Student adjusts crutches, wears a mask and face shield

Laker community adapts to fall semester with safety at forefront

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President Philomena V. Mantella expressed gratitude for the leadership of the Virus Action Team and others for decisions that led to a smooth start to the semester and for constantly monitoring local and regional conditions, in tandem with county health officers, state officials and Spectrum Health.

Campus density is half of a typical semester as 90 percent of the university’s classes are being offered fully online or via hybrid, fewer students are living on campus and many faculty and staff members continue working remotely.

To minimize student travel, classes that can be delivered remotely will begin after Thanksgiving break and final exams will be given remotely in December. The winter semester will begin January 19 and end May 1, without a spring break.

“We have listened carefully to our community and although there is no guaranteed way to approach the challenges we face, we have and will continue to adjust our operations as necessary,” Mantella said.

Student takes testing swab from a gloved hand

Nina Romzek, a junior studying human resource management, moves her face mask down to swab her nose. Romzek was randomly selected to take a COVID-19 test. (Kendra Stanley-Mills)

Random Testing

Grand Valley launched a COVID-19 random testing program during the week of August 23, beginning with residential students at the Allendale and Pew Grand Rapids campuses. 

Jean Nagelkerk, vice provost for health, said the university coordinated testing on campus with Spectrum Health. At the beginning of the semester, there were 390 positive cases of COVID-19 within the campus community. Nagelkerk said the early numbers of positive cases were not surprising.

“We are testing thousands on campus and we expect positive cases,” Nagelkerk said. “We took appropriate action, having students isolate if they have tested positive or quarantine if they have been exposed to someone who tested positive. This will protect our university community and the broader communities in which students live.”

The cost for random testing is covered by the university. The university’s dashboard of self-assessment data, test data and local health information is continually updated.

Throughout the fall semester, the university will test a randomly selected sample of about 1,500 students, faculty and staff members weekly. The number of positive cases associated with Grand Valley early in the semester raised questions in the media.

Greg Sanial, vice president for Finance and Administration and interim director of the Virus Action Team, said the decision to report all verified positive cases associated with the university will provide the most complete picture possible for the campus community and to offer care and support for all students, faculty and staff regardless if they’re fully online or on campus.

New tool for tracing

The university has a new digital tool to help track COVID-19 and help prevent its spread. Its use is entirely voluntary yet strongly encouraged. 

NOVID uses a smartphone’s Bluetooth and ultrasound sensors to accurately and anonymously measure how far away other NOVID users are and how long users have interacted. Once a user reports a positive case, using the app with a token generated by the university, notifications are sent to their NOVID network, without displaying any personally identifying information.

NOVID is private, anonymous and underwent an Independent Privacy review by Georgia Tech and the GVSU IT team. The tool is being used at universities around the country.

To join the GVSU community on NOVID, download the app at or in the app store and under “Settings” enter “GVSU” as the community. 

Professor standing in front of a socially distanced class

Felix Ngassa, professor of chemistry, teaches an organic chemistry class September 1. It’s a hybrid class, half of the students meet in class and half remotely. (Amanda Pitts)

Eyebrow smiles, socially distant start to classes

Whether teaching courses in-person or remotely, Grand Valley faculty members said it felt good to connect with students and reported a good start to the semester.

Roger Gilles, director of the Meijer Honors College and professor of writing, said students in his classes seemed glad to return to normal activities.

“Everyone is adjusting to the face coverings and social distancing,” Gilles said. “We’re learning how to project our voices and use our eyes and eyebrows to smile and frown.

Overall, I’d say that it felt a little less strange than I’d anticipated.”

John Kilbourne, professor of movement science, taught his class under a tent near the Kindschi Hall of Science through October. He began lobbying for outdoor classroom space in the spring, saying he has long been a proponent of “re-imagined classrooms.” 

Kilbourne said students in his classes enjoyed being outside although he did field a few emails one day when rain was predicted. “I replied, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,’” he said, noting it did not rain that day.

On the Health Campus, many class lectures are delivered remotely while labs and clinical-based courses meet face-to-face. The Simulation Lab in the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences has been modified for limited capacity and its users practice specific safety measures.

Andrew Booth, associate professor of physician assistant studies, said providing simulated clinical environments allows students to hone their clinical skills.

“Simulation has been a teaching modality in our program for over a decade and is still a very effective way to provide hands-on education while maintaining COVID-19 precautions,” Booth said.

Eliza MacDonald is an affiliate faculty member and admissions coordinator for athletic training. MacDonald has been teaching remote classes for five years and said she continually incorporates new tools to gain a personal feel within an online format. FlipGrid promotes community, MacDonald said, and Edpuzzle shows videos and gathers student feedback.

Two people stand in front of bright red calder statue in downtown Grand Rapids.

Mark and Rachael Washburn were teaching in Xinzheng, China, when the effects of COVID-19 forced them to return to the U.S. (Amanda Pitts)

COVID-19 disrupts Laker couple teaching in China


Mark Washburn admits he wore the same five shirts for more than five months — washing and rotating them, of course. His wife, Rachael, kept switching between two pairs of shoes.

That’s because most of their belongings — clothes, computers, cameras — are still in their apartment in Xinzheng, China, about 300 miles north of Wuhan. 

The Washburns moved to China in August 2019 to begin their jobs as English instructors at Sias University. They came back to West Michigan in March, after a last-minute, unplanned plane ride to escape the effects of COVID-19. 

They put off buying new clothes, believing they would be able to return to China after a few months.

Mark and Rachael both graduated from Grand Valley in 2016; they met at Cru, a student campus ministry. They got married in 2017 and after a year of marriage, they began planning to teach internationally. 

“The first year of our marriage was pretty average,” Rachael said, laughingly. “We were enjoying life and each other, but life isn’t meant to be comfortable. We wanted to find a bigger purpose.”

People smile in front of mountains

Mark and Rachael Washburn at the Yellow River Cultural Park. (courtesy photo)

Rachael said she was drawn to Mark because he is adventuresome; it didn’t take long for that side of him to show.

“I just started throwing out ideas, like moving to a different city or country. Each time, Rachael would say she didn’t want to go there,” said Mark. “And, then I told her about a conversation I had with a friend about teaching in China, and I was shocked when she said she was open to the idea.”

The Washburns researched a few universities and had originally picked a school in Wuhan.

“We were preparing to teach in Wuhan when we were directed to consider Sias University in Xinzheng,” said Mark. “Looking back now, that was a blessing.”

It didn’t take long for the couple to apply, interview and receive job offers from the university. They applied for visas and finished their jobs: Mark was working in marketing communications for a manufacturing company and Rachael was working in human resources at a local hospital.

“Everything just fell into place,” said Rachael. “We were able to spend some time with family in Michigan before leaving.” 

The Washburns arrived in Xinzheng two days before classes started. They both taught similar classes so they could work on lesson plans together. They each taught about 270 students every week.

“Our students had been learning English their whole lives, but they were learning English from native Chinese speakers who learned English from native Chinese speakers,” Mark explained. “So we were the first native English speaking teachers they had. There was a big learning curve.”

Mark and Rachael were enjoying getting to know their students, the Chinese culture and their small city of about 600,000 in the Henan Province.

“Our city has developed a lot over the last two decades. Just 20 years ago, they were still using horse and carriage to transport things down the road,” said Rachael. 

The couple described their city as always bustling, with people everywhere. And, like the locals, they would travel to Zhengzhou, a nearby city of 10 million, to go to the mall, Starbucks or McDonalds.

After five months, it was January and time to celebrate the Chinese new year. School would be off for six weeks so the Washburns took the opportunity to travel and see family in Australia and connect with fellow Lakers in Thailand.

At the time of their arrival in Australia, terrible wildfires were being battled and there were news reports about a respiratory outbreak in Wuhan. 

“We started to hear more and more about something going on in Wuhan, something about the spread of a virus,” said Rachael.

The couple then traveled to Thailand, and after two weeks there, they wondered if they should take their February 3 flight back to China.

“By then we knew the virus was serious and we were getting calls from family asking if we were OK,” said Mark. “At that point, we thought we could ride it out in Bangkok and then return to China.”

“We were preparing to teach in Wuhan when we were directed to consider Sias University in Xinzheng. Looking back now, that was a blessing.”

Mark Washburn

Through friends, the Washburns were able to stay at an apartment in Bangkok and work remotely to continue teaching their students back in China. They made new friends, including a couple who were fellow English teachers. Mark and Rachael ended up helping them teach their Thai students.

“We were able to spend a lot of time with our new friends and students, getting to know the Thai culture and eating Thai food,” said Mark. “We went to the same Thai coffee shop every morning.”

Rachael said, “We went from not knowing anybody in Bangkok or knowing what we were doing, to having this wonderful community.”

As time went on, the news about the spread of COVID-19 only worsened. With their visas for Thailand about to expire and no sign of the virus getting under control, it was time to make a big decision.

“It was March 21, and we knew it wasn’t safe to return to China. The people who were helping us in Thailand said if we didn’t leave for the U.S. right away, we might not be able to get back,” said Rachael.

Mark said they realized things were not going to go the way they had hoped. “In a matter of hours, we booked our flights, packed and cleaned the apartment. I was feeling a little sick because I was realizing this was the end of this journey,” he said.

The couple flew from Thailand to Japan to New York to Detroit, and then quarantined in a family cabin for 14 days. They said the seclusion was just what they needed to process and decompress the dramatic changes that came so quickly.

For the next three months, they continued to teach their classes virtually until the semester ended in late June. Realizing they wouldn’t get back to their home in China any time soon, Mark and Rachael began transitioning back to life in the U.S.

They purchased new clothes and found new jobs, and hope to have some of their belongings shipped to West Michigan.

“Some of our students keep in touch and ask us when we are coming back,” said Mark. “That’s uncertain. We’re still figuring out what the future holds, what the next adventure looks like, as we seek a bigger purpose.”

Woman talks on phone

Marion Mathisen, office assistant for Institutional Marketing, is a GVSU COVID-19 Call Center volunteer. (Kendra Stanley-Mills)

Call Center volunteers provide compassion, resources

More than 35 volunteer faculty and staff members have listened empathetically and offered resources to hundreds of students, parents and supporters who have called the GVSU COVID-19 Call Center.

Jesse Bernal, vice president for Inclusion and Equity and executive associate for presidential initiatives, said more than 1,300 calls were answered in three weeks after the call center opened.

Establishing the call center is an extension of the university’s partnership with Spectrum Health, Bernal said. Health care professionals staff a 24-hour call center specifically for Grand Valley community members with health-related questions; Spectrum Health leaders had asked for assistance with non-health calls.

President Philomena V. Mantella extended appreciation to volunteers during a check-in meeting September 17.

“This call center has made a huge difference amid the university’s responses to the pandemic,” Mantella said. “These volunteers are our best ambassadors who can work with callers who are reaching out for navigational support in unpredictable times. It can be a difficult task and I am grateful to you all.”

Marion Mathisen, office assistant for Institutional Marketing, said she felt it was important to volunteer to aid the greater community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I cannot imagine experiencing college, especially as a first-year student, under these circumstances,” Mathisen said. “Even if the call center staffer on duty can’t provide a quick answer, the conversations we have allow us to show care, concern and compassion for what they are going through.”