January 25, 2021
Dear Members of the Boston College Community:
Our extended Christmas break is nearing an end, and the days remaining until spring semester classes are fully underway on January 28 provide an appropriate time to reflect on the past academic term and to prepare for the coming months of teaching, learning, and research. I offer the following for your consideration.
Planning for this academic year proceeded from the conviction that students do much better psychologically and educationally when they are in a campus living and learning environment. Our intent was to provide an experience that was as normal and safe as possible and to maintain the health of students, faculty, and staff. Despite challenges, we accomplished those goals in impressive fashion, thanks to the generosity, dedication, and creativity of our campus community. I am deeply grateful to all for helping make the fall semester so successful.
Faculty and administrators devised effective ways of providing in-person, hybrid, and remote classes, much appreciated by students. Fall semester student evaluations indicate that students enjoyed classes and praised their overall educational experience, and many faculty reported that using Zoom encouraged more students to take advantage of office hours and advising sessions. In addition, staff in University Health Services, Facilities, Dining Services, Residential Life, Information Technology Services, and Human Resources worked long hours to identify and help meet campus health and safety needs. Also notable were the efforts of Dr. Welkin Johnson, chair of the Department of Biology, and his team, to establish an on-campus, state-certified laboratory to test COVID-19 samples.
Especially impressive was the creation and implementation of a COVID-19 testing and treatment plan that included daily self-health checks, symptomatic and targeted asymptomatic testing, contact tracing, quarantine and isolation protocols, special housing arrangements, and necessary food delivery. Between the first day of testing on August 16 and the end of the fall semester on December 21, University Health Services, assisted by faculty and students in the Connell School of Nursing, athletics trainers, and EAGLE EMS members, collected 140,535 COVID-19 samples. These tests determined that the community positivity rate at BC was 0.36%, significantly below local, state, and national averages. Of the approximately 8,700 undergraduates on campus, testing at Boston College identified 436 as positive. Fortunately, none required hospitalization, all returned to normal activities upon completing isolation, and there were no known instances of in-classroom transmission of COVID-19.
Critical to efforts to prevent infection and spread of the coronavirus was development of a new culture on campus of mask wearing, avoiding parties and gatherings, maintaining physical distancing requirements, and giving priority to safeguarding the larger campus community and surrounding neighborhoods. A key element has been creating and disseminating the Eagles Care Pledge among students, a commitment to adhere to University and public health protocols and to attend to personal well-being.
Despite extensive efforts to combat COVID-19 since August, we had our issues. Clusters of infection developed in early September and after Halloween, true also at other institutions in Boston and throughout the nation. The coronavirus has taken a psychological and physical toll on our community, just as it has around our country and the whole world. I ask that you join me in praying for individuals and families affected by COVID-19, including Dr. Frank Tsung, associate professor of Chemistry at Boston College who developed COVID-19 symptoms in early November while at home and died of complications on January 5.
Clearly, we learned much about COVID-19 and ourselves as individuals and members of the Boston College community during this past fall. Soon we will begin the second semester, and certain challenges and opportunities lie ahead.
First, the University must remain vigilant against COVID-19. It will once again require that all members of the BC community who plan to be on campus be tested upon their arrival, and University Health Services will continue to conduct symptomatic and targeted asymptomatic testing throughout the semester. Critically important will be persuading members of our community to protect the common good, follow protocols to limit infection and spread of the virus, and avoid becoming complacent about COVID-19. Thus far, BC has received 100 vaccine doses for “first responders” on campus, and we await details from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts about schedule and distribution of vaccine to students, faculty, and staff.
Second, we live in times that require perspective, dialogue, and hope. In particular, our nation must address and resolve social and political differences creating harmful divisions, most obvious in the shocking and shameful attack on our nation’s Capitol on January 6. More than ever, our country and American higher education need individuals imbued with an understanding of and commitment to the liberal arts, especially the importance of the humanities, personal values, character, and democratic ideals.
Boston College has much to offer to that challenge. It seeks to provide a rigorous, formative approach to education reflecting its Jesuit, Catholic intellectual and religious heritage. BC must continue working to promote engagement of contemporary issues, ethical decision making, and a more just society through its curriculum, faculty teaching and scholarship, and such initiatives as The Church in the 21st Century Center, Lowell Humanities Series, and the recently established Forum on Racial Justice in America.
Since its founding in 1863, Boston College has persevered through difficult periods: World War I, the 1918 influenza, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and World War II. In the midst of the global pandemic and the political and social conflicts that now face our world, may we continue to live up to our motto “Ever to Excel,” offer a model for others to follow, and remain a beacon of hope for the world.
William P. Leahy, S.J.