St. Thomas of Villanova Church

Courtesy of Emily Cox

The past seven days have been a whirlwind for students, faculty, administration and parents across the nation with the rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus, popularly referred to as the coronavirus. In December 2019, a pneumonia outbreak was reported in Wuhan, China. On Dec. 31, 2019, the outbreak was traced to a novel strain of coronavirus, which was given the interim name 2019-nCoV by the World Health Organization (WHO) and later renamed SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. 

Over the past week, University students, faculty, administration, parents and alumni have faced the uncertainty of this pandemic, along with others around the world. Government decisions and administrative choices have left students and faculty in a state of upheaval, with preventive measures looking to curb the spreading of the novel coronavirus. 

As of March 16, 2020, there have been at least 6,705 confirmed deaths and more than 174,893 confirmed cases of the coronavirus pneumonia pandemic. More than 162 countries and territories have been affected so far. 

On Jan. 31, students received an email from Provost Patrick G. Maggitti, PhD, Rev. John Stack, OSA, Vice President for Student Life and Dr. Mary McGonigle, Director of the Student Health Center concerning the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China. The email reassured students of the University's close monitoring of the situation and included travel warnings from the State Department, information about coronaviruses, and health recommendations for students feeling unwell. 

At the time of the email, students were told that “the risk of the novel coronavirus to the Villanova community is low” as “currently, there are no confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Pennsylvania or at Villanova.” While true at the time, the Villanova community later learned that this was merely a developing situation. 

On Feb. 26, students received a second email from Provost Maggitti, PhD. He reminded students that the University was closely monitoring “the evolving situation related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) in order to evaluate the outbreak’s impact on our programs overseas,  other University international travel and operations here on campus,” emphasizing the overall importance of the health and safety of community members. 

At this point in late February, the outbreak was still determined to be an epidemic affecting more than 40 countries worldwide. On Feb. 25, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) alerted Americans to prepare for the possibility of disruptions to daily life, suggesting that businesses, schools and families plan for its potential impact. 

Maggitti’s email also announced the decision to bring home students who were studying abroad in Italy for the semester. 

“Given the rapid increase in the number of confirmed cases in Northern Italy, we have made the decision to bring home our students who are abroad in Italy,” Maggitti said. “The University is in close contact with other study abroad programs in which Villanova students are participating and will determine appropriate responses to additional disruptions caused by the coronavirus.”

In the same email, University members were notified of an emergency preparedness team that had been created by the school, consisting of leaders from across campus who would be meeting regularly to review information from outside experts to assess how the virus may affect campus and students overseas. 

One student, Alexis Norcross ’21 was abroad in Rome at the time of the decision to have all University students in Italy return home. “The whole situation of being pulled from our semester abroad in Italy happened really quickly — it evolved from a completely settled routine to chaos within a matter of days,” Norcross said.

“I was absolutely devastated when I heard the news that Italy had been adjusted to Level 3 because I immediately knew that it meant that we were all going back to the States,” Norcross explained. “Once Italy was at Level 3 and coming home was no longer optional, but mandatory, Villanova (particularly the Office of Education Abroad) honestly handled it all really well — especially compared to other universities that were part of my program. Villanova offered us free on campus housing for the remainder of the semester (after our quarantine, of course), the ability to take up to 18 VU online credits between now and then end of the summer and handled the uncharted waters that is the coronavirus with professional flexibility.”

On March 4, Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, President of the University emailed members of the community with an update on the coronavirus. Received on the Wednesday of spring break for students, Father Peter’s email offered the community an update regarding the virus and preventative measures the University would take to protect the health and safety of students and faculty upon the return to campus. 

“As you are aware, the coronavirus continues to spread rapidly across the world, with approximately 77 countries now affected,” Father Peter said. “In the US, there are a number of states with confirmed COVID-19 cases. We are working closely with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and our local county health department, and we are continually monitoring updates from the CDC and WHO.”

The email received on March 4 notified the community that “students studying abroad in Italy have returned home and were instructed not to return to campus for 14 days as they monitor themselves for symptoms of COVID-19.” The University also issued instructions for all students, faculty or staff who had traveled to a CDC Level 2 or Level 3 country (as of March 4: Japan, Italy, China, Iran and South Korea) in the past two weeks.

 The instructions advised for a 14-day period to self-monitor before returning to campus, calling the Student Health Center to review recent travel history, to receive guidance about self-monitoring and possibly returning to campus and to understand precautions and actions to take if certain symptoms, like a mild cough or low-grade fever of 100.4°F develop.

Father Peter’s email also included on-campus health and safety precautions for students and faculty. The measures included the University’s proactive plans of refilling of all hand sanitizer stations on campus, the disinfection of all common areas in academic buildings and dining and residence halls as well as the relocation of bathroom trash cans by doors. Along with the steps taken by the University, students were notified of steps to take to reduce the risk of spreading respiratory viruses. 

On the Friday of spring break, March 6, Craig Wheeland, PhD, Vice Provost for Academics, sent members of the University community an additional email related to the coronavirus. The email encouraged students to contact the Student Health Center and faculty and staff to contact their primary care providers if they were feeling ill. 

Wheeland stated that any student who is “required to comply with the 14-day self-monitoring period at home before returning to campus or is diagnosed with COVID-19” would be allowed to be absent from class and that would count as an excused absence. 

He then reiterated Father Peter’s statement in the previous email, saying, “Please know we are doing everything we can at Villanova to protect the health and well-being of our community members here on campus and abroad, and we urge you to do your part as well.”

Most students returned to campus on Sunday, March 8 as classes resumed the following Monday. Many had friends at other schools nationwide who were beginning to hear word from other schools and universities that were beginning to switch to online classes and force students out of dorms in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

Villanovans felt anxious in beginning classes again, as cases in Pennsylvania began to return positive for the virus. Without word from the University since the previous Friday, many students wondered when the next email would come from the administration.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, March 11, students and parents received the email from Father Peter with highly anticipated information regarding the future of the spring semester. Upon reiterating that as of then, the University had no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on campus, he announced, “Beginning on Monday, March 16, 2020, all in-person classes will be suspended, and classes will be taught solely online.” 

“Students may return home if they choose to do so. The University will remain open and employees are expected to report to work. We take these measures out of an abundance of caution in order to safeguard the well-being of our students, faculty and staff,” Father Peter added. 

“We will continue to monitor and evaluate the situation, and will decide no later than Friday, April 3, whether to resume in-person classes,” he said. “If we were to resume, it would be following the Easter break on Tuesday, April 14.”  

Father Peter’s March 11 email also announced the cancelation of University and College events, beginning Saturday March 14 through at least April 14, as well as the suspension of University-related international travel.

This announcement came with the additional comment that the University would remain “open and operational.” University services — including residence halls, dining facilities, academic support services, the Student Health Center, the University Counseling Center and Falvey Library — were to remain open.

On Thursday, March 12, NCAA President Mark Emmert and the Board of Governors canceled the Division I men’s and women’s 2020 basketball tournaments, as well as remaining winter and spring NCAA championships, according to Stacey Osburn, NCAA Director of Communications. 

The decision from the NCAA was based on “the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, [their] ability to ensure the events do not contribute to the spread of the pandemic and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given decisions by other entities.”

University baseball player Christopher Rotondo was named Big East Baseball Player of the Week on Monday, March 9. He reflected on the devastating news from NCAA President Emmert and how it affected his team. 

“When the news broke of our season being cancelled, we were actually just ending a practice and preparing for a game the next day,” Rotondo said. “It was heartbreaking because you work so hard to get ready for the season and to get it taken away, in this fashion, is hard to cope with. On top of it all, Villanova baseball was turning around the years of the past, and we were looking much more competitive. With the seniors leaving baseball this way, it’s like a piece of your family being taken away much too early.”

On Thursday evening, Governor Tom Wolf ordered the closure of all schools, universities, gyms, entertainment venues, and community centers outside of Philadelphia to begin on Friday. These preventative measures were set in place to curtail the spread of the novel coronavirus on Montgomery County after it became one of the epicenters for COVID-19 cases in Pennsylvania. That evening, Wolf also asked non-essential retail stores to close. 

With this announcement reaching students, many Villanovans thought it was inevitable for the University to announce closures in-line with Wolf’s orders. 

At approximately 4:04 p.m. on Friday, March 13, all students received an email from Father Peter. “All students are required to leave campus by this Sunday, March 15,” he said. This decision came as the result of Governor Wolf’s announcement to shut down all Pennsylvania schools for two weeks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

Given the short time frame due to the Governor’s decision, students were allowed to leave items in their dorm rooms, with the possibility of a return to campus later this spring. If necessary, Father Peter mentioned arrangements would be made at a later date for students to retrieve their belongings from their residence halls. The University understood that international and other students may not have been able to leave campus as quickly and needed housing assistance for the time. Arrangements were made to let a select few remain in the dorms.

The Villas at Bryn Mawr, one of the numerous off-campus housing options for students in the area, offered local students affordable housing options. Per its Instagram account, The Villas at Bryn Mawr began making immediate, same-day move-in apartments available to those impacted by the University’s sudden closure. No application fees would be charged, and lease terms would be flexible during this housing crisis. 

“As a University, we acknowledge that there are still many details to be worked out and many questions that you may have,” Father Peter said in his email on Friday. “We are grateful for your patience as we look to provide additional information in the coming days. At the moment, our current focus is on the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff.” 

“The University is dedicated to meeting the needs of our community in what is an extraordinary moment in our history as we face this rapidly evolving public health crisis. I deeply appreciate how many Villanovans—faculty, staff, students, families, alumni and friends—have responded in the Augustinian spirit of partnership and understanding, motivated by the same purpose: to protect the well-being of those in our community,” Father Peter said.

Although many students understand that the decision for campus to close was prompted more by the Pennsylvania government rather than the administration, many were still unsettled by the short amount of time to pack up essential items without a tentative date on when they may be able to return to campus. 

“I think the uncertainty is what is making me the most nervous,” junior Victoria Schmidt said. “To have a change of notice within 48 hours definitely altered many things for me. It also made me realize that the information the school is giving us can automatically be rescinded due to outside factors.”

Another student, junior Nicole Conte, echoed Schmidt’s sentiments regarding the chaos in the short time students had to move personal belongings out of dorms. 

“I have never been more stressed than when I received the email that I needed to be gone by Sunday,” Conte said. “I had to call and reserve a storage unit, move my whole life out in 24 hours and pay $600 to go home.” 

The Pennsylvania Department of Health said that as of Sunday, March 15, there are now 16 additional positive cases of COVID-19 in the state, bringing the state total number of cases up to 63. “It’s imperative that all of us, Pennsylvanians, stay calm, stay home, stay safe,” Governor Wolf said Saturday afternoon. 

Father Peter sent an email to members of the community on the morning of Monday, March 16. He detailed his solemn walk through the barren campus. “As I walked through an empty campus that prides itself on community — what do we do when we cannot be with our community,” he prompted. 

He addressed the various emotional stories he has heard over the past few days and concerns from students and parents asking what is best for the community at the moment. He even shared questions he has received, especially regarding Commencement, returning to campus, summer programs and a return to normalcy. 

Father Peter remained honest; he does not have all of the answers right now. “As we have experienced, this is a constantly changing situation and there are many questions about what lies ahead,” he said. 

“I promise you that we will make decisions in the best interest of the community and continue to keep you informed. I do know one thing — that when things are good, this community is really good.”

His email went on to address his gratitude to various members of the community. He thanked administrators, staff and health care professionals for guidance and their tireless efforts to monitor this health crisis and develop plans to safeguard the community. 

He thanked faculty for their concern and flexibility in continuing to meet and honor the educational mission of the University. Father Peter continued to thank University staff, who he described as “the backbone of Villanova — the people Villanova depends on day in and day out.” 

Addressing students and families, he expressed his deepest understanding that many have given time, energy and talent to group learning experiences, research endeavors, service and fundraising events, performances, athletics and many other activities. In expressing his deepest condolences in the cancellation of many of the events, “I wish I could have prevented this for you,” Father Peter said. 

Many seniors have expressed sadness as their senior year has been cut short. “I’m so upset that I have been robbed of my senior year, but it is a scarier thought that this virus is very real and affecting so many,” senior Becca Riedel mentioned. 

Several universities nationwide, including the University of Michigan and the University of California, Irvine, have cancelled graduation ceremonies in May and June in precautions against spreading the novel coronavirus.

“I promise that we will find a way to recognize your hard work and celebrate your accomplishments,” Father Peter said in addressing University seniors and graduates. “You will not leave Villanova without fanfare - whatever that may be,” he promised. 

Father Peter concluded with a call to be thankful that the community is in this journey together. He mentioned seeing selflessness in the deeds of others over the past week, and he also noted his view of Augustinian values put into action. 

“In times such as these, I am proud to be a Villanovan,” he said. 

“Let us lift each other up to God in prayer that we and our families will be safe,” Father Peter offered in prayer. “We will figure it out together. And together, we will be stronger for it as we move forward to become what we are not yet,” echoing the call of St. Augustine.

The CDC and WHO have emphasized that everyone can do his or her part in responding to this emerging public health threat and reducing the impact of this pandemic. Along with social distancing in public and self-quarantining at home to watch for symptoms, all people can continue to reduce the risk of spreading respiratory viruses, like COVID-19, by:

·       Washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

·       Using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol if soap and water are not available.

·       Avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

·       Avoiding close contact with anyone who is sick.

·       Covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.

·       Not sharing any food, drinks, cups, utensils, etc.

·       Staying home and not having contact with others if you are sick.