Being community in a pandemic

February 5, 2021

Luther’s a special place, but it’s not beyond the reach of COVID-19. Campus looked a lot different this fall, but we hope you’ll recognize some constants as we worked to keep people safe: care for this community and eagerness to engage with the Luther experience and one another.

Welcoming students

Last spring, Luther developed a bold and thoughtful plan to allow students to learn in person last fall. The modular approach included a monthlong September Term and two fall quarters (Oct. 1–Nov. 20 and Nov. 30–Jan. 28) so that we could be flexible and responsive in light of changing COVID conditions.

As COVID cases soared in Iowa and across the country in November, we took advantage of the modular approach and enacted a “circuit breaker” for the first half of Fall Quarter 2, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 22. During this time, all classes were online, and students could live at home or on campus; 70 percent chose to live on campus.

Preparing campus

Working tirelessly to prepare campus for students, facilities staff:

  • Installed nearly 1,600 square feet of plexiglass barriers (many custom-designed)
  • Serviced air handlers and added higher levels of filtration
  • Added logic to the building automation system to allow for maximum outdoor air ventilation
  • Equipped campus buildings with sanitizer stations and deployed campus-wide safety signage
  • Continuously clean high-touch surfaces multiple times a day

Learning together

The pandemic required us to rethink traditional classrooms. Facilities staff and the Registrar’s Office identified spaces on campus that accommodated proper physical distancing, and then de-densified the spaces by removing furniture. Most classrooms, Uthoff says, are currently at 48 percent of original capacity, but some areas are as low as 15 percent.

Many faculty moved their classes outdoors while weather allowed. Some were especially intrepid, like associate professor of Nordic studies Maren Johnson, who held her Intermediate Norwegian course outside in 36 degrees in October. Courses were relocated to the Sports and Recreation Center, Storre Theatre, Shirley Baker Commons, the Center for Faith and Life, and other spaces.

Bonding as a team

Our athletics program has taken great care in order to continue to give students the experience of bonding, practicing, and competing with teammates. While competition in some sports was postponed, this fall the American Rivers Conference (A-R-C) went ahead with schedules in golf, tennis, cross country, and swimming and diving.

All student-athletes, whether competing in the fall or not, monitor themselves daily for COVID symptoms, get a temperature check before practices, and wear masks (when possible) during practices and competition. They also help sanitize equipment after use.

While the circumstances haven’t been easy on anyone, Yarrow Pasche, director of women’s track and field and cross country, finds a silver lining. With competitions so precarious, she says, “Each one is approached with a new level of intensity, allowing us to embrace it in a way completely unique to this season.”

Innovating in music

Like athletics, music keeps Luther feeling alive, inspired, and connected, and so many people worked to innovate in ways that allowed our music program to continue to feed our students’ hearts and minds.

Andi Beckendorf ’93, professor of library and information sciences and flute instructor, and Mark Potvin ’01, assistant professor of music, spearheaded a group that planned how to engage in music at Luther this fall. One major challenge was finding spaces for all the ensembles to practice in a physically distanced way. Scheduling rehearsals to accommodate everyone safely became an art form.

Some conductors, like Potvin, who directs the first-year tenor/bass ensemble Norskkor, got creative. When he saw city workers draining the municipal pool adjacent to campus, he had a eureka moment. Soon, with the enthusiastic support of the Decorah Park and Rec, his 40-some singers were practicing in the emptied pool. It was fun for us to see this story receive media attention from Orlando to Boston to Salt Lake City.

Along with unconventional rehearsal spaces, student-musicians also adapted to new protective equipment, like singing with masks or using socks or bell covers for wind instruments. And because individual instruction can be risky in small spaces, students studying voice and wind instruments worked with instructors remotely.

Inviting future Norse

The pandemic didn’t stop us from engaging with future Norse, but it did put some kinks in the process. Our Admissions counselors haven’t been traveling to high schools, college fairs have been virtual, and we’ve only been giving individual, not group, tours of campus. We’ve shifted a lot more focus to engaging with students online, allowing us to offer program-specific virtual events to students all over the world. But since 40 percent of students who visit campus end up enrolling, we expect to feel some repercussions from this unusual year.

Derek Hartl, VP for enrollment management, says, “The pandemic has certainly exacerbated the challenges facing all small, private liberal arts institutions in the next five years.”

Worshipping in new ways

Covid has reconfigured the way we practice and celebrate faith at Luther. Last fall, chapel was 100 percent virtual. Happily, this allowed many faculty and emeriti to participate in services when they might not have been able to otherwise, and allowed for a broad range of alumni guest speakers.

Kathryn Thompson, Luther’s collaborative ministries seminarian, says, “While there have been many changes in worship life at Luther, it’s as present as it’s always been, but more diverse and more accessible than it’s ever been.”

Celebrating traditions

A couple of Luther hallmarks looked really different this year. Homecoming was entirely virtual, and so was Christmas at Luther 2020: For Everyone Born. In a typical year, we sell 7,000 tickets to the event. This year, more than 20,000 of you from 44 countries viewed the free-of-charge first-ever streaming-only Christmas at Luther. We sold 1,147 watch-from-home gift boxes for the premiere and raised more than $28,000 for the Luther Fund.

As individuals, we’re dealing with struggles familiar to people the world over: burnout, frustration, loneliness, helplessness. But as a community, we’re persevering.

We’re so grateful to our students for being collaborators in this—and the larger community is taking notice. Decorah mayor Lorraine (Carter) Borowski ’70 says, “In the fall, I knew the Luther students were back when I saw groups of them downtown . . . and they were ALL wearing masks.”

It matters to all of us that students have the opportunity to experience Luther as fully as possible, so we all work hard to keep that on the table. And we help each other out. As Potvin says, “Living in community means doing more than just your part—it means inviting others to do the same.”