The Day the World Changed
It is hard to imagine, even now, but there was a time when COVID-19 had only been in the periphery, though a very persistent blip on the radar. It then crept into America’s vision and created a pall of darkness, illness, suffering, fear, and death across the nation and the world.
Just before this virus paralyzed the country, Governors State University (GSU) appointed two people, Carolyn Johnson and Mushtaq Choudhary as co-chairs of the Emergency Response Team (ERT), the ad hoc committee charged with keeping the campus community safe with emergency preparedness plans.
Both Johnson and Choudhary came with impressive resumes. Johnson worked for U.S. Steel where responding to injuries, fire, chemical spills and the like were a part of her everyday work experience. Choudhary had years of experience keeping college students safe as the director of student housing and auxiliary services at another university. However, they would soon learn that the COVID-19 pandemic would be like nothing the world had ever seen.
“I don’t think anything could prepare you for COVID response,” Johnson said recently.
As she and Choudhary approach their two-year anniversary as ERT Co-Chairs, they are breathing a sigh of relief watching the positivity rate for Illinois drop to just below 2 percent. With the Illinois Mask Mandate lifted, the co-chairs paused to reflect on all that has happened during their tenure, defined by a historic pandemic.
In December 2018 there had been a mumps outbreak at a local university. Johnson and Choudhary, not yet leading the ERT, took the initiative to develop and adapt a communicable disease protocol for GSU. It gave them a starting point, but the COVID-19 pandemic was not anything like the mumps outbreak.
Johnson still recalls where she was when the pandemic hit the news cycle.
“I remember when the first case (of COVID) made it to the United States. I was in Mushtaq’s office when the news came that the COVID-19 virus was here in the United States,” said Johnson. They immediately called a meeting of GSU’s leadership. “I remember we were all in a conference room together, about 30 people total. We were all saying that we needed to extend spring break. We thought, like so many others at that time, that two weeks would be enough. We didn’t know that this would be a two-year ordeal.”
Choudhary said a former boss once told him that in order to successfully handle any emergency, you must first make sure that your family is safe. Knowing his family was quarantined at home, Choudhary was able to focus on GSU.
He and Johnson met with the university’s leadership on a daily basis, for hours and hours, from then on, in an effort to keep the campus safe. The unpredictability of the virus created a fluidity of protocols, rules and directives handed down by the CDC.
“It was a really scary time. We really didn’t know anything about COVID. We just knew that people were getting sick and being hospitalized… and dying,” Johnson admitted. “But, as a university, the main goal is to provide a service to your students. So how can we provide this service and… not disrupt the learning process as much as we can while still maintaining safety for everyone?”
Focused and Agile
Staying on top of how GSU students were learning – and coping - in the pandemic and making them the priority helped Johnson and Choudhary to remain focused, agile, and flexible enough to make whatever changes the students needed.
During that first year, this team learned that WI-FI was needed in GSU’s parking lots, so they took immediate action to support medical professionals taking and teaching classes to keep their certifications up to date.
“They cared for COVID patients during the day and refused to come into the building. They couldn’t go home either for fear of bringing the virus with them, so they sat in their cars from 7:30 to 10 p.m. each night watching classes remotely,” Choudhary recalled.
The problem was their connection to the internet wasn’t consistent. So, Choudhary and Charles Pustz, AVP for Information Technology at GSU, sought to solve this problem. Pustz had no problem getting a router, but said the pole wouldn’t arrive for at least 30 days. Not to be deterred, Choudhary and Pustz found a way to make things work so that GSU students had guaranteed WI-FI – within days instead of weeks.
When time came to prepare for in-person learning to resume in the fall of 2020, the co-chairs traveled side by side from building to building, pushing carts filled with PPE, sheets of plexiglass, and social distancing signage as they arranged each space according to the specifications they’d set to maintain social distance and a virus-free campus.
Their commitment to campus safety was recognized time and again by senior leadership, and in November 2021 Hygieneering, Inc. named GSU the first public state university in Illinois to be certified as a healthy building.
As campus operations gradually return to normal in a post-mask mandate world, the ERT co-chairs say they are proud of the award and all that it signifies but for these two the biggest moment of pride came in earlier in the year.
In March of 2021, they facilitated a vaccination event that GSU co-hosted with Walgreens and the Illinois Association of School Administrators’. At this time, the COVID-19 vaccine was new and not widely available.
“There was a moment before the event started when I looked out over the entire space. There were people already lined up outside, and inside we’d set up what looked like a massive space to have the vaccine administered. In fact, we had joined in and helped with the set-up. I remember thinking, this is huge,” said Johnson.
Choudhary recalled, “I arrived that day at 5 a.m. while the day was still quiet. And I remember when 4 p.m. came, and I closed the doors. I was exhausted, but it was a good kind of exhaustion. Knowing how many vaccinations were administered that day, I thought, we just saved 1,500 lives.”