Notes From a Pandemic Year

I didn’t turn my phone off for 20 months. It is not unusual for any college president to stay near his or her phone every day, and to rarely have it off. But for 20 months, beginning in March of 2020 when Colgate closed, I never allowed my phone’s battery to drop to zero.

Nearly every day I would be in constant touch with the Dean of the College, or the Associate Vice President for the Campus Safety Department, or a member of our health and planning teams and task forces to see where we were, learn what events had occurred, and hear about another change in CDC or state guidance.

We’d wait every night for news from the most recent COVID-19 testing cycle. What were the numbers? How many close contacts have been identified? How many quarantine and isolation rooms at the Wendt Inn did we have still available?

A text on your phone could mean everything. We all were looking at our phones.

It sometimes felt as random as the lottery. But these numbers were our students and staff members. And the numbers were telling us if we could stay open. Our phones were like oracles, telling us of the fate of Colgate, and we couldn’t let them shut down.

Arrival Day at Colgate is usually a loud, boisterous affair. The SUVs and packed sedans suddenly appear on Whitnall Field as first-year students arrive with their parents. Typically, I walk around to say hello to as many students as possible those mornings. The parents are thrilled to say hello, and they are all too ready to tell me stories about their child. The new students rarely say anything, though they wish their parents would simply let me walk away without any more reports from their childhoods. Their eyes are like darts, aimed at their talkative fathers.

On most move-in days, I walk about the residence halls as the day unfolds to see how it is all going. West Hall and East Hall, with their narrow corridors, seem to be bursting at the seams. How could these students have brought this much stuff? Parents are barking orders and swearing at the weight of things, and the students are shyly walking around the halls to see their new classmates.

When they are all settled into their new rooms, parents and students gather for speeches under tents. At the end of the speeches the parents cry when they hug their children goodbye, and the students walk back to their residence halls for the first of their orientation events. The year usually begins with a crowded outburst of activity.

This year, our pandemic year, first-year students arrived on Whitnall Field again in crowded cars, but they didn’t walk up the Hill with their parents. Only students and employees were allowed onto the core of the campus. Other students, and a lot of athletics staff, loaded the new students’ gear onto trucks that morning and brought everything up the Hill for them.

The students said goodbye to their parents on Whitnall Field after the quick unloading and then walked into the Hall of Presidents to register formally as Colgate students. Then they walked up the Hill, typically alone. They carried a boxed lunch that was given to them because the dining halls were closed, and the 14+ days of food being delivered to them was about to begin.

I was on top of the Hill that morning, in the residential quadrangle, when I began to see the students walking up the Hill, arriving one by one in masks.

I have never felt so much emotion for students as I did on that day, seeing them walk up Colgate’s Hill. I didn’t want to tell them this because I wanted to let them think this was all somewhat usual, but I thought they were the bravest group of young people I had ever seen.

The year, at some point, did establish its own rhythms and patterns. And, sometimes, it all seemed somewhat normal. But then you would be struck by the differences.

It wasn’t the masks we all wore, or the signs all over the campus alerting everyone to social distancing requirements that struck you. It was the things you never knew were important that were absent.

It was the lack of music.

Until this year, I never realized how musical campuses typically are. There are a cappella groups, which we hear at large events. When I walk by the chapel in the evenings, you can hear these groups practice, or you hear the orchestra warming up. You hear the music from the various religious services through the chapel’s open windows. On Saturdays you hear music floating up from Broad Street parties or from the windows of the residential quad. But this year, with all musical groups suspended and no large gatherings, there was essentially no music on the campus.

Until this year, I never knew how important music was.

By far the hardest part of the year was enforcing new rules. There were rules about classroom spacing, social distancing, and visiting friends from different residence halls. There were prohibitions against large parties and traveling. And like everyone across the country, no one liked these new rules, even if everyone could see they were needed.

There are, of course, rules that govern student behavior in any typical year, but these COVID-19 regulations were new and more challenging. The students had to navigate between their sense that these rules were necessary and their sense that they were too hard. Asking staff members to enforce these rules, and the students to abide by them, was the hardest thing for everyone. It was exhausting, for everyone.

It will take a while to recover from this.

The University progressed through each of the four main “Gates” of rules (as the infection numbers went down, greater levels of mobility and gathering possibilities — Gates — were announced). By the time we reached a later Gate, students could gather in groups of 25. This meant that — with a number of modifications — sports teams could practice in groups again.

In fall we had moved to a more lenient Gate; every athletics field was suddenly covered with teams, and students were walking to practices and other workouts. And they were incredibly loud when they did so. These days could not replace the excitement of crowded game days, but the days when the student-athletes were practicing seemed to take on new importance. They become necessary.

In the spring, Easter weekend proved to be one of our greatest challenges. The students had been in various forms of restrictions for weeks, and there was no spring break to look forward to for relief. We in the administration had a sense that this was the weekend when large gatherings might break out, or when traveling to and from the campus might occur. And this came to pass.

In a few days’ time, Colgate suddenly had to move back a few Gates, with old restrictions put into place in response to the seemingly inevitable spike in infections. The students went back to their residence halls, the dining halls went back to pick-up service only, and new restrictions were placed on practices and gatherings.

Those were the days when I wondered whether we could just make it to the end of the semester.

But we did.

As I told the seniors this year at commencement, we all developed new habits this year, habits we formed when we weren’t even looking. Mine was the habit of walking out of the house, late at night before going to sleep, and looking at the campus. It is a great feature of the president’s house at Colgate and its setting that you can see essentially all of the campus from the top of the Hill, and you can see miles down the Chenango Valley.

But it was the campus I would focus on each night, with the chapel, the towers on the dorms, and the academic buildings all lit up. I could see the athletics fields to the south, and Broad Street ahead. When the lights were up on Willow Path, I could see them as well — and they would reflect off of the snow or, in the spring, the water of Taylor Lake.

On those nights, I would think that we were all here, in this unusual and sometimes scary time, and that I was here, and that I had to keep remembering that I was here for a reason. I had work to do, and somehow, for the sake of everyone in those dorms, townhouses, and buildings on Broad Street, and for all those in the library late at night, we had to go on, that 200 years of this University could not stop.

Throughout the year, when I would see the students on campus, I could see they were tired and chafing at all the rules. I would ask them, “Was it worth it, coming back?” They always said it was. And I think they were right. Even in the compromised and difficult way we were together this year, it was good that we had this year on this campus.

There are few times when you can participate in something bigger than yourself and connect yourself to an important mission. There are few times when the fate of the many depend on the actions of each individual. That was what happened in Hamilton this year, and we were all changed by it.

But I will never forget how hard this was for our students, and for our staff and faculty members. I will never forget the sheer exhaustion of it all. I will also never forget that we did something worthwhile, and that we were changing a university because of everything we were doing.

It is summer as I write this, and on these warm nights, I walk my dog through the quiet campus. On those walks, I see West Hall, where I lived during the mandatory quarantines of this pandemic year. I see the windows of 100 West, and I think to myself: I lived there? It all already seems like a long time ago.

I am not sure we will soon know what this year fully meant, and what happened to us. For now, all I can be sure of is that I am proud of Colgate students and faculty and staff. We were faced with something daunting, something big and unknown — and we came through stronger than before.

The new academic year will be more normal. But I think there will be some compromises in how we move about. And I think we will be on guard in ways that become more habitual to us this year.

But I hope the bravery remains. We were better for it.

And I hope there will be music.