When students returned to Grove City College in August to begin in-person instruction and residential life during a pandemic, the essential challenge was clear: keeping the campus community healthy and safe until the pre-Thanksgiving departure.
On the first day of classes, College President Paul J. McNulty ’80 explained to students, faculty and staff the effort that would be necessary to manage and mitigate the threat COVID-19 posed to a residential campus. “There are just over 90 days between today and Thanksgiving. With heightened conscientiousness, a spirit of self-sacrifice and the sweet providence of God, we will write one of the most memorable chapters in Grove City College’s illustrious history,” he said.
That chapter has concluded, with the end of the in-person component of the fall semester. Students are now finishing the semester at home with finals online.
Before it began, it was already being called the strangest semester in College history. After a mass exodus in the spring during the pandemic’s first wave, the College was committed to bringing students back to campus in the fall and developed a comprehensive plan to protect the campus and mitigate the impact of coronavirus on student life.
Students were screened and in some cases tested before arrival on campus, stayed masked up in classes and indoor common areas, practiced social distancing, limited their travel and adapted to dozens of other new policies and protocols to protect themselves, others and the community. Adherence to the plan, and adjustments made along the way, demonstrated the determination of students, faculty and staff to look out for each other and live the scriptural dictum of love of neighbor.
“We have faced many significant challenges, and we know there are more to come. But we are greatly encouraged by the support of everyone in the campus community,” McNulty said. “The constant refrain I heard this semester is a deep appreciation for just being back together.”
While many things were different, many things stayed the same. Fall sports seasons were cancelled, chapel requirements reduced, some in-person events limited and others shifted to virtual versions. But students and faculty connected in lecture halls and labs despite masks and shields, Spikeball sets and hammocks got a workout as social life moved out-of-doors, Homecoming was observed and royalty was named even without a parade or football game, lifelong friendships were forged – at a safe social distance – and campus’ annual fall foliage show was the best in years.
Bio health major Caleb Richardson ’22 said that sense of community at Grove City College is strong. “What's keeping me going is the fact that we are all on campus together – facing a challenge, growing together, learning together,” he said.
While other schools dropped in-person classes or sent students home in response to COVID-19 outbreaks, Grove City College was largely successful in its efforts to stem the spread of the disease, with approximately 125 total cases for the semester on a campus with a population, including faculty and staff, of nearly 3,000. Many of the cases were asymptomatic. As a result of testing and contact tracing, many students spent some time in isolation or quarantine on campus, at home or in local hotels, where the College’s Quarantine Care Team ministered to their needs.
“Managing the risks associated with this virus is an unprecedented challenge. Our staff, faculty and administrators responded with extraordinary dedication and skill. It presented a considerable hardship for many students, and we are deeply thankful for their understanding and resilience,” McNulty said.
The impact of the pandemic on campus and in the world outside the Grove City College “bubble” is immense and persistent, but facing adversity can have an upside. “In a world of strained relationships and prolonged isolation, this experience may be molding these Grovers into more caring and engaged neighbors, better equipped to persevere through life’s many difficulties,” McNulty said. “By God’s grace, we will strive as individuals and as an institution to redeem this dark season for a brighter future for every member of our unique community.”
The success of the fall was due in large part to extensive planning over the summer by the Fall Return Planning Committee (FRPC) representing academics, student life, operations, campus ministries, athletics and advancement that developed protocols and policies covering nearly every contingency. The College has gained a greater understanding of how students contract the virus, which will be valuable as planning for the spring continues.
Grove City College is expecting to welcome students back on Jan. 25, a week later than usual. Spring break and Easter break are being combined to limit student travel and reduce the presence of COVID-19 on campus.
“The FRPC has been transformed into the Spring Return Planning Committee, and we are busily updating our health and safety plan. We know there are major uncertainties about COVID-19 in 2021, but we are determined to push forward with the best college experience for our students that we can achieve,” McNulty said.