William Woods University

Silent Spring

When a global pandemic arrived at William Woods in March, there was no playbook on how to handle it. So WWU’s leaders had to make their own.

This story and many others were featured in the official 2020 William Woods University Alumni Magazine, The Woods. Click here to check out the digital version. https://issuu.com/socialmedia-williamwoods/docs/alumni_magazine_2020_final

Friday, February 28 was a cool, sunny day at William Woods University, as an excited campus community looked forward to Spring Break, which would begin the next day. The somewhat mild day seemed like a preview of the typically busy spring at The Woods, with Alumni Weekend, a celebration of the University’s 150th birthday, and commencement all to come.

But what followed in the Spring of 2020 was anything but typical. 

Storm clouds that had been gathering across the world were already impacting the United States, in the form of a strange virus that was sickening and even killing people. Soon, it would completely change the nation, our society and certainly college campuses like William Woods.  

When the calendar turned to March, the campus was about to face one of the biggest challenges in its 150 years – when COVID-19 transformed The Woods from a bastion of April activity into a silent spring.


The first alarm bells began ringing during Spring Break, when President Jahnae H. Barnett issued the University’s first warning about COVID-19 to students who would be returning to campus the following weekend. A “highly contagious respiratory illness that originated in China but has since spread to nations around the world, including the United States,” was how the president described it, and thankfully, the University already had a group, the COVID-19 Preparedness Team, working to address it.

Warnings and notifications to the campus community continued throughout the first full week back in classes (March 9-13), with the exhortations of the mantra (wash your hands, stay physically distanced from others, what to do if you feel ill) that would be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future. Events began to move quickly, and on Thursday, March 12, the University announced that all classes would be moving to online delivery beginning Monday, March 16. Already, the University faced its first challenge in a lifetime of them connected to the newly arrived virus – quickly moving all classes from in-person to all online in a matter of days.

Dr. Venita Mitchell
Dr. Venita Mitchell, Vice President and Dean of Student Life, briefs University personnel inside the emergency operations center on March 21, 2020.

“We anticipated the impact that COVID-19 could have and moved classes online, with students originally getting the option to learn virtually from their residence hall room or move home to complete the semester,” said Aimee Sapp, Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs. “It was challenging to switch delivery modalities in the middle of a semester, but our faculty did a great job.”

“Our traditional academic program is intentionally residential, so going all online was going to have a direct impact on our mission and expectations of our students,” said Venita Mitchell, Vice-President and Dean of Student Life. “Our programs and services for traditional students were designed for in-class and in-person delivery, so we had to adapt immediately.”

One by one, like dominoes falling, other events were cancelled out of concern for the safety of students, faculty and staff – and also just due to the unknown. A March 13th campus speaking engagement by a Helen Stephens biographer, one of the University’s prominent 150th Anniversary commemorative events, was cancelled, as well as all remaining intercollegiate sporting events for the  spring. And on Monday, March 16, came the most devastating announcements – commencement, Alumni Weekend and all 150th Anniversary commemorative events – were all cancelled.

“We understand that these are difficult decisions, but we will always follow the guidelines set by our state and federal government, and always act in the best interest of the health and safety of the entire William Woods community,” said President Barnett in a statement; informing the campus.

Nurse Practitioner Kristen Oesch
WWU Nurse Practitioner Kristen Oesch performs a health screening on a student during the COVID-19 pandemic.


By Wednesday evening, the first positive COVID-19 cases were springing up around mid-Missouri. The University announced the closure of campus services such as Dulany Library, Weider Fitness Center, and the Owl’s Nest, and instructed students to begin the process of preparing to move off of campus. Employees were instructed to begin working at home.

The virus and its impact were escalating around the nation and in The Woods’s own backyard, so it was time to take the University’s response to the next level. William Woods activated its Emergency Operations Plan (EOP), the procedure by which a team of WWU employees specifically trained to respond to campus emergencies would begin working around the clock out of its headquarters in Aldridge Hall to address the threat.

“We knew we needed to commit more resources to preparation, so we activated the EOP which allowed us to focus almost exclusively on COVID planning,” said Mitchell, one of the co-chairs of the EOP. “Emergency planning is labor intensive, and if you don’t have a process for developing the plan and distributing the work and decision-making, you can cripple your organization.”

Fellow co-chair Scott Zimmerman, Instructor of Leadership and Military Studies, agreed.

COVID-19 updates
Updates about COVID-19 were posted to the William Woods University website on a regular basis to keep the WWU community informed.

“Thankfully, we have an EOP here at William Woods, and had trained on it as an institution multiple times,” Zimmerman said. “So once we had an active case of COVID on campus, and the likelihood of several more within hours of the first one, we activated the Emergency Operation Center which allowed us to manage the crisis 24-7 from one location.”

Which was fortunate, because the first positive case of the virus at William Woods was at hand.


On the evening of March 19, 2020, it was confirmed: a William Woods student had tested positive for COVID-19, the first positive case on campus, making Friday, March 20, a highly unusual day at The Woods.

In a pre-dawn message to the campus community, President Barnett announced that all remaining students still residing on campus were instructed to pack up and leave. But while that order would be a step toward making William Woods a safer place, it also created the complication of students returning to their homes and hometowns and potentially spreading the virus there. So, the University initiated pre-departure health screenings for all students preparing to leave, consistent with all guidance from local, state and federal health authorities.

Downtown at Fulton City Hall, Vice-President of Strategic Communications John Fougere was briefing members of the mid-Missouri media in a news conference about the University’s response to the positive case, which was the first positive case in Callaway County.

“There is no playbook for managing a global pandemic on a college campus,” Fougere told assembled reporters. “We are taking all precautions to protect not only the members of our William Woods campus community, but the Fulton and Callaway County communities as well.”

John Fougere
John Fougere, Vice President of Strategic Communications, briefs members of the media at a March 20, 2020 news conference at the Fulton City Hall.

With campus beginning to empty out, a host of new challenges continued to make themselves known. How to handle additional positive cases, and where to house those still on campus that do test positive? What about those who were in close contact with fellow students who tested positive? How to feed those students still on campus? What about international students, who could not leave? 

With campus becoming quieter by the hour, the logistical challenges seemed to simultaneously become louder. Fortunately, the teamwork of WWU staff both working out of the EOC and others,, came through.

“Within hours, our athletic department staff had taken over meal delivery to residence halls, residential life staff was coordinating the campus check-out process, and other staff were taking care of a variety of student needs along with communication with our hall staff in the residence halls and local health department,” said Mitchell. “It was impressive how faculty and staff outside of residential life were able to step into the emergency operation process to assist or take the lead in areas like communication, operations, finance and facilities.”

“Working extended shifts in our EOC was exhausting and challenging, however there was something very special about it as well,” said Sapp. “When you are deeply devoted to the institution and truly care about the students, there is a sense of pride in caring for your community. Every drive home was still filled with satisfaction in knowing our team was doing everything we could to keep our community safe.”

On Saturday came the news of three additional positive cases on campus. By Monday, March 23, the number was up to nine as campus continued to empty out. Eventually, the count of positive cases among students would top off at 13. Staff in the EOC, working 24/7 throughout the first few days of the crisis, set up a special page on the campus website with nothing but COVID-19 information for students, their parents, faculty and staff. 

Campus maintenance staff, meanwhile, took on the potentially hazardous work of cleaning and disinfecting all rooms, offices and common areas on campus that had been deserted by departed students, faculty and staff. 

Challenges unique to WWU had to be addressed as well, like how to care for the horses from the University’s Equestrian Science program. The resilience and perseverance of the EQS staff, in performing the physically-demanding work with a limited number of faculty available, was one more heroic story of William Woods staff stepping up during the dark days of March 2020.

Across the William Woods campus during the week of March 23-27, the grounds were greening, flowers were beginning to bloom and the hint of spring got more prominent by the day. Only instead of the sounds of a busy mid-semester at The Woods, there were only the sounds of silence.


By Saturday March 28, one of the most demanding weeks in the history of William Woods had come to  an end. It has been just one month since the carefree last day of classes before spring break back on February 28, and campus life at William Woods, and the world, seemingly had changed forever.

Most students and employees were working from home, and the campus sat quiet. Ahead lay endless challenges concerning how to complete the spring semester in a virtual format, followed by the planning of a fall semester, under what figured to be especially trying conditions. 

But due to hard work, unbelievable commitment, admirable flexibility and unending cooperation, the staff, faculty and students at William Woods had pulled the University through a most difficult set of circumstances. Classes were seamlessly transitioned to online. The move-out process for students was handled safely and effectively. Students remaining on campus, whether infected with the virus or not, were cared for compassionately. And not a single William Woods employee tested positive for the virus in the process.

WWU Emergency Operations Center
Dr. Venita Mitchell, Vice President and Dean of Student Life, Dr. Aimee Sapp, Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs, and Scott Zimmerman, Instructor of Leadership and Military Studies, meet in the WWU Emergency Operations Center during the early days of the pandemic.

“Looking back, one of the biggest challenges was the unknown. There is still a lot we don’t know about COVID months later, but we knew even less in March,” said Mitchell. “The work we all had to do – managing the outbreak of a global health care crisis on a college campus – can take one into an abyss of frustration and fatigue pretty quickly. I have had to step back and remind myself and others that we are managing something no one in our positions has ever had to do. There is still a long way to go, but we should all be proud of ourselves.”

Leave it to President Barnett, who marked her 30th year as WWU President during the fateful year of 2020 and has seen and experienced more on this campus than few in its history, to put the events in March in perspective.

“Witnessing how our campus community has come together – from employees working literally around the clock in our Emergency Operations Center, to our faculty seamlessly transitioning their instruction to online delivery, to the hard work of our essential employees ensuring meals continue to be delivered and cleaning and disinfecting campus, and our staff who continue to work hard from home – we have worked as one team to help mitigate this unheard-of disaster,” the President wrote. 

“As we slowly return to whatever our new normal will look like in the coming weeks, we will always look back on the creativity and energy that everybody on this campus displayed in supporting the mission of the University during these trying times.

Perhaps one day we will look back upon March 2020 not as a tragedy for our University, but as its finest hour.”

This story and many others were featured in the official 2020 William Woods University Alumni Magazine, The Woods. Click here to check out the digital version. https://issuu.com/socialmedia-williamwoods/docs/alumni_magazine_2020_final