How Yale transformed itself in a time of pandemic

As Yale prepares for the spring semester, we look back on the fall term, when the campus community pulled together in the face of unprecedented challenges.
Statue on building wearing a face mask.

Seven months and a lifetime ago, Anna Martinelli-Parker had a major decision to make.

Should she leave her parents’ home in Washington, D.C., and start college at Yale in person on campus? Should she live at home and take classes remotely? Or should she take a gap year?

I knew I wanted to come to New Haven, but it was very hard,” said Martinelli-Parker, a first-year student. “I had to think about my own health … There was a lot of deliberation.”

She opted for life on campus: Being at Yale, she decided, was a defining part of her experience. So, in August, she traveled to New Haven, negative COVID-19 test in hand, said goodbye to her mother at Jonathan Edwards College, and settled in to see what would happen next.

As it turned out, Martinelli-Parker said, what transpired over the course of the semester was inspiring.

We’ve built such a strong community,” she said. “We shared an experience no one at Yale has ever had before. We found ways to make connections with the people around us despite the barriers to doing so, and so we managed to create a sense of community for ourselves in the process.”

Martinelli-Parker’s experience was no accident. Through a Herculean effort in the months leading up to the fall semester, a coordinated network of campus partners — including Yale Health personnel, public health experts, facilities staff, ITS workers, Yale Hospitality employees, professors, administrators, students, and many others — transformed the operations of a complex residential research university to meet the demands of collegiate life in a time of pandemic. They gathered and analyzed data, devised or reinvented systems and protocols, inspired new behaviors — and developed a large-scale COVID-19 testing and contact tracing program that enabled Yale to invite thousands of students back to campus for a meaningful academic experience.

It wasn’t perfect. There were positive COVID-19 cases on campus during the semester — but there were no major outbreaks.

Yale students gathered on the lawn near Sterling Memorial Library in August.
Yale students gathered on the lawn near Sterling Memorial Library in August.

And while it was an unusual semester, the systems established before students arrived kept the university running, prioritized the health and wellbeing of those on campus and in the larger community, and maintained an atmosphere in which professors and students could teach, conduct research, and learn.

So many people across the Yale community have rallied in extraordinary ways to meet the demands of this unusual time,” said President Peter Salovey. “Their creativity and resilience have allowed us to not only sustain but advance Yale’s mission of teaching and learning.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the critical importance of research and education, insight and understanding, to our world. It has also underlined our interdependence as a human family,” Salovey said. “Yale’s success is a product of thousands of staff members, students, and faculty who helped us weather the challenges of the past 10 months.”

It was a challenging semester but a successful one, said Provost Scott Strobel.

We built new infrastructures and introduced new systems to modify university functions and prioritize the health and wellbeing of those in the Yale and New Haven communities,” he said. “I am grateful to everyone who worked tirelessly over the summer and during the fall semester. Their efforts made it possible for the university to continue its teaching and research functions this year.”

Preparing for the unknown

Pericles Lewis, Yale’s vice president for global strategy and vice provost for academic initiatives, recalled the magnitude of the challenge the university faced in March, when the first wave of COVID-19 infections in the United States prompted Yale leaders to shut down much of the campus, ask undergraduate students not to return after spring break, and switch to remote classes.

At the time, he said, the challenge of preparing for a possible return to campus in the fall was daunting.

Our students were spread out all over the country. All over the world,” Lewis said. “Collectively, we began to outline the things that would need to happen to resume campus activities, such as wearing masks, physical distancing, testing, contact tracing. How would we deliver courses? How would we reorganize residential life? We formed committees to look at everything.”

Yale Hospitality staff
More than 60 Yale Hospitality employees were trained by Yale Health to observe and collect self-administered COVID-19 tests on campus. 

Yale had some advantages in coming to grips with COVID-19, campus leaders discovered. Because the Northeast was hit by the virus so early, Lewis said, New Haven residents were immediately aware of the gravity of the situation. Yale also benefited from swift action by state and local governments to control spread of the virus.

But there was still a lot of work to do within the university.

It took a long time to get to a point where we felt confident about bringing students back,” Lewis said. “Our deans discussed how many students could live at the residential colleges while maintaining physical distancing and other safety guidelines. It just wasn’t realistic to bring them all back. We couldn’t have that level of density without causing a spike.”

Intensive work throughout the spring and summer led to a July announcement in which Yale detailed its plans, which would involve bringing only a portion of students back to campus.

The university said it would invite graduate and professional school students, as well as first-years, juniors, and seniors, to campus for the fall semester; in the spring, conditions permitting, sophomores and first-years would switch. When Yale College classes started Aug. 31, residential density was about 40% of normal capacity. After the Thanksgiving break, all classes would be remote for the remainder of the semester — a move prompted by public health concerns that the virus would intensify as winter drew near and that viral transmission would be enabled by student travel. The announcement also detailed testing protocols, limitations on events and gatherings, and continued monitoring of public health conditions.

Yale’s planning and ongoing surveillance efforts were guided by the advice of a public health committee chaired by Dr. Stephanie Spangler, vice provost for health affairs.

We were so fortunate to engage Yale’s many experts,” Spangler said. “They ranged across fields, from public health and health care to policy modeling and analytics to emergency response and environmental health and safety. Their advice was aimed at preventing infections wherever possible and quickly identifying and isolating those who did become infected in order to prevent outbreaks.”

bulletin board reminds passersby wash your hands
A sign on campus offered an important reminder to passersby.

Meanwhile, the virus was on the move in the United States.

As Yale leaders saw the numbers of positive COVID-19 cases rise in the South in July and August, they revised Yale’s planned COVID-19 testing protocols for returning students: There would be both pre-arrival and at-arrival asymptomatic testing for students, as well as ongoing screening of asymptomatic individuals throughout the semester. Undergraduates enrolled in residence and graduate and professional students living in high-density dormitory housing would be tested twice each week. All students living in residential colleges and Old Campus dormitories quarantined in their residences for 14 days after arrival.

There also was the matter of moving students into their rooms.

We spread the arrivals out over five days to keep density down, provided movers for them, and had food and services waiting for them so they could hunker down for the initial quarantine period,” said Donald Filer, associate vice president for global strategy, who led the move-in effort.

Filer’s team had been in constant motion since Yale’s March decision that students would not return to campus after spring break. Thousands of campus dorm rooms contained students’ belongings, which needed to be removed and either returned to the students or put in storage.

As that work was under way, Yale readied dormitory rooms for local first responders and health care workers caring for COVID-19 patients. This meant providing fresh linens, pillows, blankets, and toiletries; arranging for laundry services; and arranging for the rooms to be spread around campus, with new signage to direct guests. Yale Conferences & Events coordinated a check-in operation for guests and Yale Hospitality provided drop-off meals.

We invented new systems for all of this, and again when we moved in students in the fall,” Filer said. “It worked because we were clear that safety was the top priority.”

Student self-administering COVID-19 test.
Most of the residential colleges were equipped with COVID-19 testing sites. Students were tested twice weekly to reduce the spread of the virus.

For the fall semester move-in, Yale created an online scheduling system that included automated confirmations of move-in times, reminders of move-in information, and labels printed for each box going into a dorm room to streamline the process for students and their families and minimize unnecessary interactions.

Filer’s team enlisted the same system for moving first-years out of the dorms before Thanksgiving, and he anticipates another move-in for sophomores for the Spring 2021 semester. “It’s a big lift,” he said, “and things are always changing.”

We decided to be transformational’

Yale’s biggest test this semester may have been COVID-19 testing.

Given what we learned about asymptomatic infection and transmission of COVID-19, we determined that a testing program that would allow us to identify infections early and prevent further transmission would be essential to an on-campus experience,” Spangler said.

The university launched a pilot testing program on May 20, screening nearly 1,500 asymptomatic faculty members, students, and staff by the middle of July. Yale Health staff conducted the tests — as many as 200 a day — at Prospect-Sachem Garage.

There were only five positive tests during the pilot period — a positivity rate of 0.27% and an encouraging sign that Yale’s campus had a low rate of asymptomatic cases.

Behind the scenes, Yale officials were planning how to effectively and efficiently scale up testing for the fall.

We spent a lot of the summer immersed in modeling for our testing strategy,” said Dr. Madeline Wilson, chief quality officer at Yale Health and chair of the COVID-19 Testing and Tracing Committee. “It was a complex process with many unknowns. But our leadership committed to an approach and we built the infrastructure to make it happen. They had confidence in what we were building.”

outdoor classroom at Yale school of environment
Mark Bradford, a professor at Yale School of the Environment, taught a class underneath a tent outside Kroon Hall.

By the time students arrived in August, Yale had created a digital interface that could handle the flow of data from multiple testing sites around campus. Yale also secured an arrangement with the Massachusetts-based Broad Institute to process tests and deliver results within 24 to 36 hours. The university had a plan in place to isolate anyone who might test positive — with housing, meals, and contact tracing — to prevent small spikes in positive cases from becoming a full-blown outbreak.

Wilson said one of Yale’s key strategic moves was to involve a wide range of campus experts to consider all issues that might crop up on campus and collaborate on solutions. And a secret weapon emerged in the university’s ability to expand its COVID-19 testing program — the staff of Yale Hospitality, which runs the dining halls.

Yale Hospitality reimagined food service throughout the university’s 14 dining halls while providing critical resources for essential tasks during the pandemic. Even before COVID-19, Yale Hospitality was well-versed in the principles of emergency management. The staff had dealt with blizzards, power outages, and a variety of campus events that required a reshuffling of resources and new ways of doing things.

In the hospitality industry we have to remain agile, as continuous change is inherent to what we do,” said Rafi Taherian, associate vice president of Yale Hospitality. “We call it 86-ing the past.”

More than 60 Yale Hospitality employees, trained by Yale Health, have been observing and collecting self-administered COVID-19 tests on campus; others worked with Yale Facilities staff to clean rooms and pack boxes.

We could have been sad and depressed,” Taherian said. “We decided to be transformational.”

Throughout the Yale community, others did likewise. For example, the university established the Community for New Haven Fund to support health care delivery, assistance for local businesses, community education needs, and area not-for-profits, and contributed the first $1 million to the fund. And Yale transformed the Lanman Center in Payne Whitney Gymnasium into a field hospital.

Researcher in lab.
Yale continued to pursue fundamental and applied research while observing strict health and safety precautions, including the use of masks.

The Office of Environmental Health and Safety worked with partners across campus to procure and distribute personal protective equipment for faculty, staff, and students. And at the university's millwork shop, craftsmen pivoted to building and installing hundreds of plastic partitions that were added to desks, tables, and workspaces across campus to minimize spread of the virus. They also designed, built, and maintained the self-testing pods that were used all semester on campus.

Scientists in Yale laboratories found cautious but effective ways to continue cutting-edge research and designers in the Office of the University Printerproduced new health and safety signage and public service messages.

Faculty members spent the summer sharpening their remote teaching skills.

Over the summer Yale leaders decided that most classes for the 2020-21 academic year would be remote, even for students living on campus. The public health risk of bringing people into classrooms in high numbers was too great. By August, Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning had worked with 1,200 faculty members, teaching fellows, and academic staff to reinvent their courses for remote delivery. The Poorvu staff conducted one-on-one consultations, provided iPads and camera equipment to instructors who needed them, and in one case arranged for a physics professor to incorporate a large blackboard in his digitally delivered lectures.

Our faculty put in the time to make this work and learn best practices,” Lewis said.

The faculty in particular focused on ways to make the remote learning experience meaningful. For example, instructors discovered that students did not want to see highly-polished, recorded lectures that looked like TV documentaries, Lewis said. They preferred the experience of watching a lecture delivered in real time, even if there was an occasional glitch.

Anna Martinelli-Parker doing school work outdoors.
First-year student Anna Martinelli-Parker spent her first semester as a Yale student on campus. “We shared an experience no one at Yale has ever had before,” she said. “We found ways to make connections with the people around us despite the barriers to doing so.”

A new routine

As the initial, post-arrival student quarantine period ended and weeks passed, the number of positive COVID-19 cases remained remarkably low. No significant outbreaks occurred until October, when 19 members of the men’s ice hockey team tested positive — a spike that was quickly contained through extensive contact tracing and the quarantine of all team members and staff who’d had contact with players who tested positive. In November, as cases increased nationwide and locally, Yale imposed additional precautions, which included requiring many students to stay on campus.

By all accounts, students, faculty, and staff embraced the healthy behaviors outlined in the Yale Community Compact and in the Statement of Community Expectations — which documented the campus community’s shared commitment to follow hygiene protocols, testing requirements, travel restrictions, and other public safety measures.

Doing the testing seemed odd at first, but now it’s routine for me,” said Martinelli-Parker.

Every fall semester weekend she scheduled her next two COVID-19 tests for Tuesdays and Fridays. On those days, she walked from her Jonathan Edwards College suite to her assigned testing site — JE’s former black box theater.

She’d blow her nose as required, use hand sanitizer, and check in. She’d take her test kit into a cubby, using her foot to pull open the door, as all students were prompted to do. After swabbing the inside of both nostrils, she’d place the swab in a sealable tube and deposit the tube in a box located near the check-in area. Test results were available electronically within a day.

Then it was back to the more customary rituals of life as a Yale undergraduate — studying in Sterling Memorial Library, sitting on Cross Campus on warm days, hiking to the top of East Rock Park. Enabling these aspects of college education, Yale leaders said, was the driving force behind so many months of planning and problem solving.

Some people have asked, ‘What is the benefit of bringing students back to campus, if most of their classes are online?’” said Lewis. “It’s the fact that you learn so much from interacting with your peers, even six feet apart. It’s more than socializing. It’s part of the growth experience.”

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale responds to COVID-19