By Sarah Smith
For the past 18 months, York College along with the rest of the world has been dealing with an unprecedented pandemic of the coronavirus, or more specifically, COVID-19. It’s been challenging for students and staff alike. They’ve been through multiple shutdowns and moves to online classes, restrictions on campus activities, and daily symptom checks sent through email. What’s been especially challenging is how unknown COVID-19 really is.
But Dr. Pamela Gunter-Smith and her team were prepared for that. “I knew we’d be dealing with this pandemic for a while,” she said in an interview with reporters from The Spartan. “Is there anything we could have done differently? No.”
The president also wanted to point out the source of York College’s success in dealing with the pandemic: its students.
“The reason we’ve done well is because of what you’ve done,” she said to the group and the student body at large.
An abbreviated COVID-19 timeline at YCP
On Feb. 28, 2020, an email was sent out to the York College community from the communications department. The email addressed the threat from COVID-19 and also mentioned that the Crisis Policy Team was working on a plan to address COVID-19 concerns.
“At this time, the Team is recommending that campus offices and programs discuss alternative ways to deliver services should it be deemed necessary to close campus,” the email read.
By March 6, it was clear the pandemic had ramifications for York College, and they were just beginning. In another email to the York College community, Gunter-Smith announced that study-abroad programs for the spring 2020 semester had been cancelled, and that students in countries “identified by the CDC as Level 3 or Level 2 — widespread or sustained community transmission — will remain on campus throughout the spring semester.” In the same email, the president acknowledged that “should there be a need to suspend face-to-face teaching for a period of time, or should faculty or students be advised to self-quarantine, courses will be delivered electronically.”
That need developed within the coming week. On March 12, Gunter-Smith decided to suspend in-person classes and move them online for two weeks, ending on Friday, March 27. The spring concert had already been cancelled two days prior, which was a source of disappointment for students. Residents were required to leave the dorms for the two weeks and travel back home, but staff and administrators were required to report to the college as normal. Faculty could choose to work from home if they wished to do so.
This initial suspension of classes was confusing for some students. “Well, back in 2020 I understand that we had to shut down. I was very hopeful that we would only be shut down for two weeks; however, I completely understood that that was not the case,” said Brenna Chilson ’22, a Human Services major, when asked about what she liked about the college’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chilson was right — that wasn’t the case. On March 20, 2020, in compliance with Gov. Tom Wolf’s mandate on the closure of “non-life sustaining” businesses, Gunter-Smith issued another email to the YCP community, in which she stated the campus would remain closed until April 14th.
“We will resume normal campus operations on that date, including face-to-face instruction for our students,” the email said. This is in accordance with YCP’s emphasis on in-person learning. In an interview from this year, the president echoed that statement. “We are an in-person institution, and that’s why students come to York College,” the president said.
On March 30, the president issued another email, in which the decision to close the college for the spring semester was made. With this email, the pandemic’s impacts on York College became obvious. All in-person activities associated with the college were canceled.
But by May 19, plans were already in motion to bring students back to York College’s campus, and resume in-person instruction. A “Hy-Flex” model of teaching was developed, which limited the number of students in the classrooms, and required a rotation schedule so that students switched the days they were in the classrooms. This allowed everyone a chance to partake in in-person learning. An abbreviated schedule was adapted, with breaks limited, so that by Thanksgiving the students had returned home and finals were held online. “Last year, it was very important that we come back to campus,” the college president said.
Over the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, several restrictions on activities were made, and students had mixed feelings about those restrictions. “I feel like what [York College] did was great, I really felt like they really took into consideration students that couldn’t come on campus, because they or their families were high risk, I think that was very generous of them to do,” said Chilson, when asked about what she thought YCP was doing well in response to the pandemic. “On a personal note, when we would do our two-week shut-downs, I did feel like those were a little unnecessary, because we still had to go to class but clubs and organizations couldn’t meet. I think that was a one-way street, and it really didn’t do anything.”
Now, it’s the fall 2021 semester, and campus feels more like it did before March 2020. Except for masks and the daily symptom checks that are emailed to unvaccinated students, it’s a pretty normal semester for York College. Activities have resumed to as they were pre-pandemic.
However, the college is not out of the clear yet. The delta variant of the COVID-19 disease presents a current threat to the world and to the York College community. It’s unclear how the spring 2022 semester will look; with COVID, as we’ve learned, the situation can change in a minute.
But one thing is clear. In the same interview, Gunter Smith acknowledged that the college has reached a 74% vaccination rate (now 76%). There was a time when that would have allowed students and staff to remove their masks. But, no longer.
“So we’re there … but when we put that campaign in, that was before delta and before the variant, the president said. “So as a result of that, based upon the CDC recommendations about masking indoors, we will be masked. I see us wearing our masks at least through the rest of the semester.”
Her change in plans was, in fact, was mirrored this afternoon by Gov. Wolf, who put a mask mandate into effect in September and said he’d re-evaluate it this month. He just did, and said that things aren’t likely to change anytime soon.
“I’m not sure that’s going to happen in October,” he said today during a COVID-19 vaccine clinic event at the Hamilton Health Center in Harrisburg.
Sarah Smith is a senior Professional Writing student at York College of Pennsylvania. In addition to writing for the Spartan, she is also an assistant online editor for the York Review, and you can find her at one of her four jobs around campus.