A Quiet Place

By Dick Anderson

As the novel coronavirus brings campus life to a standstill, Occidental soldiers on

No one noticed the chimes.

On April 1, the Westminster Chimes that ring on the quarter hour from Johnson Student Center had been replaced by a sequence of sounds that were once likened to those coming from “an alien ice cream truck.” They were the compositions of three music faculty commissioned by President Jonathan Veitch as a sort of performance art experiment for Founders Day in 2011 (prompting then-sophomore Anna Kurnizki ’13 to create a Facebook petition against the replacement chimes, garnering more than 500 supporters within 24 hours).

When the chimes returned to campus for an April Fool’s Day encore—a prank that had been planned, auto-programmed, and long forgotten by the President’s Office—you’d have thought the aliens had abducted everyone. And of the handful of denizens occupying the Academic Quad at mid-morning, no one seemed to notice anything different about the carillon bells.

Then again, this was the spring when everything was different at Oxy—when campus life ground to a halt as classes went online, students and faculty went home, and a calendar bursting with activities, culminating with Commencement in May, was all but erased thanks to the novel coronavirus.

Six days into the semester, on January 26, the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in Los Angeles County, a traveler from Wuhan, China. Forty-six days later, with 32 cases and one known death, President Veitch and his senior leadership team concluded “that the best and most responsible path forward is to complete the spring semester remotely, using online methods, and minimize the number of students living on campus. We don’t take this step lightly,” he wrote in an email to the Oxy community March 12. “We know this will be disruptive and disappointing to many of you.”

By the time of Veitch’s announcement, evidence of community transmission was growing. The World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic the day before, and the NBA suspended its season after a player tested positive for COVID-19. Disneyland announced its closure soon after.

With spring break extended by a week, Oxy faculty scrambled to master the basics of remote learning, and over 1,500 students faced the challenge of moving out of the College’s residence halls. Not everyone wanted to leave: Out of 432 petitions from students to remain on campus, 217 were approved. And not everyone could leave easily: Roughly half of Oxy’s 138 international students, facing travel restrictions or potential visa limitations, were among those who stayed.

Robin Craggs, executive director of international programs, and her IPO staff faced their own logistical challenge: how to get Oxy’s 89 students home safely who were studying abroad this semester. In Morocco, for instance, two students squeezed onto the last chartered flights out of Rabat, with the College footing the bill.

A handful of students saw their programs in China, Japan, and Korea canceled outright in January, while students in New Zealand, Australia, and Argentina—whose programs started in late February—enjoyed only 18 days abroad before being evacuated.

“Our incredible partners in 49 programs around the world literally bombarded us with information about local conditions, student health alerts, evolving travel restrictions, and finally the details about program closures and academic continuity,” Craggs says. “Nothing prepared us to have the very purpose of our chosen career in international exchange—building world peace one student at a time—summarily unraveled in a matter of weeks.”

The first communication to the Oxy community on the novel coronavirus (or “2019-nCoV,” as it was known at the time) came on January 27 from Sara Semal, senior director of Emmons Wellness Center. “We are keeping busy with student appointments, especially in counseling,” she says in April. “This is a very difficult time for students and we are seeing how social isolation, change in routine and structure, lack of independence, and loss of community have affected their mental health and academic focus.

“As a therapist, I understand how mentally taxing the current situation is,” she adds. “As a public health clinician, I understand the fear a pandemic evokes and the desire to keep one’s self and family away from harm. And yet everyone at Oxy has been working so hard and devoting so much of themselves to keeping the community healthy and safe.”

In the Marketplace—currently the only dining choice open on campus, serving takeout only since March 17—“We are feeding about 200 students, our own staff members, and 30 to 40 other essential workers each day,” says Amy Munoz, associate vice president of hospitality services. “Most students buy two to three meals each time they visit, so the number of meals is definitely higher than the transaction count.”

Comfort foods such as pot roast, mac and cheese, and pizza are popular, and “Asian dishes are also big sellers,” she notes. “We have pulled out the panini presses, and are able to make paninis to order at the sandwich station. During the regular school year this would be too time-consuming.”

Having experienced earthquakes, power outages, building flooding, and windstorms over the years, “I can say that this is much more impactful than any of those,” Munoz adds. “But in the end, our job is to provide sustenance and comfort, and we do it very, very well under any set of challenges.”

Just below the Marketplace, bookstore manager Donna Huebner and her team are typically working right now on textbook orders from faculty for fall, as well as ordering clothing, supplies, gifts, and convenience items to come in after July 1. This semester, she has been stocking the shelves with certain necessities for people on campus to purchase, buying them at retail if needed.

“Every day someone comes in and asks for sanitizing cleaner, rubbing alcohol, or wipes. I ran out of all those sanitizing items very quickly, and receiving more has been impossible,” Huebner says. “Most of the students who have come into the store seem fairly upbeat and relaxed, although some of them come in and get what they need and get out quickly. Other students come in and spend time browsing. Perhaps they were looking for something to do other than going straight back to their rooms.”

With all their facilities closed, Athletics has worked with Admission to give virtual tours to recruits and has hosted student-athlete panels online as well. “Recruiting is always a top priority but it is especially important right now, and we’ve been creative and collaborative in our efforts,” says athletics director Shanda Ness. A program in the works called Tigers Rising “will provide our student-athletes with important content in ways to grow and improve even through challenging times,” she adds.

The absence of most students has given the Facilities Department a head start on preventive maintenance projects in residence halls, as well as access to work on mechanical systems throughout campus. “Normally, we maintain a balance of long-term planning and immediate project/task execution,” says Tom Polansky, director of facilities. “Lately, we’ve had to shift our focus to the more immediate work that lays before us—keeping staff safe while they work in occupied buildings, shuttering unused buildings, and cleaning.”

The ongoing efforts of Oxy’s essential workers have not gone unnoticed. “Very few of us ever think of showing up to work as an act of heroism,” says President Veitch. “But we have housecleaning, dining, and facilities staff who not only show up to work but go into relatively high-risk environments—from cleaning dormitories to serving food to students all day long. That’s extraordinary. And it’s a testament to their commitment to this institution that they’re willing to do that.”

As of May 1—the first day of final exams—there were 24,215 cases in L.A. County and 1,172 deaths from COVID-19. Back at Oxy, grades were due to the registrar’s office for graduating seniors May 12, and for all other students six days later. A virtual celebration for graduating seniors will be livestreamed in mid-June, with the promise of an in-person ceremony during the coming academic year.

“This is not what any of us anticipated when the semester started,” Veitch wrote to the Class of 2020 on April 28. “But we look forward to marking your graduation in June and then welcoming you back to campus next year for the celebration you have earned.”

And when those seniors return to Oxy, you can bet the Westminster Chimes will ring loud and clear.