News Analysis: A year into COVID, what has changed and what have we learned?

A year ago, most did not know how deadly the coronavirus would be, much less how it would change the ways we operate as a University and in society. GRAPHIC BY HALEY KEIZUR/FOGHORN

Ethan Tan

Staff Writer

This time last year, no one could have imagined what COVID-19 would look like. From mask mandates, toilet paper shortages, and almost three semesters of remote learning, the pandemic has changed the way we, as students and citizens of the world, live our lives.

In the last print edition of the Foghorn, published March 5, 2020, (almost exactly a year ago from the publication of this article) the Foghorn ran its first two stories on the coronavirus. From TikTok trends to how students are dealing with living under their parents’ roof again, we have covered a lot, but COVID was not a topic the staff anticipated dominating the pages of the paper in every section for the next year.

The Foghorn’s March 5 cover story was about USF students who were studying abroad in some of the world’s first COVID-19 hotspots being forced to return to San Francisco early. The latter story was on what USF was doing to prepare for the virus should it have arrived at the Hilltop. 

While putting together that issue, editors struggled to accurately describe what the coronavirus was (and what to call it, as COVID-19 was not yet a common term) or how it was transmitted because information about the virus itself was scattered.

For example, in the article about USF’s preparations, while providing background information on the virus and answering the question “How deadly is it?” the Foghorn wrote that “It’s unclear.” 365 days later, it is abundantly clear, COVID-19 is deadly; to the gruesome tune of more than 2.5 million deaths worldwide and counting. 

The first public email about the coronavirus addressed to the USF community was sent the first week of the spring semester on Jan. 24, 2020, from Health Promotion Services (HPS) at a time when the U.S. only had two reported cases. (The U.S. has since surpassed 28.5 million reported cases.) The email advised that the risk to campus was “low” and urged the community to take basic measures to prevent the spread of the virus, such as encouraging hand washing for 20 seconds, avoiding unwashed hand-to-face contact, and respecting the personal space of others. 

Subsequent emails in January and February from various campus officials and offices such as ASUSF Senate, President Paul Fitzgerald, Vice President for Student Life Julie Orio, and Senior Vice Provost Shirley McGuire expressed concern for the virus, but reassured the USF community that it was safe to remain on campus, in addition to providing travel guidance for students who planned to travel to countries rated Level 3 for COVID-19 infection over spring break.

Even before the first email was sent out, word of a pandemic spreading across Asia worried decision-makers on campus. In early January, Anastasia Vrachnos, associate vice provost for international initiatives, was in meetings trying to resolve issues related to the pandemic in Asia for study abroad students. 

On Feb. 29, students studying abroad in South Korea and Italy were told to return to San Francisco as programs in both countries were canceled. This time last year, Italy and South Korea were classified as Level 3 countries, where the spread of the virus was already high. Students who returned finished their study abroad programs online.

One of those students who was recalled was John Iosefo, who currently serves as ASUSF president. In the March 5 article about study abroad, Iosefo lamented to the Foghorn that he wished to stay in Italy longer and was frustrated with the situation. As the outbreak spread throughout Italy, he noted that people in Rome continued to pack pubs, bars, and restaurants.

Iosefo, at the time, said to the Foghorn, “The common feeling, at least among my own friends, is that the international and US media are blowing the crisis out of proportion. Our parents read sensational headlines about the crisis and are automatically thrown into a panic. I understand that this outbreak, as with any outbreak, is concerning, but the amount of sensationalism and misinformation that has been spread is, in some ways, even more dangerous than the virus itself.”

Nearly a year later, Iosefo reflected on his comments: “I am struck by time’s endless ability to change everything and, in some cases, nothing at all. I think the person that made those comments in Rome was frustrated, confused, and sad at the prospect of leaving a city that they loved. But time has put things in perspective,” he said. “I’ve learned that there are more important things than study abroad adventures, trips to the pub, and excursions to various European countries.”

Despite his change of heart surrounding the seriousness of the coronavirus, Iosefo is still steadfast in thoughts about sensationalism and misinformation. “I did point to something that is unfortunately still true today: misinformation and sensationalism. We have people who are either milking this crisis for their own personal benefit or belittling the pandemic as a hoax,” he said. 

As study abroad students started to make their way back to the U.S., the harsh reality of the pandemic started to hit the country as a whole.

In classes, some professors started to test Zoom as early as February with their students, preparing for the worst. At that time, shutting down the Hilltop wasn’t even on USF’s radar. Rather, administrators were focusing their planning efforts on how to isolate students if they were to contract the virus.

USF’s planned response to the pandemic followed a six-stage outline, mainly focused on what would happen if a case of COVID-19 was found on campus. The plan was derived from a 2016 manual that was produced in response to the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak. A suspected COVID-19 case would have put USF at stage 4, where the student would be moved into quarantine housing and contact tracing would begin. At this time last year, USF was only operating at stage two, meaning its leadership team was monitoring the spread of the virus worldwide.

However, as time went on it became clear that USF’s initial plans were no match for the spread of the coronavirus. Up until the last day before spring break, on March 6, there were minimal signs that classes were going to be moved online, or that many students’ lives would be uprooted. There were professors during the week before the break who briefly told students that classes may move online, should extraordinary circumstances occur, but talk about remote classes was mostly speculative; the “Will we see each other again?” feeling never occurred to most.

As the Target on Geary, and other stores across the city, began to run out of Clorox wipes, bleach, hand sanitizer, and masks, students were packing for their spring break trips. In fact, two Foghorn staff members did travel to attend the College Media Association’s annual spring conference in New York City over the break. A city that, in mere weeks, would become the nation’s epicenter for the virus.

On March 6, the day before break, Fitzgerald sent out an email to the community stating that a student was exposed to COVID-19 outside of San Francisco, but that there were no plans to cancel events or make any major operational changes at that time.

However, after a period of just four days, that was no longer the case. On March 10, as the first cases of COVID-19 hit the Bay Area, the University shifted their plans and announced the closure of campus and a temporary shift to online learning. On March 14, USF extended remote learning until the end of the semester, and it has remained that way since. 

As the community looks forward to an eventual return to campus this fall, questions still remain around what life on campus will look like and how in-person classes will operate with precautions in place.

Currently, all University employees are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and Interim Provost Tyrone Cannon has alerted faculty in emails that a return to campus guide will be available soon. 

Cannon acknowledged that even with continued mask mandates and vaccines, “we do not know the exact environment we will be dealing with in the fall.” Cannon also acknowledged that class enrollment caps have been reworked since last fall and that Saturday classes and classes which will begin as early as 7 a.m. and end as late as 11 p.m. will be allowed in order to reduce foot traffic on campus and allow time for the sanitation of facilities. But much remains to be seen as the University is considering possible hyflex or cohort models of instruction. 

More information for the fall is expected soon given registration for next semester opens in just over a month on April 12 and the deadline to enter the on-campus housing lottery recently closed March 1.

“We’ve learned many lessons during the remote fall and spring semesters,” Orio wrote over email. “It has not been easy for anyone, and there is still a great deal of hard work ahead, but we are taking steps each and every day to welcome new and returning students back to campus in the fall.”

Ethan Tan is a junior politics major and the Foghorn’s News Editor. He covers the University’s administration and campus labor unions. He can be reached at etan@sffoghorn.com or on Twitter @tanethans.

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