Through the Storm
Georgia Southern Adapts and Excels in Wake of Pandemic
Some of Georgia Southern’s greatest stories describe how the University
From winning a difficult bid in Savannah in 1906 to establish the First District A&M School, to transitioning from a secondary school to a teachers college, to reviving a football program with a visionary coach and
no money, to merging two regional institutions into one University, Georgia Southern has faced its share of challenges.
Through them all, however, the University has emerged better and stronger than before.
On Friday, March 13, when Gov. Brian Kemp issued a public health state of emergency in Georgia, students were wrapping up their last week of classes before spring break. The University System of Georgia (USG) announced that students would stay home through the end of March while institutions reviewed business plans, online learning capabilities and options for the remainder of the semester.
In their time of reflection and planning, the University could’ve followed in the steps of universities around the country who decided to cancel the rest of the semester and wait to see what the future would hold. At Georgia Southern, however, campus leadership, faculty, staff and students found ways not only to continue academic training, but also to innovate, adapt and give back during one of the most challenging times in our history.
Back to Virtual Reality
Some of the first and most consequential decisions the University had to make was how to continue academics for students, and how to organize on-campus residents’ return to campus to get their belongings — all in little more than two weeks. Added to this challenge was the fact that all faculty and staff except for essential personnel were instructed to work from home.
Faculty worked incessantly through the break to move more than 5,000 face-to-face courses online, which was a herculean task.
“These are units that don’t traditionally go online,” stated Dustin Anderson, Ph.D., associate professor of literature, provost faculty fellow and online transition coordinator for the Office of the Provost and Academic Affairs. “This is where we were being most creative moving remotely.”
Professors incorporated current news media coverage of the pandemic into their instruction, used Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data as a way to analyze statistical analysis, and allowed students to use social media apps like TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter for their coursework.
In conjunction with this faculty effort, University Communications and Marketing and Information Technology Services quickly assembled online resources with a range of tools for students to transition completely to virtual learning. They also kept the University community informed with stories, FAQs and up-to-date presidential communications about the pandemic response effort.
While faculty and staff were working on academics and student support, University Housing devised a staggered move-out plan that brought smaller groups of students on campus over two weeks, so they could observe social distancing and safety guidelines according to the CDC.
Not only were Georgia Southern’s plans successful, they were used as a model for other USG institutions.
However, not all students were able to leave. Almost 200 students remained on campus and were moved to one residence hall, and help was offered to students who couldn’t find alternative housing. For these remaining students, some of the dining facilities operated on a limited schedule, and the University also provided a full range of physical and mental health services to all students by telehealth. Students in Savannah and Statesboro also had access to an on-campus food pantry to help with meals during quarantine.
Because students were sent home early and had limited access to campus, Georgia Southern prorated a refund of housing and dining plans, graduation fees, parking refunds and more, resulting in more than $11 million in funds returned to students. The University also developed a plan to deliver another $11 million to students through the CARES Act, a federal higher education relief fund.
Pomp and Cyber-stance
Once students finished the semester online, the University was faced with the difficult decision of how to honor their achievements from afar.
Georgia Southern administrators, faculty and staff got to work on a plan to create a virtual ceremony for each college to celebrate more than 4,300 spring 2020 graduates. The result was a star-studded series of videos, each of which included a trumpet serenade from Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy (’75), congratulations messages from other high-profile politicians, alumni and friends, including Gov. Kemp, and a special congratulations from country music star Cole Swindell.
The Multimedia Development Center developed the video, and the University carried the ceremonies live on Facebook and on the commencement website. Each featured a separate slide for every graduate which included their name, degree, and — for those who submitted it — their photo and thank you to supporters. A faculty member read each name aloud, just as they would at an in-person ceremony, and graduates shared social media tagged #GSGrad20 to show them moving their tassels.
Each ceremony also included the national anthem, the alma mater and remarks from Georgia Southern University President Kyle Marrero, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Carl Reiber, Ph.D., and the deans of each college.
“As much as I wish we could all have been together in Statesboro and Savannah, I am thrilled with the effort our faculty and staff put into creating this online commencement ceremony,” said Marrero. “We have received amazing feedback from students and family, and I think it was a great way to honor our graduates in the midst of these difficult circumstances.”
Helping Others in a Pandemic
The COVID-19 health crisis has brought out the best in Eagle Nation. Students, faculty, staff, alumni and administrators have found many ways to lend a helping hand or offer their support and expertise.
Numerous reports of workers on the frontline facing personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages spurred Georgia Southern University to act. By making use of 3D-printing technology, the Statesboro and Armstrong campuses and the FabLab at the Business Innovation Group’s (BIG) downtown Statesboro location quickly began production of protective face shields and respirators.
The FabLab sent 100 face shields and 10 Montana Masks to Atlanta-area hospitals. The 3D-printable respirator filtration mask can be fitted to a health care provider’s face and sanitized between uses. Dominique Halaby, DPA, director of the BIG said making swift moves to use the resources of the BIG and other Georgia Southern areas to fulfill a need demonstrates the University’s innovative capabilities.
“This shows that great individuals and great ideas can come from anywhere,” he said. “I believe the common psyche is that we expect things to happen in Atlanta and kind of work their way down, but we’re showing that we have the ability, the skillset and the desire to have an impact anywhere in the world, even in a place as innovative as Atlanta.”
The Department of Manufacturing Engineering sent 200 3D-printed protective face shields with headbands to Augusta, Georgia, for health care workers at Augusta Medical Center. Laboratory supervisor Andrew Michaud and Tara Drake, the department’s administrative assistant, worked together to produce the 3D-printed face shields with headbands for distribution.
“We are really glad to be able to help in any way we can,” said Daniel Cox, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Manufacturing Engineering. “This is what engineers do – we see a problem, and we solve it.”
The Department of Mechanical Engineering also used 3D printers to produce Montana Masks for workers in the St. Joseph’s/Candler Hospital System in Savannah. Wayne Johnson, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering, believes providing these materials to the Savannah community during a time of critical need reinforced the University’s longtime commitment to the region.
“The Armstrong Campus of Georgia Southern has a long history of working within the Savannah community, and during this pandemic, it was especially important for mechanical engineering faculty and students at the Armstrong Campus to step up during a time of great need,” said Johnson.
Engineering student Alicia Hawrylko was allowed to assist with the project. Johnson said it provided her “with a great opportunity to apply the skills she learned in our engineering courses to a real-world application in real time.”
Georgia Southern stepped up to comply with the University System of Georgia’s request for its 26 colleges and universities to inventory their medical supplies and donate what they could in the fight against the coronavirus. The respiratory therapy program in the Waters College of Health Professions donated 10 ventilators to the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency (GEMA/HS) for use by those on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle.
The COVID-19 health crisis threw millions of people out of work — and food banks have been busier than ever helping feed the increasing number of hungry families. The FORAM Sustainable Aquaponics Research Center (SARC) on the Armstrong Campus donated produce grown at its aquaponics farm to America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia.
Donating Produce to Food Bank
“SARC’s mission has always included community outreach and education, which means knowing how we can support the community when it’s in need,” SARC curator Brigette Brinton said. “Right now, we’re just supplying food instead of information.”
The donated produce included lettuce, kale and chard.
Alumnae Join Mask-making Operation for Essential Workers
Anna Ferguson (’09) a Georgia Southern fashion merchandising and apparel design graduate, found a new sense of purpose in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The designer ofall-in-one cross-body phone case wallets, signed up as a volunteer for the grassroots organization, Sewing Masks for Area Hospitals—Atlanta. The network of more than 8,000 volunteers creates and makes masks for health care workers on the frontline.
“People feel so helpless,” said Ferguson. “We want to let them (health care workers) know that we care. We need our soldiers on the front line to have whatever protection they need. I feel so grateful to be able to lend my talents from the comfort of my home, where my family is safe. These health care heroes are feeling the anxiety and added stressors that we are all feeling and still showing up for long and grueling days. I feel like sewing masks is the very least I can contribute.”
Initially, dozens of facilities, including Emory and Piedmont Hospitals, requested more than 8,600 masks from the group. Emory provided a template for a mask, outfitted with a pocket for a filter that is intended to cover N95 surgical masks that health care workers use while treating contagious patients. Typically, the masks are for single use, but as shortages abound, the group’s homemade fabric masks act as covers that can be reused with sterilization.
Armstrong alumna Megan Williams (’17) is using her sewing skills to make masks for Savannah area health care facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I am a member of numerous volunteer groups within the community and often offer my services as a seamstress,” said Williams. When there is a need for a crafted item, I believe it is my civic duty to volunteer my time and energy to assist.”
The masks are being donated to local hospitals that are facing shortages.
Whether we’re facing widespread changes in higher education or facing the obstacles presented by a worldwide pandemic, Georgia Southern University continues to innovate and adapt — focused on student success and growing ourselves to grow others.
At the time of this publication, the University is planning to bring employees back to campus in phases beginning in June, with a return to full operations for staff and students by Aug. 1. Administrators, faculty and staff created a plan for student safety and have created a useful FAQ web page at GeorgiaSouthern.edu/covid-19-information.