As of Monday, Oklahoma Christian University has now been a part of every phase of the COVID-19 pandemic response. In March of 2020 in-person classes were cancelled due to the pandemic. In August of 2020 on-campus testing began. Now in March of 2021 on-campus vaccinations have begun.
On March 12, The Talon sat down to talk about these three phases with President John deSteiguer; Jeff McCormack, Oklahoma Christian’s chief academic officer; and Risa Forrester, Oklahoma Christian’s director of communications.
The interview covered in depth what went into the initial response to the pandemic, bringing and keeping students on campus for the fall semester and the vaccination response to COVID-19.
Over the next three weeks, The Talon will be releasing a three-part story detailing the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic starting from the very beginning all the way to distributing the vaccines for the coronavirus.
Part 1: Initial Response
March 8 was the first university closure due to COVID-19: it was the University of Washington. So that was kind of an alert on how universities were going to be responding to this. It really became real for me here in Oklahoma City with that Thunder game.
I was sitting on my sofa at home, and I got a text from another colleague and he said, ‘they just canceled the Thunder game.’ My wife and I immediately went into the TV room and we turned on the television and went to CNN and we saw that things were starting to kind of ramp up.
The next day, I believe it was on Thursday, I think we were trying to get communication out on knowing that some students are imminently taking off and we were saying, ‘take all of your things.’
My first thought wasn’t so much about our students on campus, it was about our students in Vienna. Because I think President Trump pretty quickly came out saying ‘we’re gonna disallow travel from Europe,’ it was a very general statement. So I immediately thought, ‘OK, they’re not gonna let anybody — American citizens or others — come back from Europe. So how do we scramble and get and get our students back here? So that involved me texting John Osbourne and others, you know, quickly trying to figure out, OK, how do we make those things happen?
So John Osborne, he’s like a wizard at international relations and travel and making things work, so the first call was to John saying, ‘OK, you see this coming as well. We’ve got to bring everybody back as soon as possible.’ He immediately got on it. Within an hour, he texted me back and said, I have found flights to bring everybody back.
We also had students in Honduras at the time as well. They were our students but it wasn’t an OC sanctioned event. They actually had to stay a little bit longer because they actually started their online courses down in Honduras. But, praise God, they — and everybody else — were able to get home safely.
Once everyone was home we started having daily virtual meetings with leaders across campus on how we were going to host classes and what the experts were saying, really just continuing to follow the everchanging COVID-19 pandemic.
Very quickly, Dr. McCormack, who was not yet the chief academic officer, was really bringing the information to the floor about what we would need to do. So, Dr. McCormack quickly recommends that a COVID-19 readiness task force be put together with folks from across campus. That happened pretty quickly. And that group began meeting daily also.
I was also in communication with the other Church of Christ colleges and universities to find out kind of where they were and what they were doing. The biggest immediate change was how well academics quickly pivoted or moved into a mindset of ‘we got to be prepared for virtual classes if that’s the case.’
On another side, we began talking pretty quickly about what to do. If you tell all the students not to come back or to come back and get their stuff out of their rooms and that they are not going to live on campus? What do you do? I knew how important to the OC community having students living on campus here was. I knew that it was important from a spiritual, an academic and a community aspect. But then for the first time, I realized, ‘oh, wow, this is an important part of our budget as well.’
But an immediate decision was made and I mean, we didn’t really have to think about it at all and an immediate decision was made that we were going to refund students if they couldn’t come back. We would definitely refund whatever was left of their meal plans and their housing costs as well.
There’s a quote that I often think about that says, ‘In a moment of crisis, it reveals character.’ And the crisis that happened during the pandemic revealed the character of this institution. It revealed the character of the hard decisions made by the leadership, the character of our faculty to respond and be prepared to support the students and it will build the character of our student body as well.
One of our trustees is a medical professional and she reached out to us in early April late March and told us of some of her colleagues who were experts in other COVID like viruses. Viruses like COVID-19 tend to track along with the seasonal flu, which means when it’s high flu season, corona-like viruses are also high. So, she said that means December, January and February — or high flu months — those are probably going to be high months for the coronavirus as well.
So very quickly, we decided what we were going to do. A lot of schools were thinking about their calendars at the time, but we actually moved faster than anybody else I know. We made the decision that we were going to start the fall semester early so we can have it completely finished including exams before Thanksgiving — and then have a longer December and January break and then bring students back so we would miss two thirds of that high seasonal time.
So, I thought that was a great decision. I’m really glad that we made it. And then probably around the last week of July, the Oklahoma numbers are starting to go up again and I began thinking, ‘Oh, have we made a mistake?’
But then semester begins, and honest to goodness, sending everybody home before Thanksgiving, what an important decision that was. You saw the numbers that began to climb again after Thanksgiving because of the holidays. It’s like, ‘Oh, wow.’