bioengineering students socially distanced

Reopen to Reconnect

In the middle of the pandemic — and with extensive precautions and safety protocols in place — students and faculty moved back to on-ground operations this fall.

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Above: In a biomedical engineering lab, students find ways to collaborate in a most unusual semester. (Photos by Paula Burch-Celentano)

Tulane students began classes this fall on Aug. 19, five days earlier than a typical semester, in a year that has been anything but typical. The semester also finished just before Thanksgiving — nearly a month earlier than usual.

The reopening of the campus — after the shift to online classes in March in response to the COVID-19 crisis — occurred after months of careful planning by university leaders and diligent work by numerous return-to-campus committees.

Adolfo Garcia was a member of a committee focused on the student perspective of returning to campus. “I remember the sense of urgency,” he said. 

Garcia is a senior and A. B. Freeman School of Business double major in finance and legal studies in business. He is also president of the Undergraduate Student Government.

The committee was concerned with getting students back to campus but also focused on individual experiences and the international community, Garcia said. Committee members were “thinking about our first-generation students and trying to make sure that the reopening process was equitable and safe for all parties involved. I appreciated that.” 

Adolfo Garcia
Mindful of COVID-19 precautions, Adolfo Garcia is pleased to be back on campus.

When Tulane transitioned to remote learning in the spring, Garcia left campus to go back home to Alamo, Texas. “I’m a first-generation, low-income college student and didn’t have reliable Wi-Fi at home to support classes. And my parents didn’t understand that I had to be on my computer all the time.”

After things calmed down, Garcia said that his routine became a little easier to navigate. He commended his professors for “putting their best foot forward” during that difficult time.

“The faculty stepped up to the plate, with offering the best things they can within the confines of the situation at hand.”

Now back on campus and taking in-person classes, Garcia is looking forward to graduating in spring 2021. He plans to make the most of whatever his final semesters will hold. 

“Come hell or high water, spring will be a time to remember. I’m going to push through and make it one of the best experiences of my life because you’re only in college once,” he said. 

“There are many universities to choose from and I chose Tulane. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.” 

Uptown Campus Reimagined

The reopening committees — composed of students, faculty, staff and experts in the medical and public health fields — established plans for in-person and on-campus instruction this fall in accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and state and local governments. 

The university established a robust COVID-19 testing program that requires that undergraduate students, living on campus and off campus, test twice weekly; and graduate and professional students test every other week. Faculty, staff and contract workers are tested monthly. Tulane School of Medicine labs turn around test results within 24-36 hours. 

Other safety measures to mitigate spread of the novel coronavirus are reflected in decals on classroom doors indicating maximum capacity, desks and chairs placed at least 6 feet apart, plexiglass barriers throughout campus buildings, signs announcing that wearing masks is mandatory and deep cleaning of buildings. 

Perhaps the most noticeable additions to campus are 18 temporary buildings for teaching as well as dining. The structures can accommodate up to 80 students in a socially distanced manner. They feature state-of-the-art technology such as projectors, touch-screen monitors, high-definition cameras, and wireless microphones and speakers to support in-person instruction as well as remote learning. 

Nontraditional classroom spaces, such as the Newcomb Art Museum, the Avron B. Fogelman Arena in the Devlin Fieldhouse and spaces in the Lavin-Bernick Center for University Life, are also now equipped for in-person instruction to provide more space for students to spread out.

students socially distanced in the Devlin FieldHouse
Signage reminds students to keep apart from each other in Avron B. Fogelman Arena in the Devlin Fieldhouse, a venue called into service as a classroom.

Katherine Raymond, a professor of practice in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the School of Science and Engineering and co-director of undergraduate studies in biomedical engineering, served on the school’s task force that met during the summer.

The group was “extremely committed and collaborative,” she said. “I think that really enabled us to come into fall with a sense of confidence and the ability to understand the expectations of what we could do and how we could make it work for our students.

Students and faculty adjusted to a new way of learning and teaching, said Raymond. About teaching in the new temporary classrooms, she said, “We spent the first days of the semester with the students and professors having a lot of patience.”

With the new, enhanced equipment, students have the option, with their professor’s permission, to remotely log in to classes, particularly if they are not feeling well, are quarantining or aren’t fully comfortable being there in person.

“It’s convenient and safer for me to sometimes just Zoom in on my classes,” said junior Frankie Gaynor, a School of Liberal Arts double major in political science and communication from Coral Springs, Florida. “I appreciate having that option.”

First-year student Kaalan Day, an economics major from Los Angeles, described classes as being “pretty normal” other than not being able to sit close to classmates. He realizes, though, that he is missing the typical college freshman experience, especially in a city like New Orleans.

“It does suck not having club expos and going to big events and festivals, but I know eventually it’s going to get here. It’s extra hard because it’s freshman year. And this is the year we’re supposed to make connections and meet people.”

One way in which Day has been able to connect with the city is through Newcomb-Tulane College’s Reading Project selection for the first-year class, The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom.

“Reading the book gave me new perspective on some things,” Day said of the book, which is about the loss of a family home during Katrina. “I’ve heard about the hurricanes and the destruction,” he said. But learning about Broom’s experience with people passing by her house after the storm, as voyeurs taking pictures of what her family had lost, was eye-opening.

As part of the effort to keep everyone on campus safe and healthy, the university initiated the Stronger TUgether: Be COVID Safe campaign. The pillars are to remind the community to wear face coverings, maintain a 6-foot distance from people not in their household, limit gatherings to no more than 15 people and frequently wash hands.

On the Tulane website, a COVID-19 Dashboard displays results from the university’s virus testing of students and employees.

On-campus students who test positive for the virus may isolate in Paterson Residence Hall, which is staffed with medical personnel. If a student is a close contact to someone who has been exposed to the virus, the university provides rooms at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in which to quarantine, in a separate tower from other guests.

Nothing Is the Same

When “everything erupted” in March, Kyla Denwood, a senior in the School of Liberal Arts majoring in political science with a minor in Spanish, said the hardest part for her about transitioning to online classes was having time cut short with friends who had to leave campus or return home.

She said she realized, “Nothing is going to be the same from this point on.”

Denwood was staying off campus but in New Orleans, when the announcement occurred. She returned to her home in Chicago in August.

Denwood previously had plans to study in Scotland this fall, and with special permission she is studying abroad now. She petitioned Tulane, verifying that the COVID-19 case count in the area of Scotland where she planned to study was less than in New Orleans. In addition, she provided a contingency plan in the event COVID-19 becomes prevalent in Scotland. 

Denwood is hearing the messages about how the actions of students may have an effect on the New Orleans community. 

Even though she isn’t on campus for the fall semester, she is happy to see messaging on social media promoting COVID-19–responsible behavior among students. 

Spreading the virus “is the last thing that we want to be doing to a majority Black community in the middle of a global racial reckoning, in the middle of a global pandemic,” said Denwood.

After making the transition to remote coursework during the spring semester, Isaac Hoeschen of Milwaukee said, “I’m glad that all of my friends are in New Orleans again.”

The junior economics major in the School of Liberal Arts said, “I can socially distance with masks on and still see all those people on a regular basis.”

Hoeschen is concerned with the public health risk that the Tulane student body poses to the residents of New Orleans. However, he is impressed with how the student body adapted to taking the precautions to mitigate the virus’s spread seriously.

“I think the student body is doing an incredibly good job of following guidelines on campus.”


Leslie Scott, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the School of Liberal Arts, is teaching the Newcomb Dance Company course this fall in McWilliams Hall.

The class requires “a certain type of floor, a large open space and has a communal aspect,” said Scott. The students are collaborating, in a socially distanced way, to create a short dance film in lieu of the traditional in-person final performance.

dance class during Fall 2020 semester
In a dance class in McWilliams Hall, everyone wears masks to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Scott is also teaching Philanthropy and Social Change, a service-learning course that allows her students to make strong connections within the New Orleans’ performing arts community.

Supported by funding from the Learning x Giving Foundation, the class has 27 community partners. As part of the course, students will also award $10,000 in grants to community arts organizations.

“I’m excited to watch the students go through the process of direct giving in our community,” said Scott. “Hopefully, the importance of philanthropy, as an actively engaged citizen, will stay with them far after this course.”

In these uncertain times, “I am impressed with the students’ resilience and understanding in extreme circumstances,” she added. “It makes me feel good about the type of students that we’re sending into the world.”

Raymond said that her biomedical engineering students, too, have adjusted to the new challenges, “meeting them with creativity, technology and resiliency.”

“In engineering, we have a number of problem-solving tools,” she added.

Raymond said the reopening and the return to in-person classes allowed faculty and students to reconnect.

“I think this is the best way to provide a thriving, learning community in college: by having a sense of connection. I hope that we can remain safe and thoughtful about it.”

biomedical class is held in a temporary building in Fall 2020
Biomedical engineering students give presentations in a temporary classroom installed on the uptown campus to allow for social distancing.

Looking Ahead

Students said they are mostly looking to the future with a sense of gratitude, patience and anticipation.

While Gaynor knows people who have lost their jobs, family members and friends to COVID-19, she reminds herself that this period of time is not permanent — and that effective treatments and vaccines are being developed.

“One more year of this is something that I can easily do,” said Gaynor. She has set the end of 2021 as her deadline “for life to go back to normal.” She is optimistic that a vaccine will exist. She hopes the vaccine will be accessible to everyone in the community and that the university “prioritizes the people that work and live in the Greater New Orleans community to get vaccinated first.”

Day is looking forward to becoming more involved in campus life when the pandemic is over.

“I want to do certain things that I feel like will help me in life. I want to get connected and do things I wouldn’t have access to at home like I have here.”