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A year like no other: Students, faculty, staff reflect on COVID-19, look to brighter future

The beginning of March 2020 at the University of Kansas felt like any other spring semester: professors administering midterm exams, students preparing for spring break and growing excitement about the NCAA basketball tournament, where many thought KU could win it all.

The novel coronavirus outbreak lingered, but far from Lawrence. A false-alarm case in late January briefly rattled Lawrence Memorial Hospital. On campus, administrators hosted a “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction” event to dispel fears about the virus, which had shut down Wuhan, China.

“What you need to worry about right now is hygiene, not because the coronavirus is a big threat here in Lawrence, but because ordinary colds and flus are,” said Sheree Willis, executive director of the KU Confucius Institute, at the “Fact vs. Fiction” event.

In less than a month, however, the world of KU students — like the rest of the world — took a dramatic turn that few expected but that all would feel. The year of COVID-19 began, changing life in ways that no one could have imagined but that nearly all continue to endure.

Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of college students were thrust into remote learning, along with an even larger number of elementary and high school students. Businesses closed — some forever. Americans, along with residents worldwide, began a year of sickness, fear and isolation that has ravaged physical and mental health.

More than 500,000 Americans and almost 5,000 Kansans have died of COVID-19. While KU has avoided widespread infection and deaths, the campus has changed, perhaps permanently. Many classes have gone remote. Students have learned to learn in entirely new ways.

In the process, students struggled with issues ranging from poor Wi-Fi to time zone differences. Many experienced Zoom fatigue, burnout, depression and anxiety. A study released in July found that severe depression affecting college students’ academic performances increased because of the pandemic.

“To say it was one of the most depressing times of my life would be an understatement,” said Graham Wilhauk, a junior at KU.

Azja Butler, a KU student and president of Jayhawker Liberation Front, said that when news of the virus hit, “I didn’t want to believe it, to be honest. It seemed a world away.”

But a year later, the impact of COVID-19 on campus and among her peers has been undeniable.

“No one was prepared for Zoom fatigue, and not everyone's focus can be on school right now,” Butler said. “Some of us lost jobs. We can’t pay rent. The university is still charging normal university fees when we’re not at the university like we normally are. And it’s not safe to be.”

‘A surreal experience for sure’

The year that changed everything began slowly and subtly — deceivingly so.

On Feb. 29, KU students studying abroad in Italy, South Korea and China were notified to make plans to return home by March 6 due to the increasing threat of the coronavirus in those countries. Three days later, Chancellor Douglas Girod suspended all university travel to countries that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deemed high risk for exposure to the virus. 

Also on March 6, the Friday before spring break, Girod urged students to re-evaluate their travel plans to mitigate the spread of the virus, which was beginning to prompt closures elsewhere.

A week later, KU would join a growing list of universities nationwide that temporarily closed to curb the spread of the virus. At the time, the United States had 216 confirmed cases in 25 states, according to the CDC. Kansas confirmed its first case of the coronavirus on March 7, in Johnson County.

On March 11, KU announced classes would go online indefinitely beginning March 23, and university officials would evaluate the status of the coronavirus weekly in hopes of reopening at some point before the spring semester came to a close.

Classes moved fully online on March 17 for the rest of the spring semester. 

Basketball cancelation hits home

For many, the cancelation of the NCAA March Madness tournament was the first indication that the coronavirus threat would affect KU. Sports around the country were canceled in rapid succession in early March.

Molly Cummings, a sophomore who plays in the basketball pep band, said while the band was waiting for buses to drive them to the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, Missouri, members learned that the tournament had been canceled.

Some KU students said one of the most initially devastating losses from the coronavirus was the cancelation of March Madness. KU was ranked first in the nation in all major polls and had what Sports Illustrated writer Pat Forde said was the nation’s best guard, big man and defensive player in Devon Dotson, Udoka Azubuike and Marcus Garrett.

In the uncertainty of the pandemic, many said they found solace in grieving with one another.

“I know some people have been calling it ‘The Lost Year,’ and I don’t like to call it that,” said Nick Simpson, a junior who was studying abroad in the United Arab Emirates when KU shut down. “I know it was a year of loss in a lot of ways, but I don’t think it’s something that we’ve lost, I think we’ve gained a lot of knowledge about a lot of things and the way we interact with each other.”

Vice Provost for Student Affairs Tammara Durham said she had not seen anything like it in her career in higher education.

“It was a surreal experience for sure,” she told the Kansan in an email. “I found comfort and support in the new reality from my colleagues across the country who were experiencing the same things on their campuses.”

Hope fades for a normal fall

Many held out hope for a return to campus in the fall. But with case numbers hitting highs across the country, the fall semester was far from normal.

“I think it was about toward the end of our spring break that we started to hear public health experts tell us that it would probably be at least 18 months before we would even get back to some level of normality,” College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Interim Dean John Colombo told the Kansan in an email. “Turns out that they were right.”

In July, Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer announced KU’s plan for returning to campus in the fall. Only one-third of classes would be in-person, masks were required at all times on campus, and Budig 120, KU’s largest lecture hall with a capacity of 1,200 people, would only seat 90 students in accordance with county coronavirus guidelines. 

More than a year after the onset of the pandemic, one in three Americans has lost someone to the coronavirus, the New York Times reported. In Kansas, 298,218 people have been infected, and 4,835 people have died as of Tuesday

The first coronavirus vaccine — developed by Pfizer — received emergency approval by the Federal Drug Administration on Dec. 11. Two more vaccines, developed by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, won emergency approval Dec. 18 and Feb. 27, respectively. Since Pfizer’s two-dose vaccine was approved, 628,555 people in Kansas have received their first dose, the Washington Post reported

Girod recently announced that KU employees would be included in the state vaccination plan, in accordance with new guidelines from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Bichelmeyer also announced a plan to return to nearly all in-person classes this fall.

Watkins Health Center began inoculations of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to KU employees on Thursday. More than 250 KU employees have received the vaccine through Watkins.

Returning to ‘a special place’

A year ago, all sense of normalcy disappeared. Campus tulips bloomed without an audience, Wescoe Beach was vacant, and the Campanile bells rang to commemorate the 2020 graduates on an empty hill, which normally would be filled with popping champagne bottles and crowds of family and friends.

“What I miss is to be with colleagues and walk into an office and talk about ideas, for students to come in and have a face-to-face conversation,” said University Senate President Sanjay Mishra. “Even now, you don’t have face-to-face conversations. Meetings with students, my teams, they’re all on Zoom this semester.”

But students, faculty and staff remain hopeful that KU will slowly return to something that looks normal.

“We had a very special student-campus life experience here — more so than many schools — and we’ve had to put that on a hiatus now for a year,” KU Memorial Union Director David Mucci said. “Our hope is people can come back and we can provide them the sort of richness of experience that really contributes to making KU such a special place to go to school.”

The University of Kansas announced in an email that it will postpone commencement until late summer or early fall in an attempt to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

The Class of 2021’s commencement will be held May 16, Girod announced. Meanwhile, the Class of 2020’s commencement, canceled last spring, is planned for May 23.

Bichelmeyer’s announcement for a return to in-person classes in the fall left many eager to return to the campus they knew before COVID-19. 

“Something that I’m very much excited for is Watson Library. The stacks were my favorite place on campus before it shut down, and ever since COVID, I have not been able to walk through those stacks,” said Wilhauk, who plans to graduate after the fall semester. “If I have a chance to have one more semester in those stacks, that’d be more than worth it.”

Kansan reporters Stef Manchen, Abby Shepherd and Blake Ullmann contributed to this story.