Profiling COVID-19 at Notre Dame

Author: Scholastic Staff

Screen Shot 2020 03 26 At 11"

Ellie Buerk, class of 2020

On Jan. 11, China reported the first known death caused by coronavirus (COVID-19). Around the same time, Notre Dame officials from two leadership teams  — the Emergency Policy Committee and Emergency Operations Center (EOC) management team — began meeting to discuss the rapidly developing pandemic, according to University Chief Spokesman Dennis Brown. 

By Jan. 21, the United States had confirmed its first case of the virus. On Jan. 31, the same day the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency, the Notre Dame community received its first communication from the university about the virus. 

Just under a month later, the 106 Notre Dame students studying abroad in Rome received word that they were coming home.

“The Policy Committee and the EOC met daily the week of Feb. 24, monitoring the situation in Italy and discussing various alternatives,” Brown said. 

When at around 5 p.m. on Feb. 28, the Center for Disease Control raised its travel advisory warning for Italy to level three, University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. as well as the Emergency Policy Committee, “immediately” decided to fly the Notre Dame students in Italy back to the United States. “The students were informed around 7:30 p.m. EST, 12:30 a.m. in Rome,” said Brown.

“Many people worked late into the night to make that happen as quickly and safely as possible,” Brown said. He offered special credit to the staff in Rome, at Notre Dame International and at Anthony Travel.  

The next day, Feb. 29, the first death from coronavirus in the U.S. was reported. Just a few weeks later, on March 11, as travel restrictions blocking visitors from Europe went into place, the Policy Committee and Jenkins decided to suspend in-person classes until at least April 13. At this point, the remainder of Notre Dame’s study abroad programs were also suspended. 

Brown said that “as is the case in many circumstances,” Notre Dame administrators had conversations with administrators from other universities about this decision. 

Brown also said administrators were motivated by “the desire to do whatever the university could to limit community spread.” The decision was applauded by Dr. Mark Fox, deputy director of the St. Joseph County Health Department, who said, “If all those students came back to (Notre Dame) from traveling domestically or internationally, the risks of what they import become a challenge for the county.” 

On March 13, two days after the decision to suspend in-person classes was made, President Trump declared a national emergency. On March 18, the decision to extend the suspension of in-person classes was expanded to the remainder of the semester. Brown said, “It had, of course, been under consideration from the start.” 

While no decision has been made as of yet concerning the 2020 commencement ceremonies, according to Brown, “Jenkins and others have been in communication with the officers of the class of 2020.”  

In the meantime, since the initial decision to suspend in-person classes on March 11, university administrators have been shipping students’ belongings to their homes. “Some 140 volunteers packed essential belongings for 1,700 student over the course of three days,” Brown said. 

Additionally, Building Services, a department which has “always maintain[ed] a clean environment in residence halls and all buildings on campus,” has increased “the work of cleaning and disinfecting in the last couple months and will continue for the foreseeable future,” said Brown.

In Notre Dame’s history, there have, according to Brown, only been two events comparable to the coronavirus pandemic on campus: the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and when the U.S. Navy’s V-7 program took over the campus during World War II. 

In order to catalog the living history of Notre Dame at this point in time, Scholastic asked a number of students, both on and off staff, to write about their experiences over the past few weeks. What follows is a series of vignettes, offering a glimpse into what COVID-19 and the policies that have arisen in response to its spread look like on the ground for students.

Leaving Rome

Emma Ferdinandi, class of 2021

Everyone says it: study abroad is a life-changing experience.

As someone who sees the future as a terrifying uncertainty instead of a time of endless possibilities, I went into my semester abroad in Rome with the hope that I would gain the experience and clarity I needed to figure out what to do with my life. Instead, I got just enough time to discover my favorite gelato shops, fall in love with the city and get sent home for 14 days of self-quarantine. 

My program, Rome International Scholars, is a cultural immersion and independent research program in which the students live with a Roman family, work at internships and take classes at local universities. 

Now, it is difficult to be immersed in Roman culture, as my schooling is online in California. 

My internship at the American Academy in Rome, which was supposed to last through the summer, gave me insight into the world of graduate school, archeology and archival work. There, I was not only educated but mentored, working with scholars to handle material evidence such as Etruscan vases and ancient Roman oil lamps and sorting through rare books. It was a dream job, and it was giving me that much-needed clarity and experience I was searching for. 

Now, I am remotely transcribing audio files for the Academy, while I frantically apply to any summer internship still accepting applications.  

Notre Dame has done a great job ensuring continuity in my academics and making sure I have enough homework to keep me occupied during my quarantine. But where do I turn for experience and clarity now? Will I get a summer internship to replace the amazing one I was supposed to have? The consequences of ending study abroad programs reach much further than academics. 

My joy about the semester has turned to ambivalence and conflict. I’m thrilled I got back home before they shut down Rome and am devastated I had to leave so soon. I’m frustrated even the healthy have to stay inside and feel guilty that I could have such selfish thoughts. I’m worried about my grandparents, the economy and the world. The consequences of COVID-19 reach much further than cancelled time abroad.  

This semester is certainly shaping out to be life-changing — just not in the way anyone wanted it to be. 

Leaving London: A Reflection on Uncertainty and Hope for the Future

Daphne Saloomey, class of 2021

What made things so difficult was the element of surprise. Everyone in the London program harbored fears that we would be sent home. We all knew it was a matter of when, not if. 

But March 11 seemed like such a normal day. My friend and I had taken a day trip to Brighton, a city on the southern coast of England. We had the perfect experience, wandering the streets, shopping and exploring the pier. 

It was when we stopped to get tea for the train ride home that we saw the email from Father Jenkins. With a single paragraph, our hopes for the rest of the semester vanished. 

It didn’t feel real. 

Just earlier in the day, we had envisioned remaining in London for the duration of the semester. How foolish that seemed now. 

We frantically refreshed our inboxes, hoping to get more details from our program coordinators, to no avail. While, of course, that information eventually came, for a pocket of time, we were immersed in complete uncertainty. 

The walk to the train station was miserable. The city, which moments ago had seemed bright and vibrant, now served only as a cruel reminder that we’d no longer have the chance to explore anything else. 

From that moment onward, the end of my experience abroad was a blur of packing, shipping my textbooks home and trying to clean my flat. 

So far, I’ve spent my short time at home processing what I couldn’t process then. My time in London is over, and I’ll never get my promised two more months back. 

The beginning of the end of my abroad experience started with surprise, and while it wasn’t necessarily a good one, I am still hoping the future holds more positive surprises for me. 

Specifically, I hope to be surprised by the silver linings I can uncover in this reality. A remote semester means I’ll have more quality time with my family than I have had since high school. I’ll get to live in my hometown again, and have more independent time to work on myself as a person. 

I will always cherish the amount of time I got in London. But at this point, I just want to continue moving forward.

Scotland Spotlight: COVID-19 Fears Abroad

Mackenzie Sheil, class of 2021

I’ll preface this by saying that, despite my lifelong dream of studying abroad, my experience was not at all what I hoped it would be. 

When I arrived at the University of St. Andrews this past January, I was full of hope. I felt like a freshman in college again. The first couple of weeks were incredibly stressful, filled with the anxiety of adjusting to a new educational system, new dorm life and new culture. Eight other students from Notre Dame also went to St. Andrews, but living in a dorm without them made it clear that I had to make the transition alone.

When the news of COVID-19 first hit Europe, I was concerned, but I wrote it off, thinking it would quickly fade from the headlines. Given that I worry about everything, though, my mind launched into an endless stream of hypotheticals. What if it spread to Scotland? What if I got sick and couldn’t go home? As someone who struggles with anxiety, I began to feel like the program was detrimental to my mental health. 

The news of the Rome program being suspended made everything feel all too real. I was convinced that I would be sent home — I just wasn’t sure when. From that moment on, I was living in a world of total uncertainty, and as someone who needs to feel in control at all times, I was supremely uncomfortable. I felt stranded. I couldn’t make travel plans, because I feared I would have to cancel them; I struggled to embrace friendships, because I felt I would be leaving soon anyway. I felt guilty for hoping that I would be sent home, but I knew that my anxiety was consuming my experience.

The day study abroad emailed us that we would be sent home, I felt so many emotions, but I couldn’t process any of them. I went through the next couple of days completely numb. Now that I’m home in Florida, I still feel numb. With the situation in the United States, though, I have to keep things in perspective and realize that the virus has severe implications for all of us. My experience, while messy and surreal, has given me an even greater appreciation for Notre Dame, and I cannot wait to be back on campus. 

Spring Break 2020

Melissa Fenner, class of 2020

On March 6, I got on a flight to Athens, Greece to visit my boyfriend studying abroad. On the fight, I carried disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, cleaning everything regularly. Visiting was pretty normal for the first couple of days: no one was particularly concerned about COVID-19, and we went out to eat and drink at local hot spots with friends without any worries. On Wednesday, we considered going to Aegina, one of the Greek islands for a few days. Ultimately, we flipped a coin: heads to go, tails to stay. Three hours later we were getting on a ferry to Aegina. 

At 3:30 a.m. that night, my phone started blowing up — President Trump  had just announced the travel ban on Europe, and friends and family were calling over and over again telling me to get out. The president’s message appeared to be that no traveler would be able to enter the United States after Friday, March 13 at midnight EDT — it wasn’t clear until several hours after I booked a new flight that this ban would not apply to me, a U.S. Citizen. Despite our plans to explore Aegina, we got on the next ferry back to Athens. I immediately packed a bag and left for the airport — three days earlier than originally planned. 

During a miserable eight-hour overnight layover in Istanbul, Turkey, and while slumped on a couch at a closed airport coffee shop, I watched as nearly every flight out of the airport was canceled. Thankfully my flight remained as scheduled, and after several hours of delay, I was homeward bound. Once at JFK, I was able to find flights home to New Mexico, where my mom left a car for me at the airport to drive home to my 14 days of isolation while she stayed with family. Since then, my boyfriend has been evacuated from Greece, I’ve become an expert at cooking with canned goods, the rest of my senior year has been effectively cancelled and I hold on to the hope that graduation won’t be taken by COVID-19 too. 

International Students: Far From Home

Adriana Perez, class of 2022

"It has been an overwhelming ride," Camila Antelo texted me. She is a sophomore originally from Cochabamba, Bolivia. 

I had asked her how the past few weeks had been for her, and her thoughts seemed to mirror mine.

When the university first announced that in-person classes were suspended until at least April 13, she was in the middle of a road trip through the Northwest. They had stopped in Nevada.

Before making it to Las Vegas, she had visited national parks in South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah and Arizona. I had been following her trip through her Instagram stories, full of beautiful pictures and videos of breathtaking landscapes.

"I decided not to leave,” Antelo told me. “The recommendation was: if you are in the U.S., don't leave."

I understood her decision. With that first email had also come the fear that if classes resumed after April 13 and I had gone back to my home country of Ecuador, travel restrictions would not let me return to the United States.

She said that she returned to South Bend and had been staying with some friends, "at least until April 3, when they let us know if this is more permanent or not, and also, I had faith."

I had faith too, so I extended my stay at my friend’s house in Washington, D.C. for what I hoped would only be a month.

On March 18, however, we got a second email from Fr. Jenkins, which extended distance learning and the suspension of in-person classes at the university to the end of the semester.

“I had eight hours to choose because either I jumped into that last plane or the choice was already made,” Antelo told me. 

For many, decision-making in the last few weeks has felt similarly rushed. For international students, closing borders and canceled flights have represented additional obstacles when they are already facing complicated, hurried decisions.

By the time I had gotten the email, flights into Ecuador had already been canceled until at least April 5, a deadline that will likely be extended as the cases within the country dangerously climb toward 1,000.

Antelo made it home right as "they shut down all international flights in and out [of Bolivia]” for the coming weeks. She is now quarantined in a house that her family just moved into.

“The truth is, I don't know if it was the best decision, coming back,” she admitted to me. “I had no time to analyze it and I am afraid about whether or not I will be able to return for my [summer] internship. I hope it doesn’t last more than a month.”

“But I felt the pressure to come home and see that my family is okay,” she added.

From my personal experience, staying in the U.S. does not necessarily inspire confidence either: Significant uncertainty still lingers regarding whether going back home will be a possibility in the near future.

Even from Bolivia, Antelo echoed this, saying that she feels overwhelmed by “the uncertainty around the situation” and not knowing “what the foreseeable future may hold.”

Illness and COVID-19

Monica Mesecar, Class of 2021

Like many of you, when the presence of COVID-19 started to disrupt my life, I was frustrated and disappointed. However, that frustration and disappointment quickly turned into acceptance of a new reality that I realized was absolutely necessary. No, it wasn’t a matter of the administration trying to ruin our fun once again. They were not overreacting. This was a matter of public health, and continuing on with a business-as-usual attitude would be ignorant, irresponsible and, quite frankly, dangerous. 

At first, I didn’t consider myself a part of the supposed “high-risk populations,” but I came to realize I was actually mistaken. While I am not immunocompromised (to my knowledge), I have a physical disability — Cerebral Palsy. This disability affects my balance, gait and endurance. As a result, I need to use a wheelchair while I’m on campus. Using the wheelchair has likely diminished my lung capacity and has caused many of my muscles to atrophy. This has exacerbated the challenges I face when trying to walk independently and care for myself outside of the wheelchair. 

I have had bronchitis three times (one of these cases was at Notre Dame), and each time it has wreaked havoc on my body. The coughing and difficulty breathing further weakened me, to the point where I could not care for myself. Each time, I was more or less confined to my bed for a week and dependent on my family for assistance. Even after I was healed, it took me another week to gain my full strength back. This was the case even with the help of modern medicine. 

If I got COVID-19, its impact on me would be even more serious than bronchitis, especially because I would also be putting my family at risk since I would need them to care for me. Because of this, I have been self-isolating since spring break in an effort to avoid contracting the virus. 

To conclude, please remember that you’re not just being made to stay home for your sake, but for the sake of others as well. 

The Impact on Athletics

David Korzeniowski, class of 2020

I had a relatively tame spring break. That is, until all of the COVID-19 news started ramping up on that Tuesday and Wednesday. Sitting in the library at DePaul University, working on my senior thesis, I quickly closed my word documents and PDFs for Twitter, CNN and other news sources.

There is no question that this pandemic’s impact is felt by communities far and wide. Most notable is the elderly community, who are most at risk of suffering serious symptoms, and even death, should they contract COVID-19. 

For those whose primary concern is not physical suffering and death, the economic and social fallout is still alarming. Millions have lost their jobs already. Students and workplaces are separated, connected only through screens.

A community that has also really suffered in the wake of closings and quarantine measures is one of which I’m a part: the athletic community. 

As a student broadcaster for Fighting Irish Media, I have had the privilege of working closely with the Notre Dame athletic department for the past four years. I have met so many fantastic coaches, athletes, photographers, sports information directors, the list goes on.

When it was announced that sports events were to be played without fans, and soon after were not to be played at all, the sporting world came to a screeching halt. NBA, NHL, NCAA and MLB spring training games, among others, were postponed indefinitely.

What do we do now? The answer is still unclear.

I feel especially for the college athletes whom I have come to know and respect, particularly my fellow seniors. Their routines of practice, lifts and games are now replaced with practicing in their front yards, with a teammate or two at most.

Take the Notre Dame women’s lacrosse team. With a 7-0 record and No. 2 ranking on March 11, the remainder of their season was canceled just before a matchup with No. 1 UNC. A team that had a real chance at capturing a national championship was forced to say a premature, final goodbye.

Coach Christine Halfpenny took to Twitter to tackle the impossible task of summing up a season of triumph and heartbreak in 280 characters.

She wrote: “Still stunned. 20 seasons coaching of college lacrosse & nothing could have prepared me to deliver news to my Irish that their season ended today. I LOVE this team & I’m so proud of what they represent. This group is special & only thing that could stop them was a pandemic.”

Notre Dame baseball, with an 11-2 record and a ranking in the top-25 for the first time since 2015, suffered a similar fate. After a huge series sweep at North Carolina, the Irish were forced to abandon hopes of a trip to the NCAA tournament before mid-March.

Notre Dame men’s lacrosse, softball, fencing, track and field, men’s and women’s golf and men’s and women’s tennis all ended their seasons midway through.

Sports photographers, statisticians, broadcasters, trainers, coaches and others are out of work until further notice. Those that are freelancers are not guaranteed income. 

On a personal note, I miss broadcasting. While I thought I had at least 10 more broadcasts left in my college career, I called my final game as a Notre Dame student without knowing it.

During this time of sadness and uncertainty, compounded with a longing for the sports we all love, I try to remind myself that hundreds of thousands are suffering far more than I am.

Still, I miss broadcasting. I miss getting to know the tremendous athletes and coaches I cover. I miss the competition and connecting audiences to the sports they so crave. I miss sports. We miss sports. And I can’t wait until they’re back, whenever that may be. 

Looking Back on Life’s Little Moments in the World of COVID-19

Mary Kate O’Leary, class of 2020

The week after spring break brought the official cancellation of all in-person classes, a local state of emergency in St. Joseph county and the institution of our ‘new normal:’ one socially distant and incredibly strange. When I look back on this odd season of my life, however, it will be the Monday of that week that I will remember. 

It was the day before St. Patrick’s Day, my first back in South Bend after spring break, a day in which we were careful to keep gatherings small, but not concerned enough to stop gathering entirely. Two of my friends were finding out, in that muddy backyard, exactly what they will be doing next year, and we were celebrating alongside them. It was a day both lighthearted and profound: fluctuating between 80 emotions, all of them urgent, all of them big. 

One moment we were properly elated at hazy visions of our futures; the next I was crying on the porch because someone else had left for their hometown for good. I looked around the yard at one point (not for the first time this year) and thought how this — this eclectic assortment of randomly strung-together friends sitting in a yard on an admittedly gross March afternoon — was what I always imagined college would be. This, however — uncertain goodbyes and forced attempts at closure and seminar classes from my bedroom — is not how I ever imagined it would end. 

If you had told me that this would be the ending of the most formative years of my life, I would’ve laughed it away. I guarantee no letter to anyone’s freshman self predicted a pandemic that would bring senior year to a screeching halt. 

Aside from a promise of a commencement at some point, Father Jenkins' email forced me to recognize that this period — of living surrounded by my closest friends — is over. Whenever this social distancing ends, we will still be distanced in some new configuration across a handful of cities. And from this vantage point, the only thing I would wish for is more. More Waddick’s afternoons and early classes in O’Shag. More quick hellos which turn into long conversations standing in an obscure hallway. More asking “are you going out tonight?” and bolting to an Uber in the black boots I've been meaning to clean. More traditions that call to mind similar weekends across the years, where I was so much younger, with worries that now seem so small. More commiserating on the second floor of the library over a paper all my friends and I had put off. More, more, more. 

And I suppose that always would have been the case. But it’s March. I shouldn’t be feeling this way yet. I should be waiting for an Uber downtown, not watching my best friends drive away.