Hard Choices & Camaraderie: How the pandemic hit Merced College

The ‘War Room’ at Merced College during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the initial impact on the local community. From left, Kelly Avila, associate vice president of Human Resources; Mike McCandless, vice president of Student Services; Jill Cunningham, executive director of the Merced College Foundation; Chris Vitelli, president of Merced College; and Joe Allison, vice president of Administrative Services. Not seen in this photo angle is Arlis Bortner, associate vice president of Information Technology Services.

By LUCIANA CHAVEZ

Kelly Fowler was hustling through the Fresno-Yosemite International Airport, off to Seattle for a conference, when she saw English professor Keri Ortiz heading in the other direction.

The Merced College Vice President of Instruction knew Ortiz was also going to a conference in Washington that week.

She wondered.

“Hey, where are you going?” Fowler called out.

“Home!” Ortiz replied.

It was March 1, just 41 days after the novel coronavirus quietly landed in the United States with one case in Snohomish County, roughly 30 miles north of both conference destinations.

Ortiz was leaving the airport. Her conference was canceled as organizers feared it would spread COVID-19. She steered clear of the metaphorical storm.

Fowler got on the Seattle-bound plane, and delivered her scheduled presentations. She walked into the tempest.

Then the world flipped upside down.

Fowler’s departing flight was full, but then she noticed hand sanitizer dispensers popping up everywhere she turned the next couple of days. When she returned three days later, she was the only person in her row, and the ones in front and behind her, on a half-empty plane.

This is insane, Fowler thought.

The administrative team at Merced College — and most human beings — would agree with the sentiment for the rest of the year. How else to make sense of over 1.47 million people dying worldwide from the coronavirus in 2020 alone?

Yet, the powers-that-be would have to set those feelings aside if they hoped to carry out a herculean task: Protect their community and the 2019-2020 school year for 16,308 students, 548 faculty and 327 staff who had all chosen Merced College as their academic home.

 

ELECTION DAY

Associate Vice President for External Relations Jill Cunningham should have been in Seattle, but was back at Merced College with President Chris Vitelli instead. They wringing their hands over Measure J, a bond that would allow the school to give its two campuses a major overhaul.

There was a lot at stake. As Vitelli, Cunningham, board members and volunteers canvassed the county, they weren’t merely stressed while trying to get a bond passed during a recession. They also worried whether to shake hands with voters who opened the door.

By election night, Measure J had failed. Yet, there was no time to dwell on the deeply disappointing result.

“The body [on the bond] wasn’t even cold yet before we had to deal with COVID-19,” Vitelli said.

 

WAR ROOM

The meeting room next door to Vitelli’s office in the Merced College administration building became home for the next three weeks. The cabinet — three VPs, three associate VPs and Vitelli — would work in the “war room” for 14-hour days discussing how to adapt to the pandemic.

Sleep? They sacrificed it for weeks. Exercise? No time. Eating healthy? A pipe dream.

In fact, war room tables were stocked with soft drinks, water, snacks and fast food. Fowler made sure there were plenty of miniature candy bars. Arlis Bortner, associate vice president of Information Technology Services, always reached for the Pringles.

One night, Vitelli walked in and unceremoniously dropped bags of Burger King Whoppers and french fries on the table.

The most difficult days came early when the virus was spreading unchecked across the globe. Little things felt like huge things.

Cunningham, congested from seasonal allergies, worried whether she should run from the room every time she coughed to clear her throat. Kelly Avila, associate vice president of Human Resources, would go back to her office after marathon meetings and Starbucks coffee would magically appear. Those quiet gestures moved her.

Those early days were fraught with tension. So much to do. No guidebooks to consult. So much on the line. No guarantee that plans would work.

“It was more than just working late,” Fowler said. “It was intense and stressful. We’d never encountered anything like this before. It felt like we were bracing for impact.”

It reached a fever pitch among the cabinet after several days stuck inside. A heated discussion broke out and escalated. Then everyone stopped.

The silent room prickled with stress, fatigue and worry.

Then Vitelli spoke.

He reminded his colleagues how deeply they all cared for students and faculty. He reassured them.

“We’re a team. I believe in you. This will not beat us.”

 

SCENARIOS

Bortner would later recall: “And the air just . . . cleared. Chris let [the stress] go. He’s the president. We follow him. So we let it go, too.”

It was stress born of planning for competing scenarios: How do we safely keep people on campus? How do we shut campus down to begin remote learning?

They confronted 50 issues per scenario. They juggled 100 questions per issue.

“The public health projections were saying that 5 percent of people who catch the coronavirus would die from it,” Avila said. “We didn’t want to run those numbers. They were too scary. We were worried about speaking out and causing panic.”

Said Vitelli: “What I didn’t want while we labored was for information to go out to students, faculty, staff or the public that was unclear or left any lingering questions. We would put every [rough draft] up on the screen. We would wordsmith every sentence. ‘Is this confusing? Are we forgetting anything?’ We challenged each other on every detail and it helped us.”

TIMELINE

The College began its mission at the end of February.

February 27, 2020

Vice President of Administrative Services Joe Allison, bothered while doing nothing, decided to do something. He wrote an email, the first of hundreds on the topic over the next 30 days, and sent it to peers across the community college system.

“I just asked people I trusted, ‘Hey, have you sent out any information on the coronavirus?’”

March 3, 2020

Voters shot down Measure J, Merced College’s $247-million bond.

March 4, 2020

California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 virus.

March 5, 2020

Vitelli scheduled an emergency cabinet meeting, the first time they’d meet about the virus. Reactions ranged from “Is this real?” to “Red alert!” When the meeting ended, they’d drafted a statement, saying the administration was aware of the public health threat and was working to protect staff and students.

“I’m not one to succumb to anxiety,” Vitelli said. “[Discussing it] just made me more aware. It built more urgency into what we were doing.”

March 8, 2020

Vitelli was in Monterey that weekend for a retreat as a community board member for Mercy Medical Center Merced. After gaining insight from medical experts gathered there, he emailed Merced County Executive Officer James Brown to discuss what a school closure might look like. Vitelli also instructed Avila to join the county health department’s daily call with school administrators.

March 9, 2020

Sierra College became the first state community college to announce it would move instruction online. Vitelli immediately called Sierra president William H. Duncan IV, who told Vitelli everything Sierra had to do to reach that conclusion.

March 10, 2020

The cabinet gathered for a second emergency meeting.

March 11, 2020

An agenda item for the regular Board of Trustees meeting that night read: Planning for a Possible Pandemic. There Vitelli told the trustees that they might already have a student with the virus. The test turned out negative, but it would be the last face-to-face board meeting.

“I knew we would have to [close],” Vitelli said. “We thought, ‘We have to do something about this now.’ But I didn’t want us to feel forced to do anything without being prepared.”

March 12, 2020

Merced College announced that instruction would move online, but campuses would close to students, visitors and non-essential staff effective March 17.

“As soon as we decided to go remote, everything got so much easier,” Bortner said. “It was like the clouds parted and we could start making things happen.”

March 13, 2020

The California Community College Athletics Association shut down spring sports. The College suspended its wildly popular annual plant sale and canceled the spring production of “The Sound of Music.”

March 16, 2020

The College canceled its 2020 commencement. Cunningham and the external relations staff shared poignant feedback from the school’s social media channels with Vice President of Student Services

“Welcoming 2000 people on campus at the end of May just wasn’t going to happen,” McCandless said. “Imagine sending that message to our first-generation students. We tried to do it in a compassionate way. It was heart-wrenching. That hit me the hardest. Our students understood. No one was blaming us, but they wore their hearts on their sleeves. They cried about having the rug pulled out from under them, being denied the right to walk across the stage.”

 

March 16, 2020

Merced College became one of the first state colleges to say they would keep the doors locked for the rest of the spring semester. At the time Vitelli made the call, there was no guarantee the county or state would follow suit.

March 17, 2020

Last official day of face-to-face instruction on the Merced and Los Banos campuses.

 

March 18-19, 2020

Knowing a state shutdown order was imminent, the cabinet focused on training faculty to teach online and equip students to learn online. During the previous two weeks, leadership had created a three-week plan to transition to remote learning.

They had three days to get it done.

March 19, 2020

California Governor Gavin Newsom held an evening press conference to issue a statewide, shelter-in-place order effective immediately.

 

McCANDLESS

“Thank goodness we saw the writing on the wall,” McCandless said. “We would have preferred the pandemic not happen, but we responded very quickly. We had all of the elements in place so we didn’t skip a beat.”

 

OBSTACLES/SOLUTIONS

Throughout the 20 days between those work trips to Seattle and Newsom shutting down the state, every Merced College cabinet member hustled.

Allison gathered the maintenance and operations staff who would keep the campus free of disease.

The first week of March, Allison told Director of Facilities Ron Perez to have custodians pay close attention to every surface — door handles, handrails, elevator panels, tables, chairs, work stations, desks — on campus. They began regularly sanitizing. If they saw anyone using an area between cleanings, they would clean again.

Thankfully, the school had already ordered hand sanitizer, hands-free dispensing stations, sanitizing wipes and equipment to spray entire rooms. They did that before thousands of other American schools, colleges and universities did.

“Once we got the equipment installed, we really didn’t face any shortages,” Allison said. “We wanted to move as quickly as possible so everyone felt safe.”

Bortner and his information technology services staff had to prepare hardware and software that would enable everyone to work without working face to face. The sheer number of tasks they had to complete would have toppled a small country. Cunningham said it seemed the tech staff worked 24-hour days.

It started with Bortner and Will Resendes, Director of Technology Infrastructure and Architecture, working with Fowler to plot an attack. Not everyone had a home computer or laptop. They had to figure out how to get everyone a machine. Bortner dispatched his staff to gather every available laptop, desktop and Mac mini on campus.

PC specialists Kathy Kekahuna, Joe Lara and Ben Chickering reconfigured them for off-campus use. Network specialists Colton Andersen and Walter Sherman added virtual desktops so users could use files from inside the College firewall.

They also jerry-rigged everyone’s voicemails to show up as emails, and had office calls forwarded to people’s cell phones. Educational Technology Specialist Manuel Costa wrote up all the how-to guides for users.

Bortner’s administrative assistant Yang Her tracked every tech and computer request on a spreadsheet. All eight deans, Fowler and the tech managers could track the work in real time. Her also distributed computers with assistance from Help Desk Technician Stacey Jorgenson.

Finally, staff started using MS Teams. The software allowed everyone to communicate, share files, video chat, and more, in one spot. It was so effective, email started to feel quaint in comparison.

By the end, the tech team distributed 200 computers, handled hundreds of service requests and successfully shifted an entire campus online, even while losing a day to troubleshoot a network outage.

we should have been operating this way all along,” Bortner said. “You accept things. ‘This is how we do it.’ Or ‘Ah, that’s fine.’ It isn’t. Now, we don’t put up with it.”

McCandless and his student services staff wrangled tutoring and counseling operations online, and figured out how to get students the help they usually receive.

So much of the technical training happened through student services. Counselors Jazmin Serrano and Lacey Chavez put together how-to guides on Zoom and shared them with everyone. Counselor Sabrina Frias figured out how to navigate Zoom for group counseling, which bled over to group tutoring. McCandless’s administrative assistant Felicia Jones turned every form a student could possibly need into electronic forms.

“The impressive part was how open everyone was to the process,” McCandless said. “There was very little resistance.”

They were also looking out for special needs students, single parents, foster care students and veterans. They worried about WiFi signals in remote areas, food insecurity, transportation, child care and the mental health of everyone involved.

“We had to make sure learning wasn’t compromised just from a lack of resources,” McCandless said. “You know what we learned? That our students are super resilient.”

Fowler had to approach faculty knowing roughly 80 percent of the professors and students had zero experience with technology, or teaching or learning online.

Fowler and her deans planned everything from how to get everyone trained on Zoom and Canvas, to what curriculum adjustments they would make to meet California Department of Instruction guidelines.

“I followed Chris’s lead,” Fowler said. “I visualized the situation like a bullseye with concentric circles around it. Students were in the center. The next three things were connection, communication and collaboration. Everything we did in that room fell into one of those categories. … Faculty stepped up in ways we’d never seen. And it was a peaceful process. We didn’t hear anyone say, ‘Hey, that’s not my job.’”

Avila continued her usual work as liaison between the unions and employees, but with added urgency.

She spent every free moment working with helpful union reps from the California School Employees Association for classified staff and the Merced College Faculty Association, to create work-from-home agreements.

Also, Avila did a lot of reassuring. Employees, in emails to HR, were saying they were worried and had questions. Not everyone had access to the latest information like Avila did. She was connected to the cabinet, employees, unions and the county.

So the HR staff set about pushing information out as quickly and accurately as they could. They were eager to remind employees how deeply the College was working to support them at such a scary time.

 

AVILA

“[Being plugged into the information] helped us be proactive, and a valuable part of the community, versus watching our people be overwhelmed by what-ifs.”

Cunningham tasked the Merced College Foundation with finding money to help students without emergency funds, and her external relations staff with connecting to the public via emails, local stories and social media.

Cunningham believes the community college is one of the nation’s best anti-poverty organizations. Everyone saw that play out live in the pandemic’s early weeks when groceries were scarce and people began losing their jobs.

The Foundation, thanks to local donations, was able to distribute some 80 grocery cards worth $100 each to students in crisis.

“To see that in motion was powerful,” Cunningham said. “It was so touching to witness how much everyone in the war room cared about our most vulnerable students. We couldn’t let anyone fall through the cracks. It wasn’t easy.”

Finally, Vitelli guided the group at the college and stayed connected to the Chancellor of the Community Colleges of California, his peers at 116 other campuses, and anyone else who could shed light on this unique emergency.

Bouncing ideas around with his peers kept him focused. Working with the cabinet kept him moving. Worrying about the Merced College students, faculty and staff, kept him motivated. That’s how he successfully navigated the Blue Devil ship into an unfriendly harbor.

“I felt like we were never looking behind us,” Vitelli said. “We were making the right decision every time, even before we had a mandate. That helped us so much when we had three days to get the entire faculty trained and to gather the equipment we needed to maintain instructional continuity.”

 

DEBRIEF

Everyone involved in the transition to remote learning wrestled daily with new information and changing regulations. One evening’s brilliant insight could wind up on the trash heap by morning. How did they manage?

“We’d also spent time preparing to close both campuses, so all of that work kicked in,” Allison said. “We were able to merge onto another highway because we’d already had those conversations.”

Said Vitelli: “The whole time we were trying to determine if we were over- or underreaching. We had to make decisions that were, not best for UC Merced or the K-12 schools, but best for Merced College. I felt like we made progress every day.”

Said Avila: “I’m proudest about the entire Merced College community because we thought about our neighbors first, and then we thought about ourselves.”

Said Fowler: “I never felt like we couldn’t get this done. Chris gave us the confidence to make this work. We had a mantra, ‘Stay flexible. Stay flexible. Stay flexible.’”

Said Cunningham: “I did leadership training for a living prior to this, and the big topic right now is about control. We have no control in the world. We can’t control this virus or when stores open or when kids get called back to school. Instead of being control freaks, we have to be team players. I would say the College did a great job keeping that at the forefront.”

 

A STRONGER FUTURE

The Merced College team had been motoring with exhausts blazing for weeks when, in late March, Cunningham found a letter at her childhood home in Le Grand.

The letter, sent to her grandfather Byron Cunningham’s family, an original Merced College trustee, was dated January 30, 1920. It shared how the school would try to handle the approaching Spanish Flu pandemic by closing its doors until the threat had passed.

A pandemic then, as now, forced people to imagine their corner of the world without the steady presence of the largest institution and structure in town — the school building. One hundred years ago, as now, a group of people gathered to contemplate their mortality and how to keep people safe.

The letter’s ending echoed how Merced College approached its own 21st century crisis. Melrowe Martin, an LGHS board member in 1920, wrote, “This is an experiment.”

Said Cunningham: “Every decision we made was tied to the same question: How does this best serve our students? Seeing the ripple effect on campus of the answers was a fascinating, exhausting thing to go through.”

Said Bortner: “What a great team. Everyone worked together so well. The worst part was early on, just adjusting to the stress of it. But we never had a truly bad moment.”

Said McCandless: “It was a hectic time. We should all feel very proud of how responsive we were. There was no blueprint. There was such a good synergy with everyone we worked with. It showed me how special this place is.”

Said Avila: “We had a hard job for a limited period of time, but our faculty and staff picked up the ball and ran with it. And Chris? I heard he didn’t sleep. … It’s easy to say, ‘We’re going to keep working.’ It’s harder to do it with compassion in an emergency. We had to remember the actual people who work for us were scared. But every decision Chris made, he made with heart.”

Said Fowler: “People were put in positions they’d never been in before. That’s why it was so stressful. Still, it showed that our institution is moving forward. We were already building a strong online presence. The pandemic forced us to make a transition to remote learning literally overnight. … Not everyone will understand the amount of work it took. There were silent heroes in all of this.”

Said Allison: “I’m glad I was in that room with my colleagues. If just one of us had not been on the same page, it would have thrown off our chemistry. Honestly Chris’s leadership set the tone for everything, not just for right now, but for the months that followed.”

Said Vitelli: “I’m incredibly proud of how we cleared this huge obstacle, of course, but I’m blown away by the sheer amount of work our employees did. We had to do it. It was brutally hard, but we’re better for it. This community deserved an immediate response. I’m beyond humbled by the initiative and leadership our team showed during a tumultuous and unprecedented time.”

CoronavirusCOVID-19MercedMerced Community CollegeMerced County
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