The ins and outs of Westmont’s COVID-19 process

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Courtesy of Irene Neller

The Executive Team meets in Kerrwood Hall, socially distanced.

Hans Khoe, Staff Writer

On March 12, 2020, Westmont’s Executive Team released a statement regarding the college’s decision to move to remote instruction as a result of COVID-19. Many colleges across the nation have chosen this option. The executive choice caused confusion in the hearts of many, not just because of concerns about the virus, but because of uncertainty surrounding how everyone would cope with this dramatic turn of events. 

Planning Amid a Crisis

Westmont’s announcement to close the campus came as students were away on spring break. In an interview with President Gayle Beebe, Beebe recalled, “The Wednesday of spring break, the World Health Organization came out and said [COVID-19] was a global pandemic. After being contacted by faculty and parents, [the Executive Team] went into Watch and See.” Watch and See is a procedure by which the Executive Team meets every morning to monitor a situation, then more infrequently as time goes on. “By Friday, we knew we couldn’t repopulate, so we made the decision six hours before the governor’s announcement.” 

Summer was a different story, as Vice President for Student Life Edee Schultze explained: “Over the summer, approximately 50 different teams involve 150 people designed plans (for physical spaces, academics, COVID testing and protocols, student life programs, etc) based on various scenarios as best as we could predict them in June and July.” 

According to Beebe, “There was a lot of pressure to move the opening date early … so we could finish before Thanksgiving.” Several colleges including Notre Dame have moved their openings earlier to ensure that students can stay through the semester without the concerns of traveling for the holidays in case the virus will worsen deeper into the winter. However, Beebe stated that “[for] some of the speculation about COVID, there was no proof.”

Schultze then addressed what happened in the fall: “When the County Health Guidance came in early August, we felt the best option was to start ontime online, then repopulate in late September.” 

President Beebe stressed this could only be done because of Westmont’s connections to our local public health offices, especially after years of disasters including recent fires and mudslides. “Troy Harris, who has now retired as risk mitigation officer, built relationships because we had so many things to respond to.” 

Understanding the Students’ Perspectives

While the Executive Team was planning, students like junior Catherine Meng offered insight into how the spring break decision affected her. “I left school for spring break on a Friday, thinking in a week I’ll be back on campus … I saw the news of college campuses all over the US switching to virtual classes for the remainder of the school year. At that point I was already mentally prepared to receive an email from Westmont regarding these new COVID implementations and potentially switching to online classes.”

I’m excited to go back of course, but I worry that the close knit community of Westmont will have trouble staying distant when we’re all living so close.”

— Michael Kong

When it came to quarantine, Meng, like many others, began to feel weary. “It was definitely hard transitioning from being at school and being surrounded with all of your peers and friends and professors to being completely isolated and seeing the same few people every single day. I remember at one point during lockdown, I got excited from seeing a random guy walking his dog along the sidewalk outside my house.”

The conversation then turned to what would happen in the fall. On one hand, the Executive Team has decided to open the campus to students. But on another hand, students must now choose whether to return to campus or not. 

Meng is one student choosing to stay home. “I decided to do remote learning for the entirety of this semester because I was hesitant to go back to school without any form of vaccination/immunization. I didn’t feel safe living in a dormitory with communal bathrooms and the rooms being so close to each other.” 

Diversity & Inclusion Senator Michael Kong has decided to come back to campus, but echoed similar sentiments: “I’m excited to go back of course, but I worry that the close knit community of Westmont will have trouble staying distant when we’re all living so close.”

The incoming class of 2024 has had a particularly different year with Orientation held completely online. However, freshman Ryan Daedler is excited to join the community: “I’m just excited to be on campus in beautiful Montecito no matter what the restrictions are.” 

The transition back will be difficult for many students as some have just now acclimated to being online this fall. According to Meng, “The first week of classes was very long and draining. I don’t recall my freshman or sophomore year first-weeks feeling this long.” 

For Daedler, who spent his last semester of high school online, he commented, “Once we have in-person classes, it’s going to feel very weird since it has been so long.”

While questions still remain as to whether Westmont’s measures will hold up and whether another change will prove tough for students, a touch of normalcy seems to be returning with move-in beginning next week.