The indomitable URI spirit

Keeping it safe during a pandemic, yet maintaining an in-person experience

University of Rhode Island graduates from the College of Arts and Sciences celebrate their accomplishments on a beautiful day in May 2021 at Meade Stadium.
University of Rhode Island graduates from the College of Arts and Sciences celebrate their accomplishments on a beautiful day in May 2021 at Meade Stadium.
(URI photo by Nora Lewis)

Yes, we’re still wearing masks indoors at the  University of Rhode Island, still running asymptomatic and symptomatic testing operations and vaccination clinics. Many people are physically and emotionally exhausted from two years of dealing with the pandemic.

But if you look inside our dining halls (where students can take their masks off while eating), or see them walking outdoors without masks, you’ll see smiles and hear laughter. In our classrooms, you will see and hear animated discussions among faculty and students.

Thanks to our masking, vaccination and booster mandates (95 percent of our students, faculty and staff were fully vaccinated by the end of the fall semester), we have been fortunate to see very low COVID-19 transmission rates throughout the pandemic, including the past semester. Our testing positivity rate remained below 2% and often was below 1% for several consecutive weeks, except during the arrival of the Omicron variant in mid-December. Since the beginning of the pandemic, URI Health Services has conducted 215,253 COVID-19 tests, and processed 19,000 immunization records for COVID-19 vaccinations and exemptions for faculty, staff and students.

Getting to this point required nearly everyone at the University--students, faculty, staff and administrators to work nights, weekends and holidays, often at the expense of time with families and much needed vacation.

The story began early in 2020 when University health officials started  monitoring a strange new virus developing in China.  Members of a University team working to get seven students safely home from China in late January 2020 didn’t know it at the time, but they were building a collaborative model that continues to serve the University well.  Starting Jan. 29, 2020, the team gathered in the University’s Emergency Operations Center to get those first students back to the United States, and later the remaining study-abroad students safely home.

During those hectic early days, staff called students a world away, reassured parents, helped book flights, answered questions about how study-abroad students could continue their academic progress when they returned, issued frequent communications to the community and media, and dealt with technology issues.

As the pandemic worsened and difficult decisions arose, that collaborative model was key to converting 3,000 in-person classes online during the spring 2020 semester and preparing classrooms with the latest technology for remote and hybrid learning the following fall.

An unprecedented crisis

In its more than 130-year history, the University has mourned its war dead, survived the Great Depression, been a part of the civil rights movement, and participated in protests against wars, gun violence, discrimination and intolerance.

But the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in the deaths of over 886,000 people in the United States, and over 3,316 in Rhode Island, may have tested the University’s resolve like nothing else. An unprecedented level of teamwork and round-the-clock efforts allowed the University to return to an in-person experience, augmented by remote learning, in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, and a full return to in-person classes and activities this past fall.  As widespread vaccination began and the University continued to keep the virus at bay, it held  in-person commencement ceremonies for its 2021 graduates at Meade Stadium last May. Nine separate joyful ceremonies for each of its academic colleges and the graduate school were celebrated.

As promised, the Class of 2020, which was unable to have in-person ceremonies that spring, had its own in-person commencement in the Ryan Center on Oct. 1, 2021.

The 2021 and 2020 commencements, held just months apart, represented huge wins for URI, but the University can also celebrate its service to people around the state, the nation and the world.

Faculty, staff, and students made plastic face shields; staffed a field hospital, testing and vaccination sites (including those at URI); developed URI’s own hand sanitizer; delivered meals to needy seniors; sewed face coverings, and created a just-in-time manufacturing center to convert sleep apnea machines into supplementary breathing machines. Students collected personal protective equipment for health care workers, kept the campus informed on the latest developments, and cared for each other.

Two years into the pandemic, URI is still battling to stay ahead of this virus. But we finished a successful fall semester, during which students excelled in classrooms and laboratories and a nearly normal campus experience. We open the spring semester with a bustling campus, students and faculty back refreshed from winter break and activities in full swing.

In his benison to the Class of 2020, President Marc Parlange used some inspirational quotes from “Chariots of Fire,” which still ring true today. In the movie, one athlete is almost paralyzed by fear and victimized by anti-Semitism, and the other draws on his faith to face his challenges.

“Who among you has not faced down fear during this tumultuous time of pandemic, civil and political unrest, academic and social challenges during periods of isolation and remote learning?” Parlange said. “And yet, you were not and are not afraid to win, to succeed and to successfully complete your academic quest. And where did that strength come from? It came from within all of you, bolstered by the love of your family and friends. When you had doubts, you strengthened your effort, when you couldn’t envision a finish line, you retained your faith. And in the end, you were victorious.”

As we complete our first month of the spring semester, we promise to our entire community and the State of Rhode Island, that we will continue to be models of teamwork, innovation and grit as we fight for victory.

Dave Lavallee is URI Assistant Director of Communications and COVID-19 Public Information Officer