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Lessons from the pandemic: What WVU has learned, accomplished and shared in the year of COVID-19

masked students walk in front of large brick building

WVU Freshmen students’ physical distance as students return to the WVU Campus for the first day of classes during the Covid-19 pandemic Aug. 26, 2020. (WVU Photo/Greg Ellis)

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(Editor's note: Find videos, photos, links to selected past COVID-19 stories, Expert and Story pitches in this WVUToday Media Tool Kit.)

Under the quiet surface of near-stilled campuses over the past year, West Virginia University researchers, faculty and administrators have scrambled to learn more about COVID-19 and mitigate its spread, calculated how to teach online and hybrid classes and figured out how to better ensure people on those campuses could remain safe from the virulent disease that has killed more than 500,000 U. S. citizens to date.

In keeping with its land-grant mission, WVU shared its findings with the state of West Virginia and has discovered paths for future endeavors so that ultimately, students on the Morgantown, Keyser and Beckley campuses will benefit from the pandemic’s lessons.

“While this year has been challenging,  I am proud of the efforts of our University team,” Rob Alsop, WVU’s Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, said. “Thanks to help from Student Health, Shared Services, Health Sciences, Auxiliary and Business Services,  and many more, we’ve been able to provide  significant COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts on campus. These teams continue to work tirelessly to make our campuses safe learning, living and working environments for all during this pandemic.”

Those efforts reached beyond campus as WVU Extension Service imagined new ways to engage with communities across West Virginia providing support and guidance. The WVU Foundation, through generous gifts and alumni donations, bolstered scholarships and assistance to students – including underrepresented groups and those most vulnerable during the pandemic.

Digging deep

Because the SARS-CoV-2 was new and its deadly spread was quick with seemingly myriad symptoms — or none at all— more than 40 scientists and clinical colleagues from WVU Health Sciences and across campus formed the HSC COVID Scientific Task Force in mid-March to address acute issues focused on the health threat to West Virginians.

“The collaborative response of basic and clinical scientists highlighted one of the best parts of being at WVU,” Dr. Laura Gibson said. “The immediate commitment was to pull together to make a difference for West Virginia and the only concern was how quickly we could make things happen that needed to move forward in response to the pandemic. Everyone was focused on bringing their unique talents and our collective technology to solving whatever came our way.”

The senior associate vice president for research and graduate education and associate dean for research said expertise varied from WVU engineers leading 3D printing of swabs for COVID analysis and an in-house rapid development lab, made possible by funding from Gov. Justice, designed to sustain testing capacity during supply chain challenges. In addition, Gibson said, the team includes inhalation toxicology experts focused on mask materials and design, studies of wastewater to detect community spread and a well-established group of scientists focused on vaccine development and the biology of the immune response following infection.

“Partnerships have been the driving force,” Gibson said. “Colleagues at Marshall University, state partners and the National Guard have been engaged from the onset with diverse scientists focused on understanding how to detect, analyze and block transmission of COVID-19.”

Beyond Health Sciences, WVU researchers waded into applying their expertise to understanding the effects of the pandemic on democracy, society and business, according to Fred King, vice president for WVU Research. Those efforts included studying high-risk populations in low-tech communities, using surveys to gain insight into West Virginians’ perceptions about vaccines, acknowledging the racial disparities in vaccine distribution and the Black community’s reluctance to get the shots, as well as how the state’s business community could recover after taking a huge economic hit.

“At the end of the day, I would say that what has been most impressive is the resourcefulness and creativity of our research community as they adapted to the pandemic and worked to help West Virginians – truly fulfilling our mission as a 21st Century Land Grant University,” King said. “Our research support infrastructure rapidly adapted to remote operations. Whether we are talking the Office of Sponsored Programs, Office of Research Project Management or the various compliance operations; all continued operations smoothly in supports of research during this time.”

Shifting gears

As WVU faculty and students headed into spring break, the University’s leadership made the decision to move to online-only classes. The precautionary measure sent instructors into high gear to adapt their classes to a set of circumstances no one had ever seen.

Nearly 2,400 faculty, instructors and graduate assistants learned about the technology that would allow them to communicate with their students, engage them in discussion and deliver their course work effectively for more than 6,000 course sections. Meanwhile, students could use smartphones as scanners to electronically submit problems they’d worked on by hand.

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Maryanne Reed said many WVU units were at the forefront of teaching and learning innovations, propelled by a pandemic into fast-tracking what would normally have been a long-term rollout.

“Every one of our faculty members and instructors – including adjuncts and graduate teaching assistants – has endured significant shifts in the way they work over the last year,” Reed said. “Their ability to adjust and adapt to remote instruction in just 10 days last March was a challenge like none other, but they rose to the occasion and went beyond our expectations, as evidenced by the more than 900 student-submitted Teaching MVP nominations in Spring 2020.”

Reed said they remained steadfast in their commitment to delivering meaningful, high-quality educational experiences for students throughout the summer, fall and this spring, engaging in dozens of professional development opportunities to enhance their teaching.

“Our faculty have proven they have the expertise and the compassion to meet our students' needs wherever they are,” she said.

Academics weren’t the only challenge. The pandemic forced Athletics to new levels of flexibility for practice, games and scheduling. Student Life also worked to make the transition from in-person to virtual activities, while keeping them as normal as possible.

"This year has presented unique and ever-changing circumstances, yet staff across all of Student Life worked together tirelessly to provide programming and support for our students," Dean of Students Corey Farris said. “In collaboration with departments across campus, the Refresh activities series was quickly created with programs ranging from cooking classes to arboretum geocache adventures to give students new ways to engage and connect virtually.”

Farris also noted that students had followed the COVID-19 guidelines established to keep the University community safe and healthy, and they have held each other accountable.

“We’ve been able to offer limited in-person classes this year, almost without pause, because of their continuing efforts,” he continued. “They have adapted to changes and provided feedback and suggestions on how we can make their experience as close to normal as possible.” 

Response: Sharing the load

WVU experts stepped off campus and into new roles as state leaders including Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean at WVU Health Sciences, who became West Virginia’s Coronavirus Czar.

Marsh not only advised Gov. Jim Justice’s response team, but also participated in press briefings, answering media questions about the pandemic itself, how masks mitigated the spread and how vaccines will begin the end of COVID-19.

"The collaboration between WVU and the state of West Virginia has been vital to the health and wellbeing of West Virginians during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Marsh said. “Our culture has contributed to our success, both in slowing the spread of the virus and in distributing vaccines. We're willing to sacrifice for the greater good — whether that means staying at home or offering our first vaccine doses to our most vulnerable.

Marsh said Justice’s leadership meant “we have truly 'run to the fire,' as he says, and we're getting closer and closer to putting out that fire." 

Part of the extinguisher came from the WVU School of Public Health, where the dean, Dr. Jeffrey Coben, said WVU had truly answered the call to serve over the past year.

"Through state and national partnerships, we've worked to collect data and to help uncover the best treatment options for COVID-19 patients,” Coben said. “We've been working to identify the presence of variants of the virus. We've also demonstrated the effectiveness of masks and facial coverings as new guidelines have been issued. Our students have volunteered with testing, and our faculty have driven vaccination efforts. Our team will continue working tirelessly to best serve our state and its residents."  

Time to change

After dozens of Campus Conversations, the development of dedicated coronavirus and Return to Campus websites and adjustments to nearly every facet of campus life over the past 12 months, the As the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel begins to grow brighter. WVU President Gordon Gee said it’s time to “cast our sights beyond the current moment to transform the University.”

“As a university, we must capture the tailwinds of opportunity to move forward from this time of stasis,” Gee said. “I am incredibly proud of the way our campus community has persevered during this challenging year. It is a testament to the tenacious, innovative Mountaineer spirit. By identifying those areas of unique opportunity, we will continue to add value to our state and for all West Virginians as we remain devoted to the life-changing work of our land-grant, flagship university.” 

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