’There wasn’t a playbook for managing during COVID’
University leaders look back on a year of dealing with the pandemic
Recapping the past year is not an easy task, but taking a look at how COVID-19 has professionally and personally affected individuals with differing responsibilities on campus can provide a snapshot of how the pandemic has impacted Binghamton University as a whole. Focusing on health and wellness, academics, campus emergency operations and student life, Binghamton University Magazine asked five campus leaders the same questions.
• Cindy Cowden, senior associate director of Campus Recreational Services
• Johann Fiore-Conte, associate vice president for student affairs and chief health and wellness officer
• David Hubeny, executive director of emergency management
• Donald Loewen, vice provost for undergraduate education and enrollment
• Peter Nardone, general manager of the University Union
Think back to March 2020, when Binghamton University quickly moved to remote instruction, students left campus and colleagues began working from home. When did you realize it was real and how did it change your life?
Cowden: I thought, “OK, maybe this will be a week or two until we get a strategy in place.” I took projects home and was looking forward to catching my breath and focusing on things I hadn’t been able to get to. Then I slowly began to realize the significance of what was happening. My schedule includes a combination of remote and in-office work. I’m still driving school pick-up, running errands and taking care of the household.
Fiore-Conte: We had seen other outbreaks in the past (Ebola, Zika), but nothing like this virus. My focus has been on COVID for the past year, while balancing my “usual” job responsibilities around the periphery. There has been a greater demand on my time and I recognized early on that this would be a marathon, not a sprint.
Hubeny: I started tracking the emerging illness in January. By the middle/end of February, COVID-19 was causing concern among global public health officials. In March, when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the reality of the impact was obvious. I thought I understood the complexity of the situation and what challenges the University would be facing. Now, I’m still surprised how much more complex this event has been.
Loewen: We realized in February 2020 that we’d almost certainly need to shift to remote work and teaching, so we had a few weeks to make plans and do some training. We scrambled to get a University-wide Zoom contract in place barely a week before we went remote. When the state made the announcement was when it hit very directly. After we dispersed, instructors, staff and students helped us learn about pressing issues. I learned to appreciate my colleagues more than ever as everyone pitched in to figure out how to handle each day, since conditions changed every day.
Nardone: Once the campus fell silent, all the students went home and the buildings “paused” was when it felt real to me. How we all stay in contact changed over time, including how I connect with colleagues.
What was the most difficult part of the transition at the beginning, and has it become easier over time or been replaced by something else?
Fiore-Conte: Leading during unprecedented times and in a world of ambiguity has been one of the greatest challenges. There wasn’t a playbook for managing during COVID. In a sense, we had to build the plane while we were flying it. Managing fear was another challenge. While I think the world has made some adaptations in the last year, fear continues. The ability to pivot with agility has become more important as we learn more, the science improves and there are increased demands of us. We have had to adapt quickly and seamlessly. You can’t communicate enough and working collaboratively has been invaluable.
Hubeny: The initial transition in March was not one of the most challenging parts of our COVID-19 response. Over time, the complexity significantly increased due to our testing regimen and the demands on quarantine/isolation housing. With over 170 temporary employees working for the Office of Emergency Management, each day has brought new challenges.
Since March, my entire professional life has been devoted to battling COVID-19. The hours are long, but the work is rewarding.
Loewen: We were instantly in completely uncharted territory and worked together across the University to make decisions without even knowing all the questions, let alone having solid answers. Everyone — from prospective or current students to veteran staff and faculty members — had to immediately adapt to a new learning and professional environment while also carrying a lot of personal anxiety about the health and well-being of friends and family. Over time, the initial crisis response has turned into a longer-term series of adjustments. Negotiating varying expectations became more important.
How have your day-to-day responsibilities changed?
Cowden: I remain focused on operations and programming in the Rec Center and moving the Healthy Campus Initiative forward. I was called to lead a Return to Campus Task Force on Student Well-being, I’m helping with several other work groups and I’ve been working shifts in the campus Surveillance Testing Center.
Fiore-Conte: Much of what I’m currently doing is related to campus COVID response. I still oversee a large number of student services supporting student health and well-being. I’m fortunate to have very good directors who run their areas effectively and efficiently. I’m required to spin many plates simultaneously, and I prioritize hour by hour, day by day.
Loewen: Most days are now spent doing the same things we’ve always done: recruit great students and help the ones who are here to graduate and move on to successful careers or further studies. The biggest change is we’ve adapted to a virtual environment and we all have realized that, on any given day, we may have to abandon our schedule and deal with a new pandemic-related issue.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from the campus community?
Cowden: When we are open, patrons are grateful. When we are closed, the feedback ranges from anger and frustration to significant feelings of loss. Many students (and parents) have told us that being able to come to the Rec Center is their only point of contact with others. Activity is more about managing mental well-being for them.
Fiore-Conte: Understanding and appreciation, for the most part. As a campus, I feel we have navigated the issues and the complexities as best as we could, in an exceptional way!
Loewen: It’s clear how much students value the on-campus experience. I haven’t heard a single complaint from faculty about students not following safety precautions in classes. The vast majority of our students have done their part to help us have a successful year. Faculty and staff have been gracious. I’ve appreciated how colleagues and team members have responded to the many changes and adjustments with help and understanding.
There must have been some positives during the past year. What benefits would you say have come from our new socially distanced, mask-wearing environment?
Cowden: Less incidence of general illness this season. My family has not had any colds, sore throats or flu. Our staff and patrons are more vigilant regarding cleaning equipment, picking up after themselves and respecting peoples’ space. I hope that this practice will transcend the pandemic and become part of our culture moving forward.
Fiore-Conte: Mask-wearing definitely created a lighter flu season this year. I’m sure we would have seen greater transmission had compliance of mitigation strategies been lower.
Hubeny: Pre-pandemic, it was difficult to get people to set time aside to plan for unlikely emergencies. Now, we are living through the implementation of a continuity plan. Post-pandemic, I hope I will be able to capture some of this energy and attention and use it to improve all of our preparedness efforts.
Loewen: Many of us have had a chance to reflect on what we value, whether it be professionally or personally. We’ve seen that many of our biggest challenges can only be tackled when we work together across the University.
Nardone: We’re evaluating services more closely and opening up new ways to connect with faculty, staff and students outside of the classroom.
How do you picture the campus after the pandemic is over/we’ve reached herd immunity? Will we incorporate any of the things we had to implement during the pandemic into our permanent processes?
Cowden: The pandemic has created some amazing opportunities for collaboration, problem-solving and the ushering in of new ideas. Faculty acting as role models and connection points to campus resources is imperative to student well-being. Staff are demonstrating incredible flexibility, the ability to work in alternative locations and on varying schedules. This may translate to greater allowances in schedules to support professional development and worksite wellness initiatives, innovative collaborations with academic programs and student internships supporting well-being initiatives that may reshape our campus culture.
Fiore-Conte: We have moved to tele-platforms for primary care and mental health services, and other departmental services done virtually, and I anticipate that they will continue.
Hubeny: I hope the entire campus thinks about emergency preparedness more. We had well-developed, strong plans in place at the beginning of this pandemic, but they were still inadequate for the scope and scale of COVID-19. I hope we all now appreciate the value of planning before an emergency occurs and apply it to our own lives.
Loewen: We’ve developed new areas of expertise that will inform our return to life as a residential campus. Virtual recruitment events will be a continuing part of our strategy. Hybrid learning can be really helpful for students in the right situations.
Nardone: I envision a vibrant campus where students gather safely. Mask wearing, I imagine, will still be a thing for some, but there will be a new outlook on how we are all keeping each other safe. Much of the progress we made connecting in the virtual world will transcend into how we build on our services. We will grow from this experience.
What do you do to stay sane?
Cowden: Some may argue my level of sanity before the pandemic started! I feel very fortunate that I live in a rural area on a small lake. The ability to step outside and hike, kayak or have a campfire made a long, hectic summer enjoyable. I also golfed weekly with a group of friends, recommitted to reading for pleasure, and well … Netflix!
Fiore-Conte: I look for opportunities for quiet, uninterrupted time to work and I try to find time for things that I enjoy: interacting with family in my bubble, and others virtually; exercise; and listening to audiobooks.
Hubeny: I’ve learned a new hobby: leatherworking. I look forward to learning more about the craft and where it takes me.
Loewen: Last fall, I started exploring and photographing waterfalls around central New York. Taking pictures of them when they’re frozen has been amazing.
Nardone: I picked up some new hobbies and rediscovered some old ones — gardening, outdoor activities, reading and lots of streaming services!