Students and faculty at Mount Mercy University (MMU) in Cedar Rapids are adjusting to a new normal this fall semester.
When students began their semester in early September — whether that was through online or hybrid instruction — the campus was already dealing the impacts of the Aug. 10 derecho and the COVID-19 pandemic. Two days into the delayed semester, the university announced President Robert Beatty, who only recently assumed office, had resigned.
Beatty was selected by the university’s board of trustees in February to replace President Laurie Hamen, who announced her resignation in May 2019 after serving five years as MMU president. Beatty was serving as dean of the University of Texas at Tyler’s business school, and did not take up his duties at MMU until July.
In a statement on Sept. 9, the board of trustees announced Beatty’s resignation and the interim appointment of Tim Laurent, who has served as MMU’s provost and president of academic affairs since 2018. The statement said the trustees thank Beatty “for his time at Mount Mercy and wish him well in his future endeavors,” but didn’t provide information about when or why Beatty resigned.
“2020 has reminded me to give people a lot of grace and a lot of space, and everyone has got some things going on,” Nate Klein, vice president of student success, told Little Village about Beatty’s resignation.
Klein has been involved with addressing some of the other changes impacting the MMU campus. In mid-May, Klein formed a pandemic task force to discuss a safe return plan to campus. The task force included MMU administrators, staff and faculty. Klein also consulted experts in the community.
“We pulled together a community council of experts [from] Linn County Public Health, Iowa Department of Health, representatives from UnityPoint, Mercy, University of Iowa [and] several board members that are in the medical field and also seek their feedback on what to do differently,” Klein said.
In addition to the task force, Klein talked with LCPH’s Heather Meador and has continued to keep in contact with her throughout the semester. Meador, LCPH’s supervisor of clinical services, was a prominent voice at the department’s news conferences in the first months of the pandemic.
“We [are] continuously partnering with Linn County Public Health and listening to their guidance and advice, whilst also monitoring on a daily basis the health and wellbeing of our community,” Klein said.
English professor Joy Ochs, who was involved in the pandemic task force, said she is frustrated with the lack of state response to the pandemic. Ochs wants the state to step up with guidelines and requirements when it comes to bars and large social gatherings because the university does not have such authority.
“We are trying to work in a situation where the state has not got COVID under control, and we are trying to do the best with bad choices,” Ochs said.
“I’m just really angry that Mount Mercy had been put in the position of having to make decisions, whilst COVID still rages. COVID did not have to be like this.”
Mount Mercy implemented guidelines for students returning to in-person learning. Masks are required, and students are expected to be spaced six feet apart in classrooms. Students and faculty are expected to clean surfaces after use and are strongly encouraged to self-monitor for symptoms.
Testing is available on campus for students and employees.
But Mount Mercy’s plan to return to campus faced another hurdle. The damage from the Aug. 10 derecho delayed the return of students and faculty.
The semester was originally expected to start on Aug. 26, but was pushed back to Sept. 7. Every building on campus had experienced some sort of damage.
Dates for repairs are still unknown due to the overwhelming need for contractors in the area, according to Klein.
The building that sustained the most damage was McAuley Residence Hall. Due to the destruction, there are now a limited number of students living on campus. In an Aug. 15 statement, Klein said the university made the “difficult decision to only place students living more than 15 miles from campus in campus housing for the fall semester.”
“The biggest thing that derecho did for COVID was minimize the amount of students living on campus,” Klein said.
Mount Mercy was able to repair Betty Cherry Heritage Hall and the McAuley Theatre, and these buildings are now being utilized for larger class sizes.
But the first day of classes still looked unfamiliar to students. The shade along the sidewalks provided by trees was gone and faces were covered by masks since the university is requiring masks on campus.
“Derecho is something we lived with and are moving on from, and COVID is something we are continuing to live with,” Klein said.
Emma Lantz, MMU’s student body president, wrote an open letter expressing her concerns about in-person learning. Lantz told Little Village that she “felt frustrated” after she discovered two of her friends were quarantined before classes had started.
“We need to protect faculty and their families that may come in contact with students who are not practicing social distancing,” Lantz said. “One way we can do that is transferring classes online.”
MMU junior Donovan Grubaugh was quarantined due to being in close contact with a positive case.
“The protocol was that we were not to leave the room except for small walks around the building,” Grubaugh told Little Village via Facebook. “We couldn’t have anyone drop off anything except MMU employees.”
Overall, Grubaugh felt that the university staff did a good job in their response to the COVID-19 case and is happy to be back in the classroom.
The university has a dashboard of positive cases, individuals in quarantine and hospitalizations. The site is updated Tuesdays and Thursdays.
There are nine positive cases among students and two positive cases among employees, as of Monday, Sept. 28. A total of 36 individuals have recovered.
Forty-six students and three employees are in quarantine because they came into close contact with someone who has tested positive. No students or staff are hospitalized, as of Monday.
As students and faculty settle into a new routine impacted by the pandemic, derecho and leadership change, Klein said, “I’m hopeful not only for this semester but this year is something that we can continue to provide our students with an opportunity to get an education and learn what it means to live a courageous life here on the hill.”