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In COVID-19 era, life at small Michigan college changes in nearly every way

The small hairs on the back of the neck stand up as the distinctive wail of the bagpipes begins. The goosebumps form on each arm as the squad begins to move down the sidewalk. The run-through-a-wall adrenaline starts coursing through the veins with each step through campus.

The football team’s walk to its stadium is a tradition at Alma College.

On a bright, sunny Saturday like this one, there should be a crowd gathering and feeling the emotions of the moment.

That’s not the case as this walk begins. Like nearly everything else in this messed up, two-year stretch, this football game is all sorts of weird. There are no leaves falling. The softball team is playing on its field next door. There’s a strict limit on how many people can come to the game.

It’s one of many snapshots of weirdness that permeated the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years at Alma, a small private residential liberal arts college about two hours northwest of Detroit.

The Free Press spent both academic years making trips to Alma, sitting in classrooms with masked students, watching a class meet on Zoom, going on a campus admissions tour in the middle of a pandemic and talking with college leaders, faculty and students about this most unique of circumstances — two years where COVID-19 turned every aspect of college life into a challenge.

In late April, the college celebrated the graduation of the class of 2022, most of whom had seen half of their college career impacted by the pandemic. They endured attending classes in masks, getting sent home early from in-person instruction, the shifting athletic seasons and lots and lots of stress. 

‘A sense of normalcy’ with a twist

It’s hot out. Trickles of sweat run down backs while beads form on foreheads. There’s no air conditioning in this classroom and the masks everyone has stretched across their faces are making the heat more unbearable. 

Welcome to college, in Michigan, in August 2020.

For this group of about 20 students, this Sunday afternoon First Year Seminar class taught by Phillip Andre, the college’s director of student success, is their introduction not only to Alma, but also to college life. It’s also the return to the classroom for most of the students who had to finish out their high school senior year at home thanks to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, which canceled in-person classes across the country.

“It’s good to be back, to get into a sense of normalcy,” Andre says as he greets the class from behind his mask. The desks are spread apart and limited in number. A visitor to the classroom puts it right at capacity. Any more people would be forced to stand in the hallway.

Andre, who started his academic career as an athletic trainer before going into the student success field, explains the class to the students, who are quiet and a bit subdued after a busy orientation weekend. The class — all Alma freshmen take a section of it — is designed to work on skills like critical thinking and writing. Andre’s section — called Human Being Global Citizen — will spend the semester reading selections from Martin Luther King Jr., Plato, Amy Tan, Leo Tolstoy and Toni Morrison.

“You are attending a liberal arts institution,” Andre told his students. “You’re going to have this breadth and depth to your coursework. The reading (load) in college goes up. You’re going to be reading a lot — that’s good.”

By the time Andre is done with his introduction, everyone has been in the classroom for 30 minutes and is on the verge of overheating.

Outside everyone goes, onto the track surrounding the empty football field.

Andre walks the students through some get-to-know-you exercises, including asking them what hasn’t gone quite right the first few days of being at college. Most complaints could be from any year — the dorms are too hot, shared bathrooms aren’t convenient, class scheduling has been complicated.

But students also include a couple of reminders of the year they are living in — several say they keep forgetting to grab a mask on the way out of their room, while others say they dislike getting COVID-19 tests.

Recruiting push is forced to pivot

Perhaps the most important conversation going on this fall 2020 morning isn’t taking place in a classroom or a dorm room. It’s taking place between four people sitting in the lobby of Alma’s administration building.

Katie Crombe’s job is to convince Bailey Graham and her parents, Brian and Kristi, that Bailey should spend the next four years taking classes here. 

Swag — a T-shirt and an instant $500 scholarship — will be handed out. Points of interest on campus will be pointed out. Questions will be answered.

Alma, like all other small liberal arts colleges, is heavily dependent on student tuition to keep the lights on. 

At Alma, in the 2019-20 school year, about $21 million, or about 40%, of the college’s $53 million in revenue came from tuition, school finance records obtained by the Free Press show. An additional $14 million, or 28%, came in from auxiliary enterprises, which includes dorms and dining. 

That makes the admissions office in any small liberal arts college, including Alma, one of the most — if not the most — important offices on campus.

The goal is to get students enrolled and arriving on campus each fall. The office works those students through a funnel that starts at the top with all potential students and narrows, step by step, down to those who actually show up during orientation weekend and start classes.

Alma gets names of potential students from places like the ACT and the College Board. It then tries to move those students further down the funnel.

For Alma, that normally involves mailings, phone calls, visits and lots of contact between a potential student and their families and college representatives. It involves everyone from admissions counselors — the school has 10 recruiters, eight for traditional freshmen, one for transfer students and one for international students — to coaches.

Athletes make up about 60% of every class.

Because of that, the admissions and athletic departments work closely together. Coaches are given enrollment goals tied to roster sizes. So if a coach knows their rosters are normally between 22 and 26 players and they are losing three seniors, they will work with admissions personnel to determine if they want to bring only three freshmen or more. They also work together to help recruit students.

So when Bailey is on campus, not only does she take a tour and meet with admissions staff, she also has a visit with the bowling coach because she wants to continue her bowling career in college.

At every step of the way, the college focuses on Alma’s distinctiveness, including the one-on-one attention a student at Alma receives, a key selling point.

The admissions staff tries to mirror that in the recruitment, doing hand-holding with students. 

Like everything else, the recruitment process was complicated by the pandemic. Out were recruiters’ visits to high schools or pizza with families. So recruiters would order pizza delivered to families and have dinner conversations over Zoom. In those conversations, Alma recruiters try to determine the biggest draw for each student and also address any concerns. The goal for the recruiters is not to sell the school, but rather to serve the student’s needs.

The funnel begins with several hundred thousand names, drops down to 25,000 or so students who express some interest, then down to about 3,000 students who apply.

Alma ends up admitting about 60% to 65% of prospective students who apply — that makes them selective, but not highly selective. College leaders are looking for students who will succeed at Alma. Once applicants are accepted, discussions include specifics about potential financial aid, including presidential merit scholarships that require interviews with college President Jeff Abernathy.

Not all those students will end up at Alma. Competition is fierce, not only between other private colleges, but also public colleges like Michigan State University and Central Michigan University. Alma will end up with 450 or so traditional freshmen each year. Most students will decide by June 1 if they are coming to Alma or not.

Then, the cycle begins again. 

Virtual learning returns as cases rise

As Andre’s First Year Seminar gets ready to begin its last full class of the semester on a mid-November 2020 day, one of the students grabs her laptop and heads toward a kitchen: “You guys can come with me to make my coffee,” she tells her classmates, each of whom are in their own dorm rooms, childhood bedrooms, family living rooms or basements. Andre is in his office at Alma as students log onto the livestream of the class.

Rising case counts have forced administrators to send the school back to virtual learning. In the fall 2020 semester, the school administered 5,892 tests to those who had no symptoms and 141 tests to those who did. There were 172 positive results on those tests. In the winter 2021 semester, the school ramped up testing, administering 18,360 asymptomatic tests and 170 symptomatic tests, with 103 positives.

Students will take their final exams away from campus and return in January, giving them almost two full months away from college. Only four of the about 20 students in the class are still in college dorms.

“We fell into the trap of thinking we would be able to finish this up in person,” Andre says to his class, but adds, “you’ve really handled this well.”

He starts class by asking students to reflect on their favorite literary works from the semester. The conversation is brisk and free-flowing, and the class time passes quickly.

Suddenly, it’s over.

“Thanks for joining this morning and we’ll be in touch. Bye, bye,” Andre tells the class. He begins to wave as one after another, the little boxes of student faces fade from the screen until it’s only Andre left.

Uncertainty grows, on campus and off

It probably wasn’t the best time to move to Washington, D.C., but early January 2021 found Kelsey Taylor in the nation’s capital along with a bunch of National Guard soldiers. They were there in response to the Jan. 6 insurrection; Taylor was there for an internship with the Washington Media Institute, the capstone to Taylor’s Alma career. 

It was subdued there  — a combination of post-election security and pandemic lockdowns — but Taylor threw herself into her work, learning about multimedia journalism, including building websites and producing content.

“It was good to expand my horizons,” she said. But not being on campus for her final semester and limitations on how many people could be at an in-person graduation meant Taylor didn’t get to say thank you and goodbye to professors until fall 2021.

“What really jumps out to me about Alma is the stuff I did prior to the pandemic,” she said. “I like to see people.”

The pandemic took away her ability to study in the English department area of the college. It took away her opportunity to stop by and visit casually with professors, a key experience for students at small liberal arts colleges like Alma.

“There’s a place there where students can sit. It’s just a comfortable place to be and hang out,” she said. “So much was just being there. It was very open, which I really missed.”

It also meant a lot of uncertainty.

“Some of my friends had each class on different platforms (online, hybrid or all in-person),” she said. “Everyone was like, ‘I don’t know what we are doing next week.’ “

It’s not fall, but there’s football

At the grocery store on the edge of town, a Saturday in March brings the usual steady flow of midday shoppers filing out with carts full of milk, hot dogs, lettuce and Frosted Flakes. A little closer to Alma’s campus, a few optimistic souls are poking at their lawns, investigating the first hints of green. On campus, a couple of softball players wander toward the field ahead of an early-season tilt.

But, at midday comes a disturbance in this pastoral scene — the notes of a marching band warming up.

Welcome to pandemic-era spring football. 

Alma didn’t play a fall schedule, instead opting to play in the spring in hopes that pandemic case counts would fall.  Its first opponent is fellow Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association league member Adrian College. Adrian played a few nonleague games in the fall and is playing again in the spring.

The marching band is spread out in the end zone on metal bleachers, three band members per row. A limited number of family members of players are spread out in the home stands. A limited number of students are spread out in the visitors section. Some other families sit on the grass outside the stadium in one corner.

A big sign reading “No congregating in the stadium” greets spectators as they get their temperatures checked at the gates. 

The scene surrounding the game was surreal, but for the teams on the field, it was football as usual. 

Alma coach Jason Couch, dressed in his typical kilt, goes out to argue with the ref during a timeout. After Adrian scores a touchdown, the extra point flies through the upright and is snagged on the fly by a marching band member drawing a loud cheer. Running backs burst through holes. Defensive lineman smack into offensive lineman as they pass rush.

But as the game clock winds down to a 21-6 Alma loss, pandemic realities return.

“When the game is over,” a booming voice announces over loudspeakers, “we’ll be releasing fans by section, like at a buffet. If you have plans to meet a student-athlete, please do it off campus.”

Student teaching — with limitations

In March 2020, Zach Everly had just finished a tour with his fellow Alma choir members when they got word COVID-19 was shutting down the world and his school. He moved back in with his mom and sister and finished his junior year.

He was supposed to go to Ireland with the choir that spring — that never happened.

Then, in July, “I started to realize, ‘Oh my God, they are going to bring us back.’ I was nervous.”

He went back for the start of his senior year and says he was  “pleasantly surprised” by how his classes went during his last semester on campus. His senior recital, normally an event attended by many, was limited to just 15 people and he performed with fans blowing to keep air circulating.

The only thing Everly had left was student teaching — something he knew was going to be difficult. He landed at Parker Middle School, which was still meeting face-to-face.

But he taught masked and the choirs had limits on how long they could sing each class period.

“It was hard as a student who was located off campus, because all of my observations and my class had to be completed remotely. I was grateful that it allowed for more flexibility in my schedule, but I missed having interactions with my fellow student teachers.”

Missing face-to-face connections

As the second semester of the 2020-21 school year kicks in and the days until Jordyn Bradley’s graduation dwindle, her stress level rises. She is trying to finish up a dual major while working a couple of jobs. Also on her plate: participating in sorority events, performing in some theater productions — and navigating life during a pandemic.

Bradley says she has felt the lack of interaction. She knows what it was like to go to Alma and be able to hang out with people, meet friends at Starbucks just off campus or zip up to nearby Mount Pleasant, the nearest bigger town.

“Finishing out our undergraduate program during a pandemic automatically makes the experience feel incomplete,” she said. “I wasn’t able to spend as much time as I wanted to with my friends before graduating because if I didn’t live with or have in-person class with someone, I barely saw them.

“I am a person who needs to see the people I care about in order to feel connected to them, so when many of my interactions with others were through a screen, it sometimes made it hard to feel a sense of community.”

There is a slight upside to the pandemic, she adds: “I also will say that despite being bored a lot of the time and wishing there were more activities to attend and people to be able to see in-person, my grades couldn’t have been better than they were during my COVID semesters.”

 She says she is also happy to do her final year in community with others.

“There isn’t much to do within the Alma community — especially in the winter — but having other people around you who understand that your final year of your undergraduate program is unlike how you anticipated it being brought people together. We all were disheartened, but it gave us things to talk about and bond over. I also was very glad we were fortunate enough to graduate in-person.”

Pomp, circumstance and restrictions

The robes are the same as always. So are the diplomas and the tears in the eyes of proud parents.

Even the same music is played.

But much is different.

The white chairs the graduates sit in are spaced out in neat rows taking up much of the football field. The stands aren’t jammed with relatives witnessing their graduate’s happy day, but instead clumps of parents sit, masked, here and there on the field’s bleachers.

“I’m very certain on this windy spring day that each of us has had some doubt about whether we would be able to celebrate together,”  Abernathy, Alma’s president, says in his opening remarks to the Class of 2021. “Here we are, not online, not virtual but in-person, gathered to celebrate your accomplishments. This past year has been the most challenging in the history of our college and one of the most challenging in the history of the world, the modern world, itself.

“This past year has brought much tumult to the world and to Alma College, but you, each one of you, have persevered. 

“It is one of my regrets today that our faculty, staff that have helped you through these years, who have mentored you, then stood by you … cannot be here so we all can be.”

Then, after a few more speeches, it’s time for the graduates, some holding their caps in place against a brisk wind, to head across the stage to get their diplomas.

But even here, in the last act of these students’ academic career, the pandemic doesn’t let go. There’s no handshake with Abernathy. Just a quick elbow or fist bump.   

New school year brings hope

It’s now September 2021. Andre is gathering another class of freshmen into a warm classroom for their first First Year Seminar class.

“I’m super excited to be here and get this year started,” Andre begins. He pauses for a beat. You can’t see the smile on his face, thanks to his mask, but you can see it in his eyes. “Last year was weird, wasn’t it?”

Nearly everyone on campus would agree with that assessment.

“Last year, we didn’t know week to week if students would be here,” Abernathy told the Free Press an hour before Andre’s class kicked off. “This year feels way different, even if it might not be any different. There’s just an optimism. It feels like we can get back to giving students the experience we want to provide them.”

In his office, Abernathy has a Zoom set up that includes large screens featuring Alma’s logo that he stands in front of while talking. The increased familiarity in video call use helps in areas like soliciting alumni for donations.

“(COVID) has changed fundraising, probably forever,” he said. “Why we would send a gifts officer to California” when a Zoom into an alumni gathering is easier and cheaper?”

In the classroom, it’s still not clear what the long-term changes will be to learning — or if there will be classrooms anymore.

On this September 2021 day, Andre’s class is still clad in masks. Some are wearing the ubiquitous blue medical masks, while others don Alma-branded masks.

Andre quickly settles into his standard opening.

“This class is going to be different than others. This is going to be a little bit of everything. We’re not housed in one discipline.”

But just as quickly he acknowledges what students have been through in the past two school years.

“If there is a medical leave at some point or COVID shuts us down, I can log you in and you can still participate in discussions,” he tells the class. “We know how to do this.”

But other than that mention, the bulk of the class feels like it could have been taught in 2019, before the pandemic. Students interview each other for a get-to-know-you game, which somehow turns into a short discussion about whether students can keep a pet gecko in their dorm room. There’s some confusion about a book the students were supposed to read prior to arriving on campus. 

And then, the class is done. The students stand, gather backpacks and exit the room. They head down the hall, joining students from other classes heading down the stairs and on to whatever class, study group or dorm room hangout is next.

Just like students have been doing for decades at Alma. 

But with one major change — everyone has a mask on. But nobody notices. It’s simply the new normal, the way life now is at college.  

Lost experiences change students

As Kristin Olbertson’s class begins on this spring 2022 day, students file into the classroom in the Swanson Academic Center. A couple of students log on to the Microsoft Teams stream of the classroom. Those attending in-person, and Olbertson herself, wear masks. Doing so is optional on campus, but Olbertson asked her class to do so. Nobody really fidgets with their masks — wearing one has been a reality for nearly two full years.

A couple of minutes into the class, Olbertson breaks her students into small groups to discuss readings from “The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy” by journalist Anna Clark. They slide desks around in the small classroom to create little circles. Those attending by Zoom join a group via FaceTime.

None of this causes any raised eyebrows or disrupts class. After all, everyone involved has two years of practice.

That’s not to say they enjoy it or that it hasn’t changed the students. It also has changed one of those key selling points of why students should come to Alma.

Having one-on-one conversations over the course of several years really helps professors and students bond.

“You have the opportunity to know your students … to see them in their full personhood,” says Olbertson, who has been teaching at Alma for 16 years and says she loves being on a small college’s campus. She mentions hearing from students after graduation, of getting invites to weddings. For the bulk of her time at Alma, she was on campus all day, every day, with an open door. Students could — and often did — walk in anytime to discuss just about anything.

In the fall of 2018, she taught a class that included the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. She and her students pulled newspaper clippings from the time and learned what happened. In February 2020, as the novel coronavirus began to spread, Olbertson started telling her classes it could get really bad.

It did.

Fortunately, Olbertson and her students were several weeks into class by then and had established connections that helped as classes moved online.

The next school year —  the 2020-21 academic year — Olbertson was on a scheduled sabbatical to do research and was away from campus all year.

But when she returned to campus for the 2021-22 school year, she says she noticed campus life had changed, particularly the students.

“None of this has been easy, but they are still there,” she says. “I just want to remind them of what they have achieved. Students really benefit from clarity, structure, predictability. That isn’t what we have. We don’t know what is going to happen.

“They seem older to me in the sense that they’ve been through a lot. I think they are a little disenchanted.

“(Everyone) is tired of the pandemic and tired of talking about the pandemic.”

Will COVID-19 ever let go?

The band is playing as parents pack the stands of the Hogan Center. The graduates beam as they walk in — their bright smiles no longer hidden by masks.

“Welcome, Class of 2022, to your commencement ceremony,” Alma board chairman Eric Blackhurst says as the April ceremony begins. “We gather here today to honor you for your accomplishments over these past four years. What a pleasure it is to come together indoors again, to hear the sounds of applause as you cross the stage this afternoon echo through this building as we have for commencement ceremonies many years prior.”

But even as those assembled celebrate in a close-to-normal experience, COVID-19 reaches its hands back out to once again mix everything up.

The college’s president, Abernathy, isn’t there, having discovered earlier in the week that an individual he had close contact with had tested positive for the coronavirus, and, under the college’s rules, has to isolate, Blackhurst tells the crowd.

“We can’t get away from it, even today.”

This project was supported by the Spencer Education Reporting Fellowship at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, where David Jesse was a 2020-21 fellow. Jesse was named the Education Writers Association’s best education beat reporter in 2018 and was a 2019 and 2016 EWA reporting fellow. Contact him: Follow him on Twitter: @reporterdavidj. Subscribe to the Detroit Free Press.

This content was originally published here.

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