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Virtual Town Hall explores community questions, Emory’s next steps

Questions about Emory’s ongoing work and future plans to navigate the “new normal” of a global pandemic were the focus of the university’s first virtual town hall on Friday, April 24 — an online event that drew more than 3,600 participants including faculty, staff and students.

The forum, held via Zoom, featured a panel of five university leaders. They spent an hour responding to pre-submitted questions concerning how Emory is managing the unprecedented demands presented by the coronavirus pandemic, including what has shaped its decision-making process, when students may return to campus and how Emory is weathering its financial impacts.

Emory President Claire E. Sterk opened the session by acknowledging her gratitude to students, faculty and staff members for swiftly adjusting to the modifications required to keep the community safe and secure during the onset of COVID-19.

“Thank you to everyone,” Sterk said. “I think it’s an understatement for me to say that our lives have changed so much over the course of the past six weeks or so as we’re all focused on preventing the spread of the coronavirus. None of this is easy.”

“Living without a sense of what is next just makes all of us uncomfortable,” she acknowledged. “Today we want to talk about how the leadership team is making and implementing important decisions for the university and also want to talk about some milestones moving forward.” 

Sterk expressed appreciation to community members for sharing their questions, which were grouped into broad themes, including student impacts, campus operations, health care issues, university finances and employment concerns. 

“I’m very proud of us as a community,” she said. “But I also know that there is a lot of pain and suffering that’s going on, a lot of insecurity, how hard it is to not know exactly where we are going.”

“All I can say is — and I hope you don’t hear these as empty words — that we’re in this together,” she said, urging those with questions and problems to take advantage of Emory people and resources.

While everyone wishes there were more answers, “we don’t want to fool each other,” Sterk said. “We don’t want to come up with answers until we know that those are answers we can live up to.”

“It’s very, very difficult to live in these times of insecurity,” she added. “So please, let’s stay together. Together, we can be strong.” 

Decision-making process

Recognizing that this is not “the spring semester that any of us were hoping to have,” Jan Love, interim provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, acknowledged the onset of COVID-19 has required Emory to “make some decisions that we have never made before, that we have never faced, and they were particularly challenging for all of us.”

First and foremost, those decisions were made to protect students, faculty and staff, she said, expressing gratitude for the community’s ability to maintain a strong bond. Love also addressed concerns that executive decisions may have been made too slowly or in a vacuum. “I just want to assure you that nothing could be further from the truth,” she said. 

Traditionally, Emory has employed a decentralized operating style and governance structure, allowing individual schools and units considerable freedom in decision-making, Love explained. One of the favorable consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, she said, “is that an incredible amount of collaboration and enhanced shared governance has been underway, to great effect.”

With leading schools of public health, medicine and nursing — and a robust health care system — resources from across the Emory enterprise have been called upon to help shape the path forward. In the face of uncertainties, “we are trying to be adaptable, to adjust to all the new things we encounter almost every day,” Love emphasized. 

“And we are always guided by trying to protect the most vulnerable members of our community,” she said. 

Fall semester plans

A decision has not yet been made with regard to reopening the campus and returning to in-person instruction for the fall semester, Love said. 

Reopening campus will not be a fast or easy choice, she cautioned. And when students do return, Emory will very likely be operating under “a new normal.” 

What that looks like will largely depend on public health and safety guidelines, which will inform decisions such as whether testing will be required before entering buildings; if classes should be staggered to accommodate new cleaning protocols; how quarantines will be handled in residence halls; if transportation and housing options should be expanded; if class sizes should be limited; and how continued social distancing requirements will work in the classroom.

“You can appreciate that there are so many unknowns with which we are coping and so many scenarios that we must imagine — even in the midst of uncertainty and lack of information,” Love acknowledged.

Fortunately, Emory serves as “one of the country’s leading collections of expertise in public health,” Love said. “So we have far more resources and capacities for making these judgements than many other schools.”

“We will, I promise you, explore every possible means of having a residential learning program in the fall,” she added. “We want to provide that only if we can do it in the safest possible way.”

Student impacts

Love also addressed concerns arising from a $1,000 stipend that was provided to Emory students most affected financially by the need to close residence halls and the transition to remote learning.

Due to an attempt to share information quickly — and software limitations — that support initially appeared as a credit for room and board. “This hurt a lot of students already facing some of the most difficult hardships they’ve ever encountered,” Love said.  “We deeply regret that the best of our intentions to help students actually hurt students.” 

To make amends, Emory apologized and added $1,000 to the accounts of affected students.

Love also spoke to student requests that Emory adopt a double-A grading system, which would provide every student with an A or A- at a teacher’s discretion. Under the university’s accrediting body, that system is not allowed, said Love, noting that the university has worked with schools to offer an optional satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading system for the spring semester.

Enku Gelaye, vice president and dean of Campus Life, discussed student requests that Emory give particular attention to the disproportionate impact some students may be experiencing during the pandemic. Gelaye noted that the EmoryTogether fund has to-date distributed nearly $2.2 million to both undergraduate and graduate students, emphasizing that support is still available. (For more information, visit Emory’s COVID-19 website.)

The university also continues to support nearly 300 students on campus who were unable to return home. That support will be offered through the summer, Gelaye said. She also urged students to take advantage of newly enhanced telehealth and tele-counseling services and to stay connected and engaged through Emory’s new virtual community hub.

Financial impacts                                           

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a global recession unlike any other — one that will likely last for months to come, acknowledged Chris Augostini, executive vice president for business affairs.

In response, the university has already implemented cost-saving strategies to ensure there is adequate money to operate the university and preserve employment. “For many in the audience today, I know that keeping your job and preserving your income is most important to you and your families,” Augostini said. “We have to be honest about the reality that there could be some difficult decisions that may need to be made in the future.” 

“Our sincere hope is that we can keep the impact on our staff and our faculty to a minimum,” he said. “The university is doing everything it can to mitigate the financial impact of this virus by cutting discretionary spending everywhere possible.”

With regard to employment, future decisions will depend upon how and when operations can again resume and students and researchers can safety return to campus — factors that remain under assessment, Augostini said.

If reductions affecting employment or compensation become necessary, “they will be done in a fair and equitable manner that considers the impact on our lowest-paid employees to the greatest extent possible,” he said.

While Emory is fortunate to have built a strong endowment, it exists to provide a steady flow of funding for current operations and to preserve purchasing power for future generations. To use that money now, “could be taking money away from the faculty and the students, which would not only be detrimental now, but would jeopardize our future,” he said. 

Augostini acknowledged that there are various sources of COVID-19 financial relief available to serve Emory’s academic, research and health care missions, including government grants, FEMA assistance, insurance proceeds and tax credits. At the moment, most are targeted toward much-needed health care assistance, he noted.

Early in the crisis, Emory decided to provide emergency funds for students in need. Since then, funds have been made available in the recent federal stimulus bill to help universities committed to helping students in need. Emory is exploring if the university will be able to accept those funds.

Health care issues 

While physicians and researchers continue to advance their understanding and treatment of the virus, “it’s clear that our definition of ‘normal’ will not be the same,” said Jonathan S. Lewin, executive vice president for health affairs. 

“It’s critically important that we all recognize that we’re not returning to a pre-COVID-19 normal, rather we’re advancing into a world of living with COVID-19 until the necessary vaccines and cures exist,” he said. 

As states including Georgia begin a phased reopening, “we have to realize that succeeding in this new normal requires the collective and measure efforts of all of us,” Lewin explained. “We still have a lot to learn about this version of the coronavirus.” 

Until then, he urged community members to continue doing their part in helping to control the pandemic by staying home as much as possible — especially when sick — and maintaining strict social distancing, wearing masks and handwashing. “We’re counting on all of you,” he said. 

A diagnostic antibody blood test developed by the Emory Vaccine Center to identify antibody responses in those who’ve already had COVID-19 exposure shows promise and has been made available on a volunteer basis to everyone who works within clinical or non-clinical Emory health care facilities; testing may be expanded more broadly later this spring with the help of a $3 million grant from the Marcus Foundation, he noted. 

To continue slowing the spread of the virus, access to Emory hospitals will continue to be restricted to essential personnel. Care is also being exercised in re-opening clinical and laboratory research, Lewin said. More information will be released as safety protocols are fully developed. 

He also expressed gratitude for personal protective equipment (PPE) donations provided by the community, noting drive-through donations are still being accepted at 1599 Clifton Road. “We’re using our supplies very carefully,” he said. “Right now, Emory Healthcare has sufficient PPE to serve us well, even if we have another surge. But we’re not out of the woods and we have to continue to use our resources carefully.”

A recorded version of the town hall can be found here.

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