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Feature Story

UNB's response to COVID-19

Proudly UNB takes on a whole new meaning for Dr. Kathy Wilson

Alumni News Magazine | Fall/Winter 2020

In February 2020, as media reports of COVID-19 cases in Asia and Europe popping up on our phones and TV screens, Kathy Wilson (BN’87, PhD’08), UNB’s acting vice-president academic for the Fredericton campus, pulled out UNB’s health emergency response plan and nearly fell off her chair.

“Only a month after renewing my second term as associate vice-president, I realized that my position was the lead for the university’s emergency health response efforts!” she says. 

She quickly regrouped. As a long-time UNBer -- she’s been part of the nursing faculty since 1990, in senior administration since 2017 and ‘grew up at UNB’ alongside her father, Frank Wilson (BScEng’62, MScEng’63), who taught and administered at UNB for over 30 years -- she knew she had to step up and she knew that she had competent people around her to help.

“Back in mid-February, the pandemic seemed to come upon us so quickly. It’s hard to imagine now, but the majority of us underestimated the impact it would have in North America. I remember so clearly that we pulled together a first meeting of the bi-campus health response committee on Friday, February 28 – the Friday before March Break.

Our group didn’t exactly know why we were gathering or how big this was going to be. We had no solid structure or formulated plan – and in some ways that was a challenge, but in others it was a blessing because we were able to develop the playbook as we went along. The reality of COVID-19 turned out to be so different than anything we could have imagined.”

The outcome of that first meeting was to have posters up on campus for when students came back from March Break. “We really thought that when school came back, we’d be prepared,” she laughs. “We quickly realized that wasn’t the case. From that moment until now it’s been our 24/7 focus.”

Emotion starts to peek through as  Dr. Wilson thinks back on the crisis and the work that’s gone into managing it.

“It’s phenomenal to me that so many people at UNB have pulled together to work tirelessly and selflessly to manage this. It’s absolutely amazing. I can’t think of a unit or faculty that hasn’t been working at 100 per cent. President Mazerolle and senior leadership have been outstanding and closely involved. Our bi-campus committee, with people across many units, has been meeting weekly - sometimes daily – from the beginning. The academic sub-committee of the bi-campus committee and faculty have been fully engaged in supporting the implementation of courses using alternative delivery methods and ensuring high quality learning experiences.”

“It’s phenomenal to me that so many people at UNB have pulled together to work tirelessly and selflessly to manage this. It’s absolutely amazing. I can’t think of a unit or faculty that hasn’t been working at 100 per cent.” 

"I think UNB’s long history of being a tightly-woven community has helped us. It’s a huge collaborative effort and I think we’ve found many, many ways to bring us closer than ever, even as we’ve had to be physically apart.”

Dr. Wilson recounts the steps taken to manage the pandemic and meet health guidelines. “We quickly developed a very close relationship with New Brunswick Public Health and our regional medical director. They’ve been our guide on everything and have been incredibly helpful. We came back from March Break to learn we had two cases of COVID-19 on campus. So, we had to deal with that even before the province went into lockdown.

We needed to manage our residence system quickly and work with faculty to pivot to alternative delivery methods. We had to get messages out to keep faculty, staff and students informed.”

Soon after, the university moved to keeping only essential services on its campuses. Alternative delivery methods were put in place to enable students to finish the term and do summer-term studies. Then fall planning began, and May and June brought a phased reopening of campus, bringing back those required to support unit operations and researchers who needed labs to do their work.

“In phases 2 and 3, we brought back more people who were required on campus to support students in the fall term. Some units are now fully back while others are still working from home if they don’t need to be physically on campus in student-facing roles. Of course, essential services – people who run the physical plant and operations and security and other essential duties – they’ve been on campus throughout this whole experience and it’s important to acknowledge the outstanding work they’ve been doing.”

Dr. Wilson says that campus is now open to students who need to be physically on campus for labs or classes in order to meet learning outcomes and to faculty and staff who need to be there to support them. Some work to support students is still being done remotely - it looks different for each campus and for each unit.

“When students arrived back to campus, Student Services had a team of more than 20 people doing daily outreach to those who had come from outside the Atlantic bubble and were required to self-isolate. Same thing for the International Student Office who were supporting international students who were isolating after they arrived.

These are the people who are dedicated to the well-being of our students – and in the process we’ve learned that remote counselling and other services has been very effective. It’s allowed us to see things from a different perspective and potentially change the model for the future.”

She notes that differing infrastructure on the Fredericton and Saint John campuses also translates to different experiences for students and staff. “But in all of our spaces on all campuses we are now requiring masks, physical distancing, following of directional arrows and we’re encouraging frequent handwashing and sanitizing. We’ve taken a careful approach to opening back up knowing that with the proper safety measures and restrictions we can remain open and safe even if we need to shift to a different recovery phase.”

“Our new normal moving forward is what we’re still trying to figure out. We know for sure that it’s not going to be what any of us have ever experienced - certainly not the university experience we, as alumni, had.”

“Thankfully, our students have been very supportive and flexible, even though they’re disappointed in not having the full traditional university experience.  Each student has different levels of comfort and that’s why the alternative delivery method works - it keeps numbers on campus manageable and also allows students who want to be at home to continue with their studies.”

“Our new normal moving forward is what we’re still trying to figure out. We know for sure that it’s not going to be what any of us have ever experienced - certainly not the university experience we, as alumni, had.”

Dr. Wilson notes that it now feels a bit like the committee and the university in general has come full circle.

“We’ve gone from not completely understanding the imminent threat to managing cases on campus to gradually reopening and now operating safely in the fall term. It’s challenging and somewhat unpredictable, but we know that the important thing is to balance fear with living and operating alongside COVID-19 safely and respectfully. We need to respect COVID-19 and be vigilant about how we engage with each other, but not be fearful of continuing to operate and give students a high-quality education.”

“We also need to respect everyone’s different comfort levels with this. We can be kind to each other and have both vigilance and understanding. I’m proud to say we’ve been working hard to create that kind of culture and community.”

When asked about her personal experience throughout this stressful year, Dr. Wilson admits she’s “really tired.” She says it’s a heavy responsibility but that she gets her energy from the people around her who are “continuing to show up every day with enthusiasm and focus.”

She perks up at this, and her pride is easy to see. “Proudly UNB takes on a whole new connotation for me now. To me it means the great capacity of our people. They’re amazing. They’ve been turning themselves inside out to help students succeed. They’ve been our UNB response to COVID-19. It’s incredible to watch.”      

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