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How SLU Responded

SLU’s first full semester in a COVID-19 world succeeded because of the people who made it happen. Here are seven of their stories.

General chemistry class in Busch Student Center

General chemistry students attend class in the Wool Ballroom in Busch Student Center on the first day of classes, Aug. 17.

When Saint Louis University began classes on campus nine days early on Aug. 17, nothing was certain.

Would students, faculty and essential staff stay safe and healthy? Could in-person classes and on-campus living persist throughout the semester? Would hybrid-style classes designed for students both in the classroom and online work?

By the time students left campus at Thanksgiving to take their final exams at home, the answers were clear: Yes, yes and yes.

Campus safeguards included a strict policy for face masks, requirements for social distancing and group gatherings, continued remote working for all non-essential employees, cancellation of all in-person campus events and limited visitor access to campus.

Allowing students and faculty to attend and teach classes in person, online or both also contributed to SLU’s safe semester. In addition, the University reduced campus housing density and set aside space for approximately 150 students to isolate or quarantine on campus.

Testing also was a key component in SLU’s pandemic response. In August, the University tested all 3,500 residential students for COVID-19 before they moved into campus housing. In September, SLU began weekly random testing of 10% of all residential students showing no signs of infection. Nursing students administered the tests for asymptomatic students. SLU also launched a rapid contact tracing program staffed by students pursuing master’s degrees in public health.

Despite a small uptick in positive cases around Halloween that were linked primarily to off-campus social activities, SLU’s overall positivity rate remained far lower than in the region or the state. There were no reported positive cases linked to classroom or lab exposure.

Here, meet seven of the people who played a part in SLU’s fall success story.

Jahmal Borden

First-Year Student

Freshman Jahmal Borden's first visit to campus was the day last August when  he moved into Grand Hall. His initial view of his new home came as he crossed the Grand Boulevard bridge at the end of his eight-hour car trip from his hometown just outside of Atlanta.

Jahmal Borden

Borden

“I was planning to come in March, and then COVID hit,” Borden said. “So I just took a walk out on faith. I thought, I’m going to try it. If it doesn’t work out, I know the way home. But if it works and it succeeds, even better, because I’ll have no regrets. My parents wanted me to stay locally, but I was determined I was going somewhere different from the world I knew. Life is about adventure, and I’m strapped-in for this one.”

It was the start of a very COVID college experience. As soon as he arrived on campus, Borden met his roommate, and they went to take their mandatory COVID-19 tests together. Later in the semester, he was randomly selected for asymptomatic testing. He’s seen his floormate moved into quarantine due to close contact with a person who tested positive for the virus. And though most of his classes are in person, some were virtual.

He flourished in both settings. “My Chinese class was totally online, and the instructor was really responsive to her email,” Borden said. “I’ve sent her an email at 2 a.m., and I got an email back almost instantaneously.”

Borden, who is majoring in international business and considering a second major in Chinese, has brought his adventurous spirit to meeting new people on campus, despite social distancing restrictions and some virtual learning. “I’m naturally a social butterfly,” he said. “During the introduction for business students on Zoom, I saw a kid and thought, ‘Dang, he looks unnaturally just like me.’ So I messaged him in the chat and said, ‘Hey, you look scarily just like me. We need to meet for lunch.’ And he agreed to meet. We hit it off, and just about every weekend we get toget her a long with our roommates.”

Of course, whenever they gather, they are staying safe. Borden is committed to doing his part to keep himself and others healthy. “You’ve got to wear masks all day and be socially distant,” he said. “If we all do our small part, it’ll add up to something greater. Caring for our whole selves and for the betterment of each other helps achieve that goal for SLU. They say a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If we make sure our weakest links are protected, then that protects the whole chain.”

That philosophy is certainly reflected in Borden’s community service efforts during the fall semester. As part of his scholarship requirements — he received SLU’s Martin Luther King Jr. and Dean’s Scholarships, as well as two private scholarships — he began volunteering weekly in the St. Francis Xavier College Church rectory, assisting people who need to track down vital documentation, such as birth certificates. “People come in from all walks of life and most are just trying to get their lives back on track,” he said. “It’s amazing who you meet and how a little piece of paper can make a big difference in their lives. It is rewarding every day I do it.”

Borden closed out his high school days like so many members of the class of 2020 — with a drive-up diploma parade, a virtual ceremony and no prom. But he looks back on it with a wisdom that belies his age. “The COVID-19 crisis is a defining moment not only for me but for my generation,” he said. “I say that because even though we’re going through this struggle, I think it’s going to strengthen us as we go forward. It’s turned the world upside down, and it forced us to look with a new perspective. The world literally changed before my eyes, and I never thought that could happen.”

He explained: “I always thought I’d be living that corporate lifestyle — thousands of people working in a skyscraper in some big city. But now I know that type of work will exist more in a virtual format. So I had to restructure my life goals and plans.

“But if something’s easy, you don’t get anything out of it. So in struggling to adapt my goals, I started learning more things, especially in my information technology management class. My professor recommended different skills to acquire if you plan to enter fields where computers will be your whole life. It gives you a little bit of comfort that though the world is changing, there are small things that you can do so you don’t get left behind.

“That was the most rewarding part of it — when you get shot down in life, you open up new possibilities. I’m reevaluating my plans and the paths I want to take in this life. There’s a big world out there, and I’m learning more about the unforgettable impact that I can have on it every day!”

Kathleen Davis

Vice President, Enrollment and Retention Management

For decades, recruiting a student to Saint Louis University has relied on a personal touch — conversations at college fairs, on-campus tours, special events. When the world shut down in March, Kathleen Davis and her enrollment and retention management team were already working to figure out college recruitment in a virtual world.

“I took a recruitment trip to India in mid-February,” she said. “Coming back, we knew that something was askew. So, on March 16, when SLU sent people to work from home and students had been informed that classes would be virtual, my team had already pre-planned. We knew what we needed to do to get home offices set up, to have digital activities arranged so that we could be running on day one.”

Davis’ team includes not just admission counselors recruiting new students but also the staff in financial services, international student services and the registrar’s office, all of whom serve current students. “The goal for all of us within the division was to focus on how do we best serve the students, both new and continuing,” she said. “We had to make very certain that what we were doing was done well initially and then build upon it.

“We had enrolled the University’s largest class in fall 2019,” Davis said. “And we needed to keep motivated as a team, but also help students and their families make decisions when they were experiencing what they felt was a loss. So, our team really worked hard on how we enroll students and how we also retain the continuing students.”

One key group of continuing SLU students they had to consider were those studying abroad in the spring. “We had students abroad whom we had to bring back because study abroad experiences closed,” Davis said. “There was a rush to get into the country. On top of it, the consulates shuttered, and so we couldn’t process visas through for fall the way that we would have historically.”

Other efforts to assist current Billikens included developing online outreach for financial aid, billing and registration. Davis’ team also handled spring housing refunds and processing special circumstance requests.

Likewise, communicating with prospective students and their families also pivoted quickly. “We had to go from participating in larger college fairs in an in-person venue to doing college fairs in a digital environment,” she said. “All of our on-campus tours went digital this summer. We’re now back to offering small family tours in person, but still, the bulk of our tours are done digitally, as are the information sessions. Our financial aid office, for their part, is holding high school financial aid information nights on YouTube.”

The first big test of the online approach to recruitment came early in the summer, when the new first-year undergraduates attended their orientation, known as SLU101, entirely virtually. Typically held on campus for two days, the SLU101 sessions aim to build spirit and connections among the new students.

We modified our style and approach to meet students and families where they are. And while we don’t prefer it to personal contact, we are having more interactions because we can be in multiple spots in a day.”

Davis

Despite the challenges, Davis and her team met their goals, enrolling a freshman class of more than 1,500 students this fall. Still, those students had a normal college-search experience until March 2020. “The real COVID year is 2021,” she said.

“The current high school seniors will have never, unless they were early starters, gone to a college fair or talked with a visiting college counselor at their high school,” she continued. “Our entire recruitment process will have taken place in a digital environment that began when these students were juniors in high school. Plus, some prospective students were delayed in launching their college search process because they and their high schools had to transition how they do it. What we are hearing from many is, ‘We don’t like the unknowns. We’re going to take our time.’”

As Davis and her team nimbly react to the evolving admission landscape, they know one thing for certain: The admission process likely will never go back to the way it was. “People have changed their expectations,” she said. “We modified our style and approach to meet students and families where they are. And while we don’t prefer it to personal contact, we are having more interactions because we can be in multiple spots in a day. For example, I think back to when I was a recruiter in New England. I covered five states, and you couldn’t do two visits in Connecticut the same night. Well, guess what? Now I can. So it expands your scheduling capability because you don’t have to account for travel time.”

As SLU adjusts to a new normal and revised ex pectations, Davis is committed to ensuring that she and her staff move forward with creativity in a collaborative environment. “What I’ve come to realize is that the team is more important than ever,” she said. “And when I say team, I mean the entire institution as a team because we rely on the staff and faculty for all of the activities we do. At the end of the day, if we’re all working together, the successes are wins for everyone.”

Manisha Ford-Thomas

Director, Housing and Residence Life

When the University decided to finish the spring semester remotely in mid-March, Manisha Ford-Thomas and her housing and residence life team had to quickly figure out how to safely move students out of the residence halls nearly two months early. 

Manisha Ford-Thomas

Ford-Thomas

Then, before they could catch their collective breath, they were already thinking about fall. “We had to figure out what the proposal was going to look like for students living on campus in a COVID-19 situation,” Ford-Thomas said.

Working closely with colleagues from all across SLU and using recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ford-Thomas and her team put together a plan that needed approval from Dr. Fredrick Echols, director of the City of St. Louis Department of Health. “He was able to give strong guidance on what our occupancy needed to be for this year,” Ford-Thomas said. And, surprisingly, the final plan was not as drastic as some originally expected. While some had anticipated having only one student per residence hall room, that was not required. Instead, all rooms would have a double occupancy, even those that typically housed three and four students.

“One of the blessings for us was that Clemens Hall had just been renovated in 2020,” Ford-Thomas said. “It allowed us to offer spaces to about the same number of students as we typically do. We accommodated everyone who wanted to live on campus, and that filled about 90% of what we had available.”

Still, when classes started Aug. 17, there was no certainty how the semester would play out. “At the start of this process, if you had told me that we would have ended the semester with the low positivity numbers that we have had, I would have been the biggest naysayer,” Ford-Thomas said. “But truly listening to SLU’s resident epidemiologist Dr. Terri Rebmann (Grad VSN ’06), who was clear about what we’re going to be able to do and not do, was very helpful for how we proceeded.

“And ultimately it’s about the students. The students have taken this situation seriously.”

That serious approach began day one when students were required to take a COVID-19 test during move-in. “We made a decision, a little late in the typical process, to test all of the students as they were moving into their residence halls,” Ford-Thomas said. “And it was an amazing opportunity because it wasn’t something that we had initially planned for as we were organizing the move-in schedule. So it had to be accommodated after the fact. But testing was definitely a key step because it meant that we did not have to guess whether or not students were asymptomatic, and thus it made a difference in having students live on campus for the whole semester.”

Of course, that success has come with its own challenges, especially with helping students socialize during these socially distanced times.

“When we moved to this current model of on-campus living, we were so immersed in logistics, we didn’t spend as much time planning for community-building virtually or thinking about how our first-year students would meet new people,” Ford-Thomas said. “It was just hard. I especially think about our less-social students and how we help them to find their community.

“Before COVID, we can often see that. You see a student and they’re alone, and the housing and residence life staff figures out ways to help them. But no one is really interacting in the usual places, so it’s harder to identify those students who need help. Our staff is used to knocking on doors and calling people together and going to the movies or eating together. So many of the things that we normally do are not a part of our routine anymore.

“Now, the students are telling us what they want and what they need. So we’re trying to be intentional to continue to give them support. And our team had to learn that they can be creative. We’re pushing ourselves and learning along the way.”

She continued: “I’m grateful because I don’t know if we would have thought as intentionally about how we do so many of the things that we are doing virtually. And now we can improve from what we had to put together quickly.”

All this planning has prepared Ford-Thomas for what uncertainties the spring holds. “We work in crisis management,” Ford-Thomas said. “You never quite know what’s coming. Throughout the fall semester, our efforts continued to evolve, knowing that these students have done an amazing job keeping each other safe and accountable. We also know that going forward, we need to support families who are very engaged with life at SLU, even if they’ve never set foot on campus.

“We’re really preparing for whatever comes next. After this semester, we’re going to be able to confront all that it means to live on campus and knowledgeably support those who need us.”

Dr. Joel Jennings

Assistant Professor and Undergraduate Director, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

During the 2019 Christmas break, Dr. Joel Jennings (Grad CSB '20) took a course designed to train faculty members to teach online.  Little did he know then how quickly he’d put that training to use. “It was an incredibly fortuitous opportunity,” he said.

Dr. Joel Jennings

Jennings

Like all SLU faculty, when the pandemic first hit in March and Saint Louis University transitioned to virtual learning, Jennings brought his spring semester classes online. And he taught his first fully online class over the summer. Jennings also used many of the techniques he learned when developing his hybrid classes this fall.

In the spring, Jennings served on a SLU COVID-19 planning committee, so he knew fairly early on how the fall would look: Most classes would be in person with the option for students to take their courses virtually. This hybrid model — with some students online and a larger number in the classroom — presented new challenges for Jennings and his faculty colleagues that they didn’t encounter in a purely virtual setting.

“I understood the necessity for us to be back in the classroom if that was physically possible,” he said. “And I would always prefer to be live in the classroom because it allows me to read the students at a much higher level. But I will admit to having some anxiety going into the semester.

“The biggest concern was making sure that everything was integrated seamlessly so that if we had students who needed to move from in-classroom instruction to online instruction for any reason, we’re able to accommodate them,” he said. “That meant over the summer spending a significant amount of time transforming classroom materials, examinations, quizzes and the teaching instruction into a format that can be offered just as effectively online as in person.

“For me, that meant reformatting my classes fairly significantly and moving a lot of my content completely online so that all students, even those in the classroom, would then be able to use it.”

Jennings, who taught four classes in the fall, had approximately 145 students and regularly saw 100 in the classroom. Though he felt prepared by his training, particularly thanks to assistance from SLU’s Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, he said there were still worries as fall approached. “As faculty members going into the semester, we wondered whether we would be able to deliver the quality of education that we expected at the standards to which we hold ourselves,” he said.

What Jennings learned is that rigorous education is possible online. “I’ve actually been quite pleased with the outcomes this semester,” he said. “In some ways, the changes that I have made due to the COVID protocols have resulted in students performing better on some outcomes than they did previously. And as a result, I’m going to keep some of the quizzing formats that I have developed over the semester in place, even after protocols end.

“There are always challenges” he continued. “Being on Zoom a lot is a significant challenge. But I have been really proud of the students and the work that they have put in to deal with the extra challenge of taking courses on Zoom and being socially distanced. By and large, the discipline that they have shown and the commitment to their education has been really impressive.”

Also impressive to Jennings are his encounters with students. “I’ve been really pleased with the interactions that I’ve had, both online and in person, throughout the semester,” he said. “I have seen a high level of engagement from students across my classes. And that has been both comforting and affirming to see that students are connecting with the material.

“I’m teaching in a classroom with a mask on while I’m also mediating an online experience, and the students are still engaging fully with the class. And a number of students have reached out after class for either assistance or for guidance about becoming a sociology major. Students really are fully encountering the courses. To me, that’s as much a measure of success as we could have hoped for.”

Though Jennings was regularly on campus in socially distant classrooms during the semester, the rest of his work has been strictly online. “All of our department meetings are virtual,” he said. “All of our office hours are virtual. So I really don’t encounter my colleagues unless we happen to be passing at the beginning of a class.”

And, yet, Jennings and his faculty colleagues learned as much as their students during the pandemic. “As a colleague of mine in the department says, ‘Chaos can be revealing,’” he said. “And in this particular case, the challenges posed by COVID led to an opportunity to rethink assignments, to rethink the way that we deliver classes and in doing so, reinforce the things that were working. They also opened up some new opportunities for doing things differently that have led to some positive outcomes.”

Gabriela Keator

Senior Student, Campus Ministry Intern

Gabriela Keator's senior year is not how she imagined it. Keator, who is from western Massachusetts and is studying sociology with a concentration in immigration, had long looked forward to her stint as one of four undergraduate campus ministry student interns.

Gabriela Keator

Keator (left) and fellow campus ministry intern, Joe Laughlin

The coveted and active internships typically involve attending the Ignatian Family Teach for Justice in Washington, D.C., leading retreats and days of reflection, organizing residence hall Masses, and helping out with Sunday liturgies. The “minterns” (as they refer to themselves) also normally spend time planning pop-in campus ministry events.

But not this year.

“It’s usually a lot of very human, face-to-face contact, and that’s just not possible right now,” Keator said. So she got creative.

Keator, along with fellow senior minterns Brielle Heraty, Joe Laughlin and Will Sigmund, came up with a plan to provide care packages to SLU students who were isolating or quarantining due to COVID-19 positive diagnoses or exposure.

“I come from a background and style of ministry that is really focused on accompaniment, making sure that people know that they are seen, known and loved, wherever they are and whatever their circumstances,” she said. “One of my go-to quotes is, ‘Where your Creator calls you to be is where your greatest passion meets the
world’s greatest need.’ Care packages filled my passion for accompaniment with the need for very direct care and outreach in a socially distant way to students who are experiencing a period of quarantine and isolation. We believe that the narrative changes when someone walks into a quarantine or isolation unit and sees something there for them.

“It can change the narrative from ‘I’m really scared and alone’ to ‘I’m scared, and I’m alone, and people still know that I’m here and care about me.’ So the other minterns and I got together and wrote a proposal. With the help of Sue Chawszczewski (Grad Ed ’98), director of campus ministry, we were planning care package distribution one week later.”

The care packages come in a campus-ministry-branded tote bag and contain a water bottle, journal, pen, stress ball, travel-size toiletries and an assortment of snacks. They also include a handwritten note from a student, a list of resources and a letter from the vice president for student development. It took less than a week to raise $4,000 to fund the supplies, with donations coming mostly from the parents of current students.

The minterns, along with campus ministry student workers, do the prep work, collecting and packaging. SLU’s coordinator for quarantining students makes sure the care packages get delivered.

Keator’s care package idea came to her because she listened. “My mom saw in SLU’s Parent and Family Facebook group that parents had been talking about how they could support students in quarantine and isolation,” she said. “I also have friends who are resident advisers who were talking about how their residents felt when they were in quarantine and isolation and just how hard that is. There’s not a great way to make it
easier. And I don’t think that a care package makes it exponentially easier. But it does create a little bit more connection.”

Keator, who also works as a barista and still plans virtual Masses and online campus ministry events as part of her internship, juggles a lot with ease. But outreach via care packages presented its own internal obstacles for her. “I have always seen accompaniment as a thing that is done in person,” she said. “So I’ve had to shift my mindset to remember that just because I do not see the recipients of the care packages does not mean that this activity is any less good, important or holy. This is ministry; it’s just unconventional ministry.”

And for Keator, it’s just one part of redefining care during a pandemic. “I’m from the Northeast, and COVID-19 hit us hard,” she said. “My dad is immunosuppressed, so my family takes this very seriously. And I was really concerned about coming back to college in general, but my expectations have either been met or exceeded every day because SLU has made it easy to stay safe. You wear a mask, you don’t allow other people into your living space, and you do whatever you can do outside.

“I want to be able to leave my experience as a Billiken saying I did whatever I could do to keep myself and my community safe, and that doesn’t mean that we’re sacrificing all of the fun and the joy that comes with college. COVID is forcing us not only to be safe but to be really creative and intentional.”

The minterns’ efforts have been well received, generating notes and social media posts of thanks.

Keator said safeguards and care packages come back to one thing — love. “It’s just people loving people,” she said. “I think we desperately need more of that. Being able to play a role in enhancing the clarity of what it looks like to love people right now is a feeling that’s going to stick with me for a while.”

Michael Lucido

Vice President, Facilities Services

Michael Lucido (A&S '98) doesn't teach but he worries about every classroom at Saint Louis University. As vice president for facilities services, Lucido also keeps watch over every office, light bulb, flower bed and air conditioner. It’s a big job any day. It’s a gargantuan job during a pandemic.

Michael Lucido

Lucido (center) and members of the facilities services team: (from left) Maggie Nikolai (CSB ’94), Don Shivers, Tammie Edmonds, Bruce Pratte, Lucido, Philip Capriano, Kent Smith, Denise DorseyWilliams, Tony Sabat and Evelio Gonzalez

“In planning for fall in light of COVID-19, we looked at everything that we could put in place to make campus a safer environment,” Lucido said. “Among our top priorities was improving ventilation within our buildings, bringing in the most amount of outside air that our systems could handle and changing our filtration in our air handling systems to filter out more microorganisms from the air.”

Lucido and his colleagues didn’t stop with the air. They installed more than 900 hand sanitizers in all common spaces on campus. They worked with departments that offer face-to-face service to install Plexiglas barriers. They increased the frequency of their cleaning routines, ensuring that high-touch areas, such as doorknobs, were cleaned multiple times a day. They mounted signs about mask-wearing, social distancing and elevator use throughout campus. They even installed foot pulls on SLU restroom doors so users could enter touch-free.

But their biggest undertaking was adjusting SLU classrooms for social distancing and reconfiguring event spaces, such as the ballrooms in Busch Student Center, for use as classrooms. “Our University architect had to lay out each space, and it wasn’t just the square footage calculation. It was physically calculating a three-foot radius, six-foot diameter around an individual to see how many individuals we could put in a space,” Lucido said.

“Then we also had to account for the furniture that was in the space,” he continued. “Some furniture is fixed; some furniture is movable. We had some lecture halls that lost 70% capacity. They went from 300 to 46 people.”

To ensure distancing in rooms and lecture halls with fixed furniture, Lucido and his team put green and red stickers on seats to identify where students should and shouldn’t sit, marking more than 300 spaces on campus with roughly 14,000 stickers.

For the ballrooms, which lacked classroom-style desks, they had to order more than 600 new tablet armchairs and work with SLU’s Division of Information Technology Services to bring the event spaces up to classroom standards. “It was very important to the University that we offer in-person, face-to-face instruction,” Lucido said. “To do that, we needed to find bigger spaces to accommodate some of those classes. The student center ballrooms and big meeting spaces in DuBourg Hall became easy, logical answers, especially because we knew we weren’t going to be hosting special events.

“But furniture takes time to get — typically seven to eight weeks. We went to our CFO in May to order furniture because we anticipated the need, and that early planning allowed us to open in August with those classrooms in place.”

Another task that kept the facilities team busy this summer was moving existing furniture from classrooms that previously accommodated dozens of students to new classroom spaces that weren’t equipped with desks. “Moving furniture is not as high profile as some of the other projects we tackled this summer, but it was important and one of our bigger logistical challenges,” Lucido said.

Lucido’s team was not daunted by the long list of tasks they tackled during the summer. “Our facilities division — custodial, grounds, distribution, maintenance, parking, construction services — all of these areas played a role in helping us get to where we could maintain our students and faculty over the semester,” he said. “And we worked with partners across the University, from the housing and residence life staff to the registrar to the department chairs and deans — all of them helped us look at different spaces within their own buildings.

“For example, we identified and socially distanced over 450 spaces, and we gave all of that information to Jay Haugen (A&S ’98, Grad CSB ’08), the University registrar. Jay then looked at our options to see what was usable as classroom space given the diminished capacity. It got narrowed down to 250-280 functional spaces.”

Lucido continued: “It was a very collaborative process to work together and figure out solutions for some problems that none of us knew for sure if we had the answer to.”

In the end, there was one answer Lucido knew from the start. “Not that I had any doubts, but the way I watched my team members pull together in a unified manner really showed that we are a division of men and women dedicated to serving others,” he said. “From the very beginning, our actions showed a selfless approach to help ensure the safety of our community, and I’m extremely proud of them for that.

“I would say 90% of my team was deemed emergency essential. And they came in, they stepped up, and they did not look at their job responsibilities nor their job titles. I had everyone from my assistant to project managers to architects to me out stickering classrooms. It didn’t matter what your title was, the job needed to get done. We jumped in together, and we did it.”

Katie Shields

Head Coach, Women's Soccer

Katie Shields spent the summer navigating uncharted waters. In July, when she normally plans her women’s soccer team’s traditional fall competitive season, she and her coaching staff had what she called a “big mindset shift.”

Katie Shields

Shields (center) with players Hannah Friedrich (left) and Elli Brunts (right)

“We had to understand how we were going to not prepare for a fall season and instead prepare for a spring season,” Shields said. “The No. 1 priority has always been the health and safety of our women. So we had two goals this fall. First, that soccer was going to be the best part of their day. Second, we would physically prepare them to play after being away from the game in a structured setting for five months.”

That meant spending two weeks in a re-acclimatization process, including very small group training. It meant that the team does everything in masks. It meant no team meetings or video review sessions because the group is too large to gather. And it meant no activities indoors together other than sport performance training twice a week in small clusters.

“We also had to manage some expectations,” Shields said. “We have two seniors who were planning to graduate in December who extended their studies through the end of the spring semester. There are so many unintended effects and consequences — financial, emotional — that come with moving the season. We’ve just tried to be very adaptable to the needs of our student-athletes.”

Managing expectations includes attempting to plan for the unknown. Although SLU’s conference, the Atlantic 10, moved the women’s soccer championship to spring, as of early winter, the spring schedule was not yet set. “When you don’t know who or when you’re playing, it is very hard to say to the team, ‘OK, we’re working toward this,’” Shields said. “You like to have goals ahead of you.”

Add the overlay of a global pandemic, and there is a risk of further stress for student-athletes. “We are in a competitive business,” Shields said. “There is a seriousness to it, a drive to be the best and excel. But we really have to balance that. Within our program, we’ve dealt with some mental health challenges this fall. It’s challenging to strike a balance between being a very competitive program that wants to succeed, and
caring for that whole person and managing her well-being.”

Adding to the pressure is the team’s record of success. Shields’ players are the backto-back A-10 champions and have lost only one home game during the past four years. “All those things are wonderful,” Shields said. “But there’s a level of disappointment that we didn’t win an NCAA Tournament game last season. So there’s an incredible amount of internal pressure and no space for it in the forefront right now. There are much more important things to focus on, both in the world and within our program.”

And, yet, there have been many positive outcomes of this atypical semester. Shields said the team’s eight freshmen have adapted well to college life. “They’re thriving in a pandemic,” she said. “Freshmen usually come right into a competitive season, and it’s go, go, go. It’s easy for them to get lost in the shuffle. Now, they’ve had time to establish themselves, and I think they’ll have a more successful spring competitive season than they would have had in the fall.”

Without the usual wins and the losses to measure their success, Shields and her coaching staff are identifying other priorities. “There’s the component of joy. Are they laughing? Are there smiles on a day-to-day basis?”

The team also posted their best set of midterm grades since Shields began her SLU coaching career nine years ago. And everyone has stayed healthy. “Keeping the group together and not having any major quarantine scenarios or contributing to any issues on campus are ways we know we’re achieving our goals.”

Another benefit has been the opportunity for Shields to spend more virtual time with her fellow SLU head coaches. “Of course, I haven’t seen any of these humans since March. But every Monday we have a head coaches meeting with the administration via Zoom. And it’s not necessarily Athletic Director Chris May speaking to us; it’s the coaches sharing how they’re navigating recruiting, player management and academic challenges. Usually, you’re so in your lane, your season and your sport that you don’t confer — and the fact that we do is a benefit.”

With a somewhat uncertain immediate season looming, Shields and her coaches must also look even further ahead to ensure the continued viability of SLU’s women’s soccer program. “Another element of pressure that we feel right now is how to recruit and prepare for those future classes,” she said. “That has become signif icantly more challenging during COVID.”

Still, Shields remains optimistic. “We expect our players to be women for and with others,” she said. “The pause in competitiveness has given us a chance to return to our values, to focus on how we operate within a greater community. Maybe another positive unintended result of COVID is a centering that we’ve all gone through both individually and programmatically.”

— By Laura Geiser; photos by Stephen Dolan

Universitas, the award-winning alumni magazine of Saint Louis University, is distributed to SLU alumni, parents and benefactors around the world. The magazine includes campus news, feature stories, alumni profiles and class notes, and has a circulation of 123,700.