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The Show Must go on

Mavs are Safe Together, Strong Together

On New Year’s Eve, sometime before millions of Americans rang in the year 2020, the World Health Organization learned of a mysterious pneumonia outbreak in China. While most of us were making resolutions, the world as we knew it was changing. In the weeks that followed, quarantine and coronavirus became household terms and by March, campuses across the country, including Colorado Mesa University, were sending students home to finish the semester online.

When the pandemic reached the U.S., CMU student Angel Bautista, then in his junior year, understood parts of life were being paused, but he didn’t realize the severity of it.

“Being in the grind as a student-athlete, it felt nice to take a break from training, practicing and my rigorous schedule,” said Bautista.

As days passed, he started to feel disconnected and the reality of remote learning sank in.

“I quickly realized how much we value social interaction and how face-to-face conversations with people, the ability to discuss different topics, ask questions and connect with others, is what makes us human. It’s what gives life meaning.”

Bautista wasn’t alone. Student and parent surveys indicated that an overwhelming number of students not only preferred in-person classes, but seriously doubled-down on its foundational purpose and decided long before other colleges to reopen for in-person learning in fall 2020.

The challenge was there was no how-to guide for reopening a university campus amid a global health pandemic. So, CMU got to work. President Tim Foster appointed Vice President John Marshall and CMU Physician Assistant Program Director Amy Bronson, EdD, to pivot the COVID-19 task force from its reactionary crisis response efforts to a proactive, campus-wide working group with a singular purpose: safely reopen for in-person learning. Together with a team of faculty, staff and local health and medical experts, they built a plan from the ground up and the Safe Together, Strong Together (ST2) return to campus initiative was born.

“Higher education has long served as a critical voice in responding to history’s challenges and creating opportunities for humankind’s future,” said ST2 Co-Chair John Marshall. “Education is the way forward.”

While the road to reopen campus wasn’t easy, CMU leadership felt it was the best option — and not one they took lightly. Like many significant moments in life, the decision kept Foster up at night. He thought of students like Bautista — first-generation students aiming to change their family’s trajectory — and knew that if campus were to stay closed it would create a dangerous domino effect.

“Not providing students with the education they deserve very likely would lead to a delay or complete loss of job placement, lifetime earnings and overall wellness,” said Foster.

Not reopening campus could have had a disproportionately negative impact on two-thirds of CMU’s student body who are the first in their family to attend college, lower-income and/or minorities. Students just like Bautista.

“My grandpa didn’t get a college education and because of that they weren’t able to have anything setup for the future,” explained Bautista, whose 74-year-old grandfather still gets up every morning and goes to work in the fruit orchards of Palisade.

“When I was younger, I’d be helping him in the orchards and he would say to me, ‘Para tener éxito en su educación, se tiene que cuidar de si mismo. Es necesario aprovecharse de su mente para seguir adelante’.”

He told Bautista that he needed to continue his education; that it was his mind that would move the family forward.

Fortunately, the university wasn’t going to let COVID-19 get in the way of Bautista’s education or the other 10,000+ CMU students.

Like Mavericks often do,

they adapted.

Before the start of the fall semester, CMU held four tele town halls and weekly Facebook Live events updating CMU and the broader community. Residence Life created “family” units to slow the spread of the virus if an outbreak were to occur. Student Life held events every week to ensure students were connecting, socializing and engaging in healthy activities and to curb the house party culture that is often associated with university life. Dining on campus was also revised — food apps were created to assist with to-go orders and room capacity numbers were lowered.

CMU, which is known for having smaller class sizes, hired more professors and added more classes to the curriculum so students could learn in-person while abiding by social distancing guidelines. 

“The work done by CMU faculty adapting academics to sustain the highest standards in the face of difficulty has been remarkable. We will look back and see this time as a moment where challenge created innovation and opportunity, and new ways of delivering knowledge and skills to the next generation,” said Vice President for Academic Affairs Kurt Haas, PhD.

“Being in class right now is a blessing and the tone I’m getting from students, especially seniors, is whatever we have to do stay on campus, let’s do it. Whether it’s washing our hands before class, wiping down our desks, maintaining six feet of distance, anything it takes. We also care that incoming freshmen get the best four years of their education, and that means ensuring campus stays open.”

Mesa County Public Health and area hospitals continue to play a large role in advising CMU on the latest COVID-19 research. For months, the ST2 team has been testing, symptom checking, contact tracing and working to create a culture based

on social responsibility. 

“In times of chaos and disruption, we can choose to be frustrated with it or we can make room for innovation,” said ST2 Co-Chair Amy Bronson, EdD.

And innovate is what they’ve done.

Beyond providing masks, implementing social distancing requirements, installing sanitation equipment and temperature check stations throughout campus, the task force partnered with software developers to create Scout — a symptom monitoring tool that tracks physical health and helps halt the spread of the virus early on.

Arguably one of the most lofty, innovative collaborations of them all was the task force’s plan to test every student, staff and faculty member for COVID-19 before the start of the Fall 2020 semester.

To make it work, Colorado Mesa University partnered with COVIDCheck Colorado, where students across the state could get tested for COVID-19 before returning to campus. At the same time, CMU parking lots were turned into medical testing facilities with large white tents, traffic cones, computers, medical equipment and nursing students and staff who helped with testing.

“Watching our nursing students work the front lines of this pandemic was a good reminder of why we’re here and why we chose to be educators in the first place. I’m proud of our students for taking what they’ve learned in the classroom, adapting it and then applying it to this unprecedented real-world scenario. They saw first-hand how rewarding it is to contribute to society in a valuable, meaningful way,” said Director of Nursing Education Programs Lucy Graham, PhD, MPH, RN.

By October 9, more than 12,000 tests had been administered. CMU continues to test the CMU community for COVID-19 with random surveillance testing.

“All of us students are very thankful to be back on campus. Especially going into my senior year, it gave me hope knowing I was going to get to finish what I started,” said Bautista. “The gratitude we have for the team that got us here is unmeasurable.”

While the future of the world is unknown one thing is for sure and that’s CMU’s dedication to serving students. The Safe Together, Strong Together plan enforces the belief that higher education should continue in the face of adversity.

Despite all the uncertainties ahead, CMU firmly believes the show must go on. The year 2020 has proven to be the ultimate test, but Mavericks have shown that where there’s innovation, determination and a will, there’s a way.


Written by Kelsey Coleman