph, there are blessings in this insane time. I’m grateful for the connections I have from college and am looking forward to when I can finally come back to campus to step on that darn seal.