Communication and Marketing

Coming Together in the Face of COVID-19

Alma students, staff and faculty finish out fall semester in the face of pandemic

For many throughout the Alma College community and beyond, it seemed unlikely in August that the entire fall term would go according to plan.

The college had rolled out a comprehensive Return to Campus plan, a detailed set of guidelines that encompassed changes to virtually every aspect of life at Alma. Students would be required to wear face coverings in the presence of others, faculty members spaced out their classrooms to maintain at least six feet of social distance, and campus-wide COVID-19 testing took place starting with move in weekend.

In the media and elsewhere, it was speculated that Alma and other institutions of higher education worldwide would be inundated with cases of COVID-19 all semester, so much so that they would be forced to shift to remote learning, as many did in March, when little was known about the virus or its spread.

Alma did see cases of COVID-19 on campus, mostly among students, but it had a plan in place to manage their health care, quarantine and isolation — along with a remote instruction option and daily delivery of meals and other necessities. They were challenging months but Alma finished its fall term in person, President Jeff Abernathy said, in large part thanks to the efforts of faculty and students, who went above and beyond to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and allow everyone on campus to thrive.

“All summer long, faculty were thinking of how they were going to do this. We were asking a great deal of them, and they made it happen,” Abernathy said. “I’m incredibly grateful and appreciative of their work.

“As for the students, it’s a sense of enormous pride. The reason we got as far as we did was because of them. They were wearing face coverings when they didn’t have to, social distancing, and not getting together in groups, all for the greater good. That’s amazing, and it has made me extremely proud to be a Scot.”

Creativity comes through amid mask mandate

When Neeyah Mitchell and Trezure Price learned that they would not be able to walk for their graduation from Fitzgerald High School, in Warren, last spring due to COVID-19, they knew they had to do something to lift their spirits.

Mitchell and Price, who are now first-year students at Alma College, decorated the face coverings they were required to wear at Fitzgerald’s altered, drive-through graduation ceremony. Since arriving at Alma, the two have continued to wear decorated face coverings around campus — a delightful self-expression that has caught the attention of classmates, college staff and teammates on the Alma cheer, STUNT and Spirit Squad teams.

“It started right when quarantine happened and when everything was starting to change with graduation,” Price said. “Everyone was getting upset, and I just had an idea: We should have cute masks at graduation. People really loved it then, and it has just carried on since that time.”

Mitchell and Price are hard to miss, even in a crowd. The majority of their face covering decorations include glitter and rhinestones, as well as various different fabrics. The decorations usually involve some form of Scots spirit, with a message like “Go Alma!” or the school color, maroon.

Some of their face coverings include their first names, because according to Mitchell and Price — who have attended school together since they were elementary students and share godparents — they are often mistaken for one another.

The strategy has worked. Mitchell and Price are instantly recognizable around campus, they say, and everyone from faculty to food service staff has expressed appreciation for their creative face coverings.

“Ever since the pandemic started, I told myself I don’t want to be normal and wear something like a plain blue mask. If I have to wear it, I want to wear some glitter and express myself,” said Mitchell. “I don’t want to just be a person. I want to make my mark.”

Theatre and dance’s ‘double miracle’

Playwrights and choreographers don’t necessarily write stage shows and design dance routines with social distancing guidelines in mind. However, the Theatre and Dance Departments adapted to restrictive conditions and managed to have successful semesters.

The fall theatre production, “Bigfoot Stole My Wife,” was modified in several ways. Audience members were limited, and spread out among seats in the Strosacker Theatre while wearing face coverings. Actors, taking the stage one at a time, wore face shields while they delivered humorous, quirky soliloquies. Movement was limited to within six feet of the edge of the stage. The production was double cast, according to director Scott Mackenzie, to ensure the show would go on even if a cast member was required to go into isolation or quarantine, and rehearsal schedules were modified to reduce contact between actors.

“Overall, it was a successful effort,” Mackenzie said. “In speaking with my theatre students after the production, I found that they really appreciated the relative normalcy we were able to provide for them. The show was terrific and despite the few people in attendance in-person, we had a robust response to our live-stream.”

Students in the dance program altered their normal routines in similar ways. Auditions for the Fall Dance Concert were held on the lawn outside the Heritage Center. The Student Choreography Concert — scheduled for the winter semester — was written on the weekends while faculty rehearsed their pieces for the fall concert during the weeknights. Dancers maintained six feet of distance from each other and wore face coverings in all of their pieces.

Rehearsals and events performed remotely were the norm this fall and required a great deal of versatility from students and faculty, said Theatre and Dance Department Chair Ben Munisteri. One highlight came during the weekend of Nov. 13, when Rachel Blome ’21 directed for her senior capstone theatre project Craig Pospisil’s drama “Months on End,” in Strosacker Theatre, while the fall dance concert simultaneously went up in Presbyterian Hall, featuring original works by six choreographers.

“I called it a double miracle,” Munisteri said. “Dancing in masks and acting in face shields was challenging for our students, but they rose to the task and delivered excellent work.”

Admissions keeps pace

Across colleges and universities at the start of the pandemic was a fear that students would stay away, for the sake of their own health. For schools that base large portions of their annual budgets on tuition, room and board, the results could have been devastating.

Fortunately, these painful forecasts largely did not come to pass in the fall. At Alma, the admissions and athletics offices formed a new partnership over the summer aimed at keeping students who were interested in attending Alma on campus, rather than at home.

Every prospective student at Alma now receives a personalized approach each time they visit campus, said Sarah Dehring, athletics director, and Amanda Slenski ’07, vice president for admissions and special assistant to the president. This approach has played a role in the number of new students at Alma for the fall term who played sports — 71 percent, a new record.

“Every year, I meet with our coaches, as well as Amanda, to discuss what’s possible and what our enrollment goals are for the coming year. This year, we were able to meet our goals, and in a few sports, we were able to exceed them,” Dehring said. “Every coach, when they’re talking to each student-athlete, is taking an incredibly personalized approach to that interaction,” she continued. “They’re talking about everything from their role on the team to how their studies are going, because education always comes first.”

In total, Alma welcomed 434 new students for the fall term. The college’s overall enrollment for 2020-21 stands at 1,435, compared to the 2019 total of 1,442 — a small drop that she said could have been much higher were it not for extraordinary efforts taken on by the admissions and athletics staff.

Classes go virtual

Whether outside or inside, from a classroom or an alternative teaching area, remote or in-person, the faculty of Alma College worked extremely hard during the fall term to ensure students had the support they needed to learn.

Laura von Wallmenich, an associate professor of English and coordinator of the American Studies program, used a “hybrid flexible,” or “HyFlex” mode for the three courses she taught in the fall, which allowed students the option of learning remotely or in-person.

Von Wallmenich admitted that early in the fall, she was worried for her students — particularly the First Year Seminar students she taught, who were early in their education at Alma and still building connections with others around campus. However, she said, at the end of the term, most of her students felt they had a successful term.

‘I’m really proud of our students who made it through,” von Wallmenich said. “The scale of challenges that students faced was extraordinary, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that not all of them stayed on campus — good students who just couldn’t handle it for any number of reasons. But for the most part, students did great.”

Teaching remotely was a big learning experience for both students and faculty, von Wallmenich said, adding she has never altered her classes mid-term as much as she did this past fall. Different teaching methods engaged groups of students in different ways, she said, and regularly shifting students’ focus between hands-on work and listening to lectures proved key to maintaining engagement.

One big lesson for von Wallmenich as an instructor was the value of using text messaging as a tool in class, which is a prominent way of communicating through computer software like Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

“Different modes of learning enable different voices,” von Wallmenich said. “Texting brings in new voices and offers me a way to bring those students — particularly those with social anxiety — into a speaking mode. That has been revolutionary to me, and I will always allow that to students as an option to participate now.”

Particularly in the early part of the fall term — when the temperature was warm, the sun was out and the leaves on campus trees were changing colors — faculty members could often be found outside with their students. Outdoor and other alternative teaching spaces allowed classes the opportunity to gather in-person while maintaining safe distance from one another.

Von Wallmenich’s First Year Seminar students met in the Stone Recreation Center, which, she said, produced some very positive outcomes. She hopes to be able to utilize the space again in the future.

“(The size of the room) made it so we could sit in a circle and face each other, safely,” von Wallmenich said. “I had to show my health check form every day to get into the classroom and didn’t have any normal, built-in tech, but it was great. What you gave up in those traditional classroom spaces, you made up for with the size of the room, which made a lot of other things work.”

Athletics adapts

For student-athletes whose routines were shattered by restrictions brought on to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, creating and maintaining positive routines was the key to success.

In early September, the President’s Council of the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA) — of which Alma College is a member — voted unanimously to postpone all conference sponsored athletic events until January 2021. The council also approved a plan for fall sports to be played in the spring semester.

For Michelle Sabourin’s cheer and STUNT teams, the council’s decision meant there would be no cheerleading on the sidelines this fall — thus, a disjointed schedule that required clever thinking from the head coach, all the way through the roster.

“What we found very early on that was challenging for student-athletes was the lack of control at this very uncontrollable time,” Sabourin said. We found that by holding practices regularly, having a constant in their schedule, it gave them something to hold onto, something they could do every day. Even though practices weren’t exactly the same as usual, it was something positive we could be in charge of on a regular basis.”

Practices at Alma took place in phases, Sabourin said, based largely on the number of COVID-19 cases on campus at a given time. At the start of the semester, the cheer and STUNT teams practiced outdoors, keeping plenty of distance between themselves and others.

As time went on, and restrictions loosened, the teams moved into the Hogan Center, Art Smith Arena, before finally settling into their usual space at the Sherman Cheer and STUNT facility in the basement of the Hogan Center. All the while, Sabourin’s student-athletes wore face coverings and maintained a measure of distance from each other. A germ-killing laser was used to keep cheer mats hygienic.

“We were really lucky that we were able to practice every day throughout our entire season,” Sabourin said. “I think that’s a testament to the student-athletes making sacrifices to keep their classmates healthy and allow themselves to do things they wanted to do.”

Story published on February 11, 2021