Finding Normal: Tales of Adaptation to College in COVID

dancers in studio wearing masks
February 08, 2021
Thea Skokan, Dale Goodwin, Kate Vanskike

Water & Light (& Virtual Concerts, too)


“COVID sucks.”

It’s a sentiment shared by most, if not all, and the name of one of Isabelle Picciotti’s most successful dormitory events.

Known by her residents as Izzy, Picciotti is a residential assistant in Dillon Hall, and a senior trying to make the most of her last year at Gonzaga.

Like most, she never expected her senior year social life would be restricted by building protocols that don’t allow nonresidents into the dorms, but she has kept a positive attitude that resonates with her residents and students across the campus. Her “COVID Succs” event provided succulents to each resident who participated, along with a care sheet for the plant and themselves.

“A lot of the things on the care sheets are the same,” says Picciotti. “You and your succulent need to get enough water and light.”

Housing and residence life were areas of major concern for families and University leaders when returning to campus in August. Maintaining safe practices without losing the community aspect of communal living was a daunting task, says Director of Residence Life Jon Wheeler. As it turned out, the life within each residence hall has become more active than usual, since students have to limit their exposure to people outside their building. In October alone, student staffers offered 55 programs or activities to more than 500 participants.

Kennedy Apartments had collaborative cooking nights, where each apartment received ingredients for a particular meal, then residents met virtually while they cooked the same thing.

It became a little slice of COG community where “they all sat down and had a communal meal, even though they were in different spaces on campus,” Wheeler says.

While 85% of undergraduate students returned to campus last fall, an additional 250 students returned for the spring. Wheeler’s team worked tirelessly to accommodate them because, he says, “There’s a lot of value in students living in an autonomous experience away from their family, making decisions about how to carry on with their life and figure out how to get all their schoolwork done.”

Picciotti says students are doing just that. “The Zags I’ve encountered this year have been so caring and so dedicated, not only to their studies but to the rest of the Gonzaga community. That’s something I’m really proud of.”

students seated far apart in Woldson Theatre with performance on screen
Gatherings like this became commonplace in the Woldson Performing Arts Center, where students learned and performed distantly.

The Perks of Going Virtual

Senior Fese Elango was elected president of the Gonzaga Student Body Association (GSBA) during quarantine after students were sent home last spring. Her leadership experience became a word we’ve all become well acquainted with: unprecedented.

“There’s no blueprint for leading during a time like this,” she says, “but I like to learn from situations, scenarios and the people who came before me.”

The main issue at hand for GSBA was making things as accessible as possible for as many students as they could.

“The fact that we have a split modality situation where some students are online and some are in-person, we’re actually reaching a broader audience because things are virtual,” Elango says.

Coffeehouse, a weekly open mic night, moved online, as well as the annual GSBA concert. Indie rock band Hippocampus performed free on Oct. 22 in a virtual concert, a concept that might never have been tried if not for the pandemic.

For Elango’s Cabinet, addressing social justice concerns has deepened, as well. Activism on social media and engagement in programming from different cultural clubs or student groups are at an all-time high. GSBA sold Black Lives Matter T-shirts accompanied by an anti-racism pledge. La Raza Latina and Asian American Student Union held DREAM week completely virtually in November.

RA Picciotti knows student life is not the same as it was before. For her, it’s even better.

“Going virtual has created opportunities where students wouldn’t have been able to connect before,” she says. “Student life has become more invigorated because we’ve gone virtual, because students are looking for outlets that aren’t a classroom, because they’re seeking more opportunities.”

Vice Provost for Student Affairs Kent Porterfield, having just joined Gonzaga last summer in the midst of pandemic operations, is proud of the work he sees taking place among student leaders themselves.

“Our resident assistants have done a good job engaging with students virtually and in person – we lean on them a lot. And leaders of our clubs and organizations are sustaining the quality of life on campus, finding ways to have events safely.”

Because outdoors is the safest place for groups to gather, Student Affairs created a commons with a tent on Rosauer Lawn and later added comfy outdoor furniture and décor for a festive environment on the back patio of the Hemmingson Center.

And while students miss the usual full slate of intramural sports, many are grateful that Rudolf Fitness Center opened with safety precautions, and with several new appropriately distanced sports options.

“We’re proud of these efforts,” Porterfield says.

Sodexo staff packages meals for delivery to students
Sodexo staff members packaged meals and snacks for delivery to students in isolation and quarantine.

Cura Personalis in Action


“Our relatively low case numbers are a testament to our students’ care for one another,” says COVID-19 Coordinator Taylor Jordan (’15), sharing a common gratitude for the way Zags are doing their part to mitigate widespread transmission of the virus.

Gonzaga was braced with processes and protocols in how to handle outbreaks, but it wasn’t until the first flush of cases about three weeks into fall semester that the real learning took place.

Jordan’s COVID-19 Response Action Team, including Health and Counseling Services, Housing and Residence Life, Auxiliary Services, Plant Services, Human Resources, Sodexo and several arms of Student Affairs, in rather extraordinary synchronization, responded quickly and effectively to better care for students in quarantine.

Quarantine housing in designated residence halls or apartments is available for students who may have come in close proximity with someone positively diagnosed with COVID-19. Students in quarantine remain in a room for 10 days following their exposure. Students testing positive must isolate in a designated residence hall where they can roam freely within that facility, as they can’t infect others with the same virus.

Sodexo Resident District Director Pat Clelland and team used feedback from students in isolation to modify meal options and quantities. Now, GUEST/Auxiliary Services teams deliver a full day’s supply of food each morning, including lunch, dinner and the next day’s breakfast, as well as snacks, to students, whose rooms have a microwave and refrigerator.

Porterfield’s team in Student Affairs also responded to the concerns voiced by parents whose students were in quarantine. “They suggested care packages, snack boxes, companionship, supervision. We really listened and implemented all the ideas we could.”

“While students are isolating themselves to keep campus safe, they are still part of our community,” says Colleen Vandenboom, assistant dean, Student Involvement and Leadership. “Our goal is to continue care for every student’s body, mind and soul.”

She and a group of campus partners developed a 14-day self-guided retreat – inspired by St. Ignatius’ time healing in his sickbed – for students entering isolation and quarantine, to make the time an opportunity for them to slow down and reflect on topics like joy, grace and laughter. Students “on the outside” record positive messages to share with those sequestered. Mission and Ministry, Student Involvement and Cura Personalis play big parts in this exercise.

care package ready for delivery to student
Students in isolation and quarantine received bags full of items for comfort and entertainment. 

“A new student to Gonzaga could feel quite isolated from others in this situation. Our goal is to make them feel comforted,” Vandenboom adds.

Activities for students include Bingo and trivia nights, and for those in quarantine, half-hour daily breaks for outside yoga, in-place circuit workouts or to feel the new-fallen snow, masked up, of course.

Through a new hospitality program, students receive a small plant and inspirational poster to liven up their space, handwritten postcards of encouragement from members of the campus community, and a gift bag of activity and care items.

More than a dozen departments across campus have been part of the efforts to keep spirits up when illness strikes. By Thanksgiving break, more than 4,000 points of personal contact with students had been made in an extraordinary act of Zags Helping Zags.

Changes & Challenges


Charlita Shelton was relatively new to Gonzaga when President McCulloh asked her to chair the task force responsible for the university’s response to the pandemic. She oversaw 10 workgroups that covered everything from student housing to employee protocols for reporting to work.

The result of their combined energies was the return of students to Spokane for the fall semester, pursuing an education that would include a combination of in-person classes, online courses and a mix of both. Around the state, some colleges had committed to online-only delivery; others welcomed students back, only to suffer spikes in COVID cases in their local communities as a result. Where would Gonzaga’s experience fall on that spectrum?

Three months into fall, the number of positive cases among the on-campus Gonzaga community remained relatively small – fewer than two dozen at any given time, and none that required extensive medical care.

Shelton attributes that outcome to a combination of strategic planning and the commitment of students. But, she says, “I have a hypothesis.” She’s waiting to see if numbers ultimately show that smaller schools and faith-based institutions fare better than others.

“The larger schools have had greater infection rates with pockets of outbreaks both on campus and in off-campus living. A New York Times article featured seven or eight schools maintaining low rates of students exposed or testing positive: They were all small schools.”

Shelton continues, “Will we find that faith-based institutions share this benefit? I wonder if our Jesuit and humanistic values are part of our success?”

Time will tell as more reporting is compared. Regardless, Shelton believes the No. 1 reason for the positive outcomes at GU is “the commitment by the students themselves.”

student studies with mask on 

“Athletes, upperclassmen, all have this concern about the spread of the virus. They create their own little pockets for socializing safely,” Shelton says.

There have been bumps and bruises along the way, she admits. She and other leaders have tried to discourage off-campus students from partying. They’ve worked tirelessly with the Spokane Regional Health District to adopt appropriate testing procedures. They developed two versions of an app for students, faculty and staff to attest to being symptomfree before coming to campus. They utilized every mode of communication possible so the community had regular updates.

“Plan your work, then work your plan,” she says, as if it’s all been that simple. “We’re getting savvier and not letting our guards down, but it’s tiring, people are exhausted, and we’re still supposed to be running a college.”

Decisions like canceling spring break (instead offering reading days) and moving that week off to winter break between semesters wasn’t easy. But this additional time allowed students to travel and be with families, and still quarantine and receive a COVID-19 test 72 hours before returning to campus for a Jan. 19 start. Survey responses from students and parents helped to inform those choices.

Shelton is hopeful about the future. National health leaders believe the severity of COVID cases will be mitigated with distribution of vaccines, and Washington state’s deployment of the vaccine launched in January.

Until numbers have dropped significantly as a result, Shelton’s advice is simple: “Please lay low and keep masking up.”

woman wearing GU sweatshirt and a red mask that says Keep Calm and Stay 6 Feet Away
Charlita Shelton, COVID-19 Compliance Officer, often records timely video messages for the GU community.


Learning, Together

With immeasurable efforts from faculty with support from Instructional Design & Delivery, the inaugural semester of online and hybrid learning took off in August. Together, students and faculty learned how to navigate the challenges – the bumps in the road when technological challenges emerged, and the struggle to stay energized and engaged while everyone spent increased time behind screens.

Faculty members were concerned about whether they could keep courses interesting. Students expressed how they seemed to have more reading than in a typical semester. The risk of burnout was high for everyone.

But even in the face of these challenges, the commitment to personal connections remained the hallmark of a Gonzaga education. University faculty continued to provide the highest level of educational excellence and value, even during unpredictable times.

In a video released at the end of the semester, Ellen Maccarone, associate professor of philosophy, said, “I think we’re all struggling in some ways, but at the end of the day the thing that is most important is our students and the education they receive."

Senior Rees Williams commented, “I think professors have done a great job of checking in with us as people – not just as students – and that ties to the core of cura personalis at Gonzaga.”

That’s the spirit families and students can count on spreading throughout the spring semester as well.

Watch: Faculty and Students Share About Teaching and Learning in COVID

100% Grateful

At the end of a trying semester for students and professors alike, one student planned a surpriseto show her gratitude to Professor Peggy Sue Loroz during the last meeting of 2020. When the class started on Zoom, none of the students' showed their faces, causing Loroz to worry she'd be teaching to an empty screen. Simultaneously, they turned on their cameras and held up “thank you” signs, surprising Loroz who responded with tears. Aisha Burka ( ’21) says she wanted to recognize Loroz publicly for being one of the most supportive faculty members she has experienced. She published the video to TikTok, where it has garnered more than 800 views. 

Longterm Benefits of Pandemic Operations

With the health and safety of Gonzaga’s campus community as priority No. 1, the University infused $1.5 million into infrastructure improvements like better ventilation systems for cleaner airflow, flexible dining options for lower population density, and major technology investments to support hybrid or online learning.

All of these efforts, says Vice President for Administration Jim Angelosante, “continue to support us being on campus,” as the requirements for having any in-person opportunities have been satisfied.

But there are other benefits, says Angelosante, who oversees much of the University’s nonacademic or student-facing operations.

“These are all long-lasting improvements that will continue to serve our students and employees well beyond COVID-19.”
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