A World Beyond

The COVID-19 pandemic sent students home, moved classes online, and more or less shut down the University. That was scary. But that’s also when things got really interesting

The Quad The Quad (Image by Craig Pessman)
The COVID-19 pandemic sent students home, moved classes online, and more or less shut down the University. That was scary. But that’s also when things got really interesting

THE COVID-19 ERA, Part 1 of 3

They were on top of a mountain in Puerto Rico, queued up for the adrenaline rush of the longest zip-line ride in the world when the pandemic came, taking text form.

The first text told Head Coach Justin Spring ’06 LAS, MS ’14 AHS, that he might need a bus to transport the men’s gymnastics team to the Big Ten Finals in Minneapolis the following week, since lots of flights were being canceled. “And I said, ‘Uh-oh,’” Spring recalls.

Next came the news that the NBA had suspended its season. Then—a directive for Spring to find a flight ASAP back from the island, where the team had come for a March 14 invitational tournament with Arizona State and Puerto Rico’s national team. Finally came the destroyer text. It advised that the Big Ten Conference had cancelled all winter, spring sports. “Before the first guy could get on the zip line, I knew I had to share this,” Spring says. “I told them, ‘Season’s over.’ And they reacted with complete and total disbelief.”

When Spring and his team flew back to Champaign-Urbana the following day, they flew into an alternate reality. They already knew that everything they trained for—post-season play, a possible national championship—was wiped out. Now, they landed in a reality defined by an escalating pandemic. COVID-19, the virus that launched itself worldwide from Wuhan, China, was claiming exponential numbers of victims: Cases around the globe shot up by more than 23,000 in five days, to 125,260 by March 12.

The pandemic also was upending billions of lives throughout the world, the country, the state and the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The surge of COVID-19, which kills people mostly by attacking their respiratory system, coincided, ironically and fortuitously, with spring break at Illinois. On Wednesday, March 11, most students were about to head out for travel, internships, missions, frolics on the beach in parts south or maybe just relaxing in the parental abode. But that day, Chancellor Robert J. Jones mandated that classes would move online and strongly suggested that students not return to campus. The first case of COVID-19 in Champaign County was confirmed days later. The following Monday, March 16, all events and face-to-face instruction at Illinois were canceled, and students still on campus were advised to leave. The Monday after that, spring semester resumed. Over the intervening week-and-a-half, about 5,000 classes had moved online. 

“We were consumed by the rapidly changing nature of events,” says Kevin Pitts, vice provost for undergraduate education. Pitts and his staff had been developing response scenarios since January, when dire reports started emerging from Wuhan, the pandemic’s epicenter. At the time, McKinley Health Center identified and reached out to 146 U of I students who had a Wuhan link, providing information about self-quarantine, masks and other precautions. MHC began to screen students who reported respiratory complaints. Academic programs in China were suspended for the spring semester, and Study Abroad students returned from there. Before long, students began to stream back from the hotspots of South Korea and Italy and, finally, from everywhere else around the globe where young scholars from the U of I had ventured to study. 


Covid-19-related campus signage

On March 16, all events and face-to-face instruction are canceled and facilities closed at Illinois in conjunction with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order on March 20. (Image by Fred Zwicky/UI Public Affairs)

Moving the University online

At the start of spring break, Pitts and his staff confronted the logistics of continuing about 5,000 courses that had been meeting face-to-face over the first eight weeks of the semester and now had to go online. What would remote delivery of instruction look like? Would it even be possible? They sent a spreadsheet of active courses to each academic department on campus, asking: Can your faculty continue teaching these? “What we found,” Pitts says, “was that an overwhelming number of the courses were able to continue.” More than 2,700 faculty and as many as 47,000 students had to make the transition in less than two weeks. 

The University rose to the logistical challenge with a massive cooperative effort that tested the IT resources of units across campus and the limits of faculty ingenuity. Even connecting with students proved to be a major difficulty. “It was just overwhelming,” Pitts says. “Students had their instructors communicating with them. They had the campus communicating with them. The biggest challenge was to get the word out, to say, ‘Hey, we can help you.’”

Many students depend on campus resources for computers and internet access, and weren’t equipped for the move to remote instruction. Laptops were provided and mobile hotspots devised. Some students required a camera for their computers: Cameras are essential for attending class on digital meeting platforms such as Zoom, the new word on everyone’s lips and, soon, everyone’s devices. 

Reconceiving and retooling courses was a Herculean task, particularly for faculty who hadn’t taught online before. Michel Bellini, who leads the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, was in the trenches with his staff, remotely coaching professors on how to record and upload lectures, create animations and PowerPoint presentations, set up class meetings and otherwise relocate to this new realm. The University purchased a license for Proctorio, a software platform designed to monitor online students during exams. “Everything went so fast,” Bellini says. “In less than 10 days, we had to put together a contingency plan, and wow! It was an experience with so many unknowns. Developing an online course usually takes between five and eight months.”

A big issue was academic credit. The provost’s office, after consultation with the Academic Senate in a hastily convened online meeting before classes were to resume, announced that students could opt for “credit/no credit” or “pass/no pass” in lieu of letter grades for their courses; they would have until April 30, later extended to May 6, to decide. 

Corresponding concerns began to arise about admissions. The admissions office, which long has curated online resources such as virtual campus tours and blogs, boosted its web presence while COVID-19 ripped through Asia into Europe. Now, anxiety spiked among prospective freshmen, including applicants who were accepted Feb. 28. They wanted to know whether the online instruction and pass-fail grades from their own shutdown high schools would satisfy University admissions requirements.

“We assured them, ‘We will rely on the expertise of your high school or college in determining your academic credit,’” says Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions. “‘And then we will work with you to determine the best classes for you.’” The office ramped up online counseling to deliver this message and field myriad other questions. The enrollment deadline of May 1 remained in place as prospective Illinois freshmen pondered whether to attend a university they could no longer visit in person.


Campus shuts down

COVID-19 knocked down residential life at Illinois like the natural disaster it was. Guided by a University and community-wide infectious-disease work group, Alma R. Sealine, director of University housing, had been preparing for the pandemic since January. But that didn’t allay her worry. “We are the only department on campus where students live with us,” Sealine observes. “They have a bed. They have a pillow. This is where they have a contract to live. This is their home.”

Students moving out

On March 17, more than 5,000 students begin moving out of campus housing. The belongings of the 2,100 students who didn’t return to campus after spring break are shipped to their home residence or stored. (Image by Fred Zwicky/UI Public Affairs)

A move-out window for students in University housing opened March 17. After Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order for all state residents March 20, about 5,000 students moved out in five days. The belongings of about 2,100 who didn’t return to campus post-break either were shipped to them or stored. Refunds on room and board, prorated to March 14, were arranged for students who moved out. More than 500 remaining undergraduates—most from abroad—moved into individual rooms in the Pennsylvania Avenue, Sherman and Daniels Halls. Dining services dished up fare in disposable to-go containers.

Sealine began to get her lunch every day at the residence halls, so she could keep an eye on how life was going in this brave new world. “Our biggest challenge with the students is that they just want to be social,” she says. “They don’t want to be in their room by themselves. That six-foot physical distance is very difficult for them.”

Fortunately, as of press time, no COVID-19 cases had been reported in the residence halls. (However, in late March, two U of I employees tested positive.) The U of I Police Dept. joined with other first-responder agencies through the Champaign County Emergency Operations Center to coordinate area safety. “This was and continues to be a challenge on a scale beyond anything we have seen in our collective memory,” says UIPD spokesperson Patrick Wade, ’09 MEDIA. 

The left-behind students were an island of life as the campus darkened around them. Offices, centers and classroom buildings got locked down. Laboratories, museums, studios and gyms went quiet. The Illini Union shut down, as did the University Library. Many construction projects, large and small, were suspended.

The administration maintained full employment, even paying student workers who no longer were on campus. Most staff and faculty began to work from home. Employees deemed essential under University guidelines observed social distancing. Building service workers, for example, donned masks and gloves and worked on rotating, reduced shifts to deep-clean and sanitize buildings, with special attention to virus-friendly spots like doorknobs and light switches.

The U of I stood and took on COVID-19. Initiatives on behalf of the campus and surrounding communities burgeoned with the abandon and energy that emergencies demand. All units and departments contributed to the response. The psychology department posted online guidelines about connection, self-care and how to address fears, with links to related telephone hotlines. The University Extension website blossomed with resources for braving the pandemic, from advice on gardening during a time of social distancing and helping children to cope, to information about small-business loans and the effects of COVID-19 on farming. The College of Education launched LearnAway, a website designed to help primary and secondary school educators to teach remotely. The Fire Service Institute put live interactive training online and posted a recipe for homemade hand sanitizer. Gies College of Business provided a series of webinars detailing the effects of COVID-19 on business and industry. A law professor gave an online lecture about the legal ramifications of force majeure—events such as war, natural disasters and yes, pandemics. 

The storm of mass e-mails tailed off into weekly updates from the Chancellor. Summer school classes moved online smoothly, compared with the tsunami-like spring-semester effort that generated stories of perseverance and ingenuity. Like the online physics lab where undergraduates could direct a TA, who was physically present in a laboratory, to perform experiments step-by-step. Or the engineer who fired up a miniature steam engine for a class demo. Or the kinesiology course in ice skating that toe-looped, swizzled and cross-stroked on to eight weeks in cyberspace.


U of I Responds to Challenges

COVID-19-related research projects proliferated. When a tiger at the Bronx Zoo famously tested positive for the coronavirus, it was the College of Veterinary Medicine that initially verified the test results. An interdisciplinary effort among departments and research centers provided Carle Health System (the University’s medical school partner) with resources to dramatically scale up testing for the coronavirus. A Grainger College of Engineering team began work on a smartphone app to test for COVID-19. (More research stories are covered in the accompanying article, Rapid Responders, pg. 34.) A plan was hatched to turn the Activities and Recreation Center into a temporary hospital for the pandemic, should overflow beds be needed. Further plans were made for additional medical staff to be housed in nearby residence halls. (As of press time, Champaign County had more than 400 cases, but not enough, thankfully, to warrant the need for additional beds.) 

Rideshare bus as WiFi hotspot

In less than two weeks, the campus transitions to online learning, adapting more than 5,000 courses in session during the Spring ’20 semester. Meanwhile, to assist local children attending school remotely, the University repurposes its UI Ride buses, which usually transport staff and faculty to and from Chicago, into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. (Image by Fred Zwicky/UI Public Affairs)

UI Ride buses, which ordinarily shuttle faculty and staff to and from Chicago, were repurposed as Wi-Fi hotspots for local neighborhoods with poor  connectivity, so area children could continue school online. University staffers created an interactive map of drive-up Wi-Fi hotspots around the state. The Library Archives and the Illinois Global Institute began to collect and share COVID-19 stories from around campus and the world. The Allerton Park & Retreat Center moved its yoga classes to the internet. The venerable Red Herring Vegetarian Restaurant in the Channing-Murray Foundation building on campus fed the hungry with meals donated by customers through a “pay-it-forward” program. A team from the Chinese Consulate General in Chicago visited campus and handed out masks. 

The University of Illinois Alumni Association expanded its existing platforms and developed new ones that allow alumni to get together virtually, and began planning for what Homecoming 2020 might look like. The University’s capital campaign, With Illinois, announced Illinois Cares, an emergency fund to provide students in need with tuition assistance, housing and food. The Krannert Center for the Performing Arts gathered materials from its costume shop for volunteers to make much-needed medical gowns, masks and caps. And in the midst of it all, at the end of March, Illinois underwent its once-every-10-years accreditation review—via Zoom. (The determination will be completed in the coming academic year.) 

Out of the pandemic response spiraled swift, creative solutions, with some holding promise for permanency. For example, the College of Veterinary Medicine’s i-Learning Center opened its program of short online courses to some 2,000 veterinary students at other institutions, helping them to complete degree requirements in time to graduate in May. “We think there is a long-term future for this model in medicine and other fields where Illinois has areas of expertise,” says Jim Lowe, associate professor and i-Learning Center director at the College of Veterinary Medicine. Among the course offerings is a new one-week seminar,  “Understanding the Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” taught by Lowe. The subject is relevant to public health and social work as well as veterinary medicine: Scientists, such as Lowe, study how pathogens jump from animals to humans, sometimes with frightening virulence. Like the coronavirus. 

Across campus, advising and recruitment offices intensified their online presence, including video messages from counselors encouraging students to stay in touch. Even when the pandemic subsides, “We will continue these kinds of practices for students studying abroad and for pre-registration,” says Cheryl Hanley-Maxwell, dean of the College of Applied Health Sciences. At the College’s audiology clinic, office visits have been replaced with telemedicine appointments. The clinic’s brisk hearing-aid repair business has moved to curbside delivery and pickup. Students in the the College’s Dept. of Recreation, Sport & Tourism created their own internships, opening a pro bono consulting firm that attracted the Chicago Cubs, Niagara Falls State Park and the U.S. Tennis Open, among other clients. 


The University Prepares for the Future

As successful as the transition to distance learning has been, it has been painful, not just because the change came so fast and asked so much, but also because not every discipline is conducive to being taught through a screen. For nascent artists, for example, there are no distance-learning substitutes for studios and practice spaces or exhibitions and performances. “Our faculty have had to make really big concessions,” says Kevin Hamilton, dean of the College of Fine and Applied Arts. “This has been a time of a lot of sadness and mourning over work that students were hoping to complete and culminating performances and exhibitions that they just couldn’t do.”

But art, like life, finds a way. Lots of ways, actually. Dance students sprang into a “Distance Dances” project, streaming video clips of their choreography on Instagram and Facebook. Graduating acting students traded out their annual live BFA Acting Showcase in Chicago for a digital array of scenes, monologues, songs and sketches. 

“If there’s one thing that art is good at, it is resilient adaptation,” Hamilton observes. “We’re going to be helping folks through various kinds of mourning, as well as reimagining. This has got to help us think differently about the way we live together.” 

Chancellor Robert J. Jones commencement video

Illinois Chancellor Robert J. Jones congratulates the Class of 2020 during a virtual ceremony streamed live via the internet and social media on May 16. (Image courtesy of UI Public Affairs)

Among the most painful casualties at Illinois has been Commencement. COVID-19 ushered the Class of 2020 out of Memorial Stadium, seating them and their families instead at computer screens around the state and the world on the appointed date of May 16. Across the internet and social media, Illinois observed Commencement online with a live degree-conferral ceremony hosted by UI System President Timothy L. Killeen with remarks by Chancellor Jones. A montage of photos, clips and memories contributed by the Class of 2020 streamed, along with video congratulations from prominent alumni. Virtual celebrations hosted by colleges and units followed. Regalia had been mailed to graduating students, who were given the option of either returning the garments for a refund or holding onto them to wear in graduation day photos with virtual U of I backdrops. 

However, they might be able to don those caps and gowns for real this fall. “Students really want to cross the stage, to have their name called, to be part of a happy ceremony,” says Laura Wilhelm-Barr, ’93 LAS, MS ’07 AHS, whose office coordinates special events at Illinois. She hopes to organize a fall Commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020 but is awaiting an announcement, expected by mid-June, about when the campus will reopen. “We just don’t know at this point,” she says.

In early March, consonant with rising concerns about the pandemic, President Killeen established a UI System COVID-19 planning and response team, which has coordinated the responses of the three universities to the crisis and has created a $36 million fund for targeted financial aid to students. Killeen has repeatedly expressed confidence that the System will reopen in the fall of 2020, and told members of the Board of Trustees at their May meeting that plans for reopening will be announced in mid-June. “I’m confident that with the appropriate protocols in place, we will restore much of the face-to-face teaching, as well as lab-based research, residential life and other unique benefits that make our campus communities second to none,” he said. In mid-May, Chancellor Jones launched a campuswide initiative to address opening the University for the fall semester and to study the potential impact of the pandemicon the fall semester and beyond. Managed by an executive steering committee, planning teams of faculty, staff and students are developing the framework needed to transition back to on-site operations at Illinois.

But uncertainty about what the pandemic may have in store for the coming months remains acute. Will the mandate for social distancing continue? What will that look like? How many students facing financial stresses from the prolonged economic shutdown will be unable to afford to return? What about the University’s own budget, with COVID-related costs and losses projected to exceed $70 million into July?

Across campus, units large and small face existential questions. None, however, confronts a bigger potential black hole than the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. Several scenarios for Fighting Illini football games have been tossed around—games that enforce social distancing between spectators, games in empty stadiums, no games at all. Should the last option prevail, the DIA stands to lose some $50 million—about 40 percent of its $130 million budget. “Football pays the way for so much of what we do, through ticket sales, television rights and the other revenue streams it brings in,” observes DIA spokesperson Kent Brown, ’87 MEDIA, MS ’89 MEDIA. “It’s a driving force for almost every other sport that we offer.”

With a fall run up that has gotten going like no other, football Head Coach Lovie Smith is maintaining his signature cool and patience. “It’s like this with everything in life,” he says. “You look at the circumstances you’re faced with, and then you just try to find a solution.” For Smith and his players, as for the entire campus, that solution, for now, is online. He and his coaching staff hold two-hour Zoom meetings with players four times per week—talking tactics, running plays, reminding players to do their homework. Then it’s up to the players to follow through on the physical training. This new kind of drill works for Smith, though he admits, “I can’t wait till we get back on the practice field.

“We’re pretty pumped up,” he concludes. “This is the best team that we’ve had coming up since I’ve been here. We’ve been building for this team. This is the year.” But whether it will be the year very much remains to be seen. 

Likewise, members of the University’s 19 Fighting Illini men’s and women’s varsity teams have spent months training at home, with no certainty about the future of their respective sports. Everyone—from athletes to administrators—has taken a bruising. 

No one knows what bruisings are ahead. When Justin Spring and his gymnasts hurtled down from that island mountaintop in March, they were headed for a destination unknown—the world of COVID-19. And on, to a world beyond the pandemic—wherever, whenever and however that may come to be. But surely the brilliant faculty, gifted students and multitude of resources of the University of Illinois will be instrumental in shaping that world beyond.


For more on this topic, visit:

THE COVID-19 ERA, Part 2 of 3
Better Days Ahead
U of I alumni weather the COVID-19 storm with help from their Alma Mater.

THE COVID-19 ERA, Part 3 of 3
Rapid Responders
U of I researchers and faculty combine their talents and resources to battle COVID-19—from modeling the disease’s spread and tracking symptoms to manufacturing hand-sanitizer, and designing diagnostic tests and life-saving medical equipments.



Home learning

U of I undergraduates share their feelings about adjusting to the COVID-19 disruption


We reached out to a half-dozen students to find out how they are coping with learning at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Two things are clear: They miss being on campus terribly; and they are trying to make the best of it.


Tyler Hull, sophomore
Sycamore, Ill.

Hull says he misses pretty much everything about school, even its routine sounds. “I miss the Altgeld Bells chiming every day,” he says. “I miss the Quad on beautiful sunny days. We all hold Illinois in a special place in our hearts, and I love the campus and the people on it more than anything.”

Online classes are not easy. “I struggle to keep motivated when sitting at my desk all day,” says the pre-med student studying psychology and Spanish. I seem to run out of brain energy faster every day. But I am starting to find my groove.” 

Family time is precious but not without its challenges. His Zoom video meetings for classes and with the Student Alumni Ambassadors sometimes have included “a random dog bark in the background,” he says.


Connor Hankla, junior
Gurnee, Ill.

Studying abroad in Barcelona, Spain, Hankla was in a club at 3 a.m. in mid-March when he and his friends found out about the travel ban that would take effect the next day. “There was mass panic with everyone checking emails and calling their parents,” he says. Every flight was booked, and airline phone lines were jammed. But his dad was able to book a flight for him. 

“Getting pulled out of the place you learned to call home overnight was very difficult,” Hankla says. “I didn’t get to say goodbye to many of the great people I met there. That was the worst part.” 

Four days after he arrived home, he tested positive for the coronavirus—on his 21st birthday no less. “I was the first case in my city,” he says. Hankla spent two weeks in quarantine in his basement. “I was terrified of giving it to my parents. So my birthday was spent alone. All of this was a very drastic change from the fast-paced lifestyle in Europe,” he says.

He completed his two Barcelona classes online and took two online business classes this spring. “Taking classes remotely has been pretty hard, as well as not being able to talk to teachers or classmates,” says Hankla, an accounting major. “But the professors have been very accommodating.”

His summer internship with a biopharmaceutical company was turned into an online position. “A bummer, but really a best-case scenario, since many of my friends’ internships have been canceled,” Hankla says. 

“If there is any upside, I would say it’s a wake-up call to the world. With globalization, we need to have countermeasures to protect us. The U.S. is not invincible, and because we aren’t prepared, people are dying,” he says.


Cailyn Andrews, senior
Lawrenceville, Ill.

Learning remotely at home was not an option for Andrews—internet connectivity is too slow in her rural hometown. So she stayed in Detroit with her boyfriend and studied there. 

Even so, she quarantined herself for three weeks when she moved in for two reasons: She had just returned in January from a study abroad program in Tanzania; and Detroit had become a coronavirus hot spot.

Online learning is “very mentally taxing” with “hefty class assignments and exams,” says Andrews, a double major in animal sciences, as well as natural resources and environmental sciences. 

She uses Zoom to socialize with friends, fellow Student Alumni Ambassadors and her Delta Zeta sorority sisters. Zoom is also handy for Friday happy hours and birthday bashes. 

Andrews is philosophical about the pandemic. “It’s made me appreciate the smaller things in life like a cubicle in the Undergraduate Library or sitting in a restaurant with friends or family,” she says. “The world has slowed almost to a stop. It’s allowed not only the Earth to breathe but people to take a breath too. This has reminded us to be present, appreciate the day, and find some hobbies that don’t require money or leaving the house.”


Luke Johnson, junior
Aurora, Ill.

Johnson is doing his level best to make the most of being a stay-at-home student. He engages in “countless group chats” with friends at school. He plays board games with his younger sister and his parents. He does puzzles, watches TV, and goes for walks and bike rides. 

He also has embraced online learning to keep up in the classroom. “I’ve always been good at self-learning,” says Johnson, an accounting major. 

Still, nothing can replace being with friends. “Not being able to see the seniors I had gotten to know well is what I miss the most,” he says.

He, too, had been studying abroad in Barcelona, Spain, and was forced to come home early in mid-March. But he had almost concluded his semester, so finishing up online was fairly easy.

His internship this summer with Chicago accounting firm Miller Cooper & Co. is now uncertain. But he is trying to see the bigger picture—realizing how others are suffering and hoping some good may come out of this. “Many people have lost jobs, and companies are struggling,” he says. “The one upside I see is that people and companies are learning to function without people leaving their homes.”


Kayla Fowler, junior
Sycamore, Ill.

The pandemic has been a teacher of sorts for Fowler. She’s learned the age-old lesson, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” She says, “If anything, this has made me realize how much I love it at school. I didn’t really notice how many things are offered to us while we are on campus, such as clubs, workout facilities, places to study, even jobs.” Fowler is majoring in political science with minors in English and Spanish.

At home, she studies in her room. “It’s easy to get distracted there. I miss having the quiet space to study at the Business Instructional Facility and the Undergraduate Library,” Fowler says. 


Alex Gowaski, senior
Palos Heights, Ill.

Gowaski is majoring in communications, a field that requires public speeches and group work. So he and his classmates have embraced a make-do attitude, holding their own Zoom meetings outside of class to work on assignments.

“Having to do all of this online is a big transition,” Gowaski says. “But remote learning actually has not been too bad. My professors have been very proactive in telling us how class will be run and what to expect moving forward.”

He plans to enroll in a human resources graduate program in the fall, and he knows he’ll have to be flexible because academic life remains unsettled.

“I’m really starting to miss my friends and my normal schedule,” he says. “I feel a little bummed about graduation. It’s a memory I won’t have with family and friends. But I’ll have the opportunity again for grad school, so that makes it a little better.”