SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) – Walking around Syracuse University’s campus on March 10, 2021 you would be forgiven if you could only focus on the weather–65 degrees. Students and faculty running through campus broke out their favorite shorts. Friends ate in clusters on the soon-to-be grassy quad. And dogs, like Henry, a 2-year-old mix and pandemic adoptee, were just happy to take their owners for a walk. A warm winter day in Syracuse, surely an anomaly.
But rewind the clock to this day last year and the temperature gauge remains practically the same. The mood, however, was much, much colder.
For many students and teachers across the country, this week last year marked not the early start to spring, but the beginning of a pandemic that would upend their lives. Students remember these days in March as the moments when the COVID-19 pandemic became real for them.
One senior had to cancel a birthday trip to Florida he had planned with friends. Others remembered thinking it was only a temporary pause, thinking things would return to normal by the end of the month. Mackenzie Pearce, a senior studying broadcast journalism, was not exactly surprised when she received the university wide email with the subject line: “Residential Instruction Suspended Effective End of Day Friday, March 13.”
“It wasn’t the most shocking email, but it was definitely the most devastating,” Pearce said.“[I] had hopes that maybe it wasn’t going to be true and that they’d maybe be able to stay.”
Michael Haynie is Syracuse University’s vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and the man who wrote that email. He described making the decision to shut down in-person instruction as more consequential than difficult.
Haynie’s first priorities were getting students off of the main campus and returning those studying and teaching at SU’s abroad centers–all while moving classes to remote instruction.
But quickly, Haynie’s focus and role shifted from the initial lockdowns to the challenge of bringing students back safely for the fall semester. He described leading the university’s pandemic response over the past year “as more challenging than anything” he had experienced in his 14 years of active duty military service.
For others in the community, 2020 will be remembered not just for the change and challenges it brought, but for the lives it took. Lives that numbers have a difficult time accounting for. For perspective, the Carrier Dome could be filled past its 49,250 seat capacity with the number of New Yorkers confirmed to have died from COVID-19 since last March.
New Yorkers like Syracuse junior Mary Kate Tramontano’s uncle. Tramontano said she looks back on the past year through her uncle’s quirks.
“He saved his moments, he had his funny moments. He would come out, say something funny, get some orange soda, and go back to the stocks,” Tramontano said.
But it is in those losses that Tramontano said we remember how far we have come and how much more life awaits us on the other side of the pandemic.
Haynie said that the university has already installed the refrigerators necessary to store the COVID-19 vaccines and trained the health center staff to administer them. He said they are prepared to inoculate all students the moment the state expands eligibility.
“When you’re trying to summit a mountain it’s the last 100 yards that’s the hardest part of the climb,” Haynie said.
He concluded that the university community is “in that last 100 yards.”