Generations of Franklin & Marshall alumni recognize the scene—a warm, sunny day in early April on Hartman Green. Flowers in bloom, budding trees, the smell of freshly cut grass. Studying or chatting with friends sitting in the blue Adirondack chairs, perhaps with someone playing music. Throwing a Frisbee or a football, maybe playing with a friend’s dog.
The collective memory of that moment is what made a late-morning walk through the heart of campus on a Sunday in April so stark. Hartman Green was bathed warm sunshine, buds were on the trees and the flowers were in full bloom—but there were no people to be seen. You could only could hear the birds singing, and even the sounds of squirrels as they scurried up and down the tree trunks.
Like thousands of other U.S. colleges and universities, F&M faced a dizzying two weeks in early to mid-March due to the unfolding global coronavirus pandemic. In a matter of days, the College went from its typical close, personal instructional model and a campus centered around residential life to a new world of online instruction. On March 18, President Barbara K. Altmann made the announcement that the College would complete the semester with online instruction and reduce to a minimum the population staying on campus.
“We all know how much is lost when our students, faculty, and professional staff colleagues cannot engage side-by-side in the rich process of holistic education, and I was loath to let that go while there was a chance that we could regroup and finish together,” President Altmann wrote in a message to the F&M community. “In the last few days, however, new guidelines from the State of Pennsylvania and from the federal government have restricted how we can meet and what we can do, and limited the commercial and social opportunities in our larger environment.
“We’ll get through this with F&M values, intelligence and hard work,” the president said. “If we rise to the challenge and break the mold of the everyday, we may find new modes of learning and teaching, collaboration and cooperation, flexibility and creation, that push us even closer to the realization of everything that is best about F&M.”
The unprecedented spring semester saw the College’s cultural and athletic events canceled and F&M’s Commencement postponed until December. Faculty, barred by Gov. Tom Wolf’s order from coming to campus, taught classes from their homes. Most of F&M’s administrative employees worked from home to keep the College running. The 200 students remaining on campus were consolidated into just a few buildings on the Fry Residential Quadrangle, with everyone having a single room. The Student Life staff rotated responsibilities in an arrangement known as “Dean for a Day.”
Usually a hub of activity, the Kreisel Innovation Zone and the Information Technology Services Help Desk in Harris Hall sat empty. The ITS staff, after a feverish few days of assisting professors in converting all courses to an online environment, “virtually staffed” the help desk after spring break, responding to email requests or phone messages. Another gathering place, the Mail Room in Steinman Center, was only open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, with an additional three hours on Wednesdays for package pickup only. Customers had to call in advance to arrange a Wednesday time so the building could be opened.
The College’s warehouse on Harrisburg Avenue was only open two days a week. Only the main dining hall in Ben Franklin remained open for meals, and those were strictly for take-out. The Blueline Café and Steinman Grill were closed.
But even for those who spent time on campus, the routine and tasks changed significantly. Members of the Facilities and Operations staff saw their time on campus reduced; custodial crews worked Monday, Wednesday and Friday; those in trades worked on an as-needed basis, mostly to support and maintain the areas used by students.
“Facilities work doesn’t stop, even in this pandemic,” noted Mike Wetzel, associate vice president for facilities management and campus planning. “I’m still reporting to work on a daily basis, but what’s striking when I’m here are the empty buildings, parking lots and sidewalks. It certainly isn’t typical of this campus in early April. But we still need to keep a daily, vigilant eye on all the buildings and grounds to be certain that when things return to ‘business as usual,’ everything in is proper working order.”
Those impressions were shared by Bill McHale, F&M’s associate vice president of public safety. “The Department of Public Safety is the only department required to be on campus 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” he said. “We continue to make our rounds and fulfill our duties, but walking across campus now is an eerie feeling. This is a pretty active place, even during the summer with various groups and camps being here. Now it’s very empty. In one way, that’s good, because it indicates the community is following the suggested guidelines for preventing COVID-19’s spread, but it’s still a strange sight.”
“From a law-enforcement perspective, it’s also a different environment,” he added. “During most crises, officers are dealing with large groups and trying to plan for either moving those groups or monitoring those groups for inappropriate behavior. This pandemic is a situation that has changed those rules. We’re all looking forward to the time when we can transition to a more natural routine and be part of an active campus again.”
“We’ll get through this with F&M values, intelligence and hard work.”
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