Feature Story

A Community of Care

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many Ursinus students, faculty, and staff stepped into nontraditional roles—and became unsung heroes—to make the on-campus experience a true success.

As associate director of the Ursinus Center for Advocacy, Responsibility and Engagement (UCARE), Katie Turek is a community builder. She brings Ursinus students and nonprofit organizations together on key civic engagement initiatives.

Throughout the fall, that was her “day job.”

In the midst of a pandemic, Turek found herself in a new role: COVID-19 case manager. She was the first point of contact for students who tested positive for the virus and for students who were identified as a contact of an infected student.

Jill Fazzini is a familiar face on “Coaches’ Row” in the Floy Lewis Bakes Field House. She’s an administrative coordinator for athletics and helps to manage all 25 Division III sports.

That, too, was a “day job.”

During the academic year, Fazzini was a testing site manager. Every week, the entire student body—and many faculty and staff—reported to the field house to get tested for the virus. Fazzini was one of the first people they interacted with.

Both women are examples of members of the Ursinus community who volunteered to take on new roles—on top of their regular jobs—during the pandemic in order to keep the campus safe and healthy. If not for these volunteers, it would have been nearly impossible to keep up with the demands of virus mitigation.

“I’ve seen staff and faculty go far above and beyond their typical job responsibilities, and they proved time and again to be empathetic, able to adapt, and always ready to help,” Fazzini said. “This year was certainly a challenge, but I’ve never been prouder to be a Bear.”

Fazzini’s new role started shortly after Division III athletics were canceled last fall. Because all COVID-19 testing was administered on campus, she and others were trained on a testing intake platform and swabbing procedure, helped to develop a check-in process, and recruited and trained staff—many of them athletics employees—to work the testing site.

“We all understood the risks of being on the front lines, but our priority was keeping our students and campus healthy, so we were ready to do what was needed,” she said.

Turek was part of a group of Ursinus staff members who served as case managers alongside their normal roles on campus. Upon a positive test, the managers notified the student of their status; informed them of Montgomery County’s policy for isolation (for positive cases) or quarantine (for contacts); and helped them with next steps in planning to isolate or quarantine either at home or in designated housing on campus.

Case managers also communicated internally with Ursinus offices, such as academic affairs, residence life, facilities, and campus safety. They answered any questions students had, helped meet their needs during isolation or quarantine, and helped ensure a successful transition for moving back onto campus or into regular housing when the isolation or quarantine period was over.

“The biggest challenges have been, in some ways, unavoidable because they stem from the fact that there is no instruction manual for how colleges should handle COVID-19,” Turek said. “Since the beginning, we have identified where there have been gaps in communication or bottlenecks in the process. We are constantly refining our process to make sure it is as smooth and seamless as possible.”

Covid masks

While many staff and faculty members took on new responsibilities this academic year due to the pandemic, Ursinus students also stepped into jobs outside the classroom. Last summer, a student health corps group was established and many of those volunteers became contact tracers.

Nicole Hope ’21, a biology major and volunteer emergency medical technician in Trappe, Pa., served as one of the contact tracers.

“It really gave me a better understanding of what goes on behind the scenes and how much teamwork is required,” Hope said. “We’re relying on the case management team, and they’re relying on the testing process, and it all has to run smoothly. Everyone relies on each other. If there’s one broken link in the chain, everything can break down.”

The tracers would spend up to 15 minutes talking to an infected student to determine that student’s contacts. It wasn’t always an easy conversation.

“You have to be compassionate, but also forceful,” said Julia Pierson ’23, a biochemistry and molecular biology major. “The process can be kind of tricky because some students didn’t want to get in trouble. But you have to keep the campus safe.”

Ursinus’s positivity rate remained well below those at the county and state level throughout much of the academic year, so Hope, Pierson, and the other contact tracers maintained a manageable workload. There were, at times, spikes in positive cases, which led to some long hours.

“If we had zero transmission, there were no hours for the contact tracers,” said Nicole Ivaska, a lecturer in health and exercise physiology who led the contact tracing team. “One week, we had 300-plus hours of work that we had to split between us. So, it can be a full-time job. It’s all hands on deck, and you ride the waves.”

Ivaska is one of the Ursinus volunteers thrust into a new role during the academic year, but unlike some of the others, she was already familiar with it. She studies how disease affects the body, so her role on campus during the pandemic tied directly to her academic and clinical work.

“I reached out to Mark [Schneider, dean of the college and virus task force chair] and said, ‘If you need a clinical epidemiologist, I’m here. I will help however I can.’”

The student contact tracers were certified by Johns Hopkins University and earned course credit. It gave them real field work during an academic year in which there were fewer opportunities due to the pandemic.

“It became a unique opportunity to have these education-based discussions, but then also show students what they could do to bridge what they’re learning in the classroom with professional experience,” Ivaska said.

COVID-19 forced many Ursinus students and employees into new volunteer roles, and in some cases, entire departments took on new responsibilities. For the facilities team, that meant shifting focus from upgrading classrooms to finding nontraditional spaces to hold classes—tents, Helfferich Gymnasium, lobbies, and more, said Facilities Director Steve Gehringer.

And for Director of Network Systems and Infrastructure James Shuttlesworth, it meant helping to envision what classes might look like when students returned and had to be instructed while physically distanced; learning about best practices for space; and figuring out an algorithm for a new classroom capacity.

“We were fortunate that a lot of the key pieces of technology that we needed to navigate the new ways to work and teach were already in place. What we needed most was training people on how to use it, and setting up standards and best practices for everyone to follow,” Shuttlesworth said.

Chief Information Officer for Library/IT Gene Spencer said, “The take home of this experience is an understanding that we as a campus have become more agile than we thought possible, and that we adopted new tools that we hadn’t fully understood that we needed.”

Everything done was to help maintain the best possible undergraduate learning experience for students. At the Institute for Student Success (ISS), that process began in March 2020, when students first had to transition to remote learning.

Classroom with Masks

“We led outreach to students who were having difficulty getting re-connected to their courses,” said ISS Co-Director Nick Hanford.

Hanford said the ISS team—Alex Conces, Adam Linetty, Katie O’Brien, and Dolly Singley—helped students settle in from off campus and to troubleshoot any issues. Hanford also helped implement the satisfactory/unsatisfactory (S/U) grading system.

“My work is now turning to what the next year looks like in the aftermath of the pandemic,” Hanford said. “The past year has been more reactive to the ever-changing situation to help students learn as best as they can. Now, we’re looking to see what challenges students might continue to face—academically, financially, emotionally—and how to address those issues over the summer and in the fall.”

Even Ursinus alumni have pitched in. Director of Residence Life Alyssa Caffarelli ’13 hired, trained, and co-supervised alumni COVID coordinators who helped with COVID crisis response on campus. Many of them were student leaders during their time on campus and are interested in going into the health field. The COVID coordinators are instrumental in helping students relocate when required to quarantine or isolate, and they check in on them during their time away.

Additionally, Caffarelli started a remote peer mentor program for current and future resident assistants to connect with students learning virtually. They offer a remote program each week and check in with students about any difficulties a student may be facing, just like an on-campus RA.

“So much of what we do in residence life is based on relationships, so my team and I had to think differently about almost everything this year as we strived to maintain connections and make new ones from six feet apart with masks on,” Caffarelli said.

“The student culture for … cultivating a community of care is truly remarkable,” she said.

 2020 in Six Words
Last year, Ursinus students, faculty, staff, and alumni were asked to encapsulate their unique experiences in just six words. The “micro memoirs” are part of the permanent Ursinusiana collection. Here are some favorites:

“Zoom is no substitute for hugs.”
-Abbie Cichowski Kim ’10 (Advancement)

“Shut in, but not shut out.”
-Michelle O’Leary (Registrar)

“Learned new technology; stayed apart together.”
-Kathy Wright (Athletics)

“Loved, laughed, and cried through windows.”
-Kate Foley ’23

“Everything is temporary, be more present.”
-Anonymous

“Traditions reimagined, not abandoned. Ursinus endures.”
-Gail Heinemeyer ’72

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