A year ago today (Tuesday, March 9), Chancellor Carol Christ sent a message to all 60,000 members of the campus community announcing that UC Berkeley would be switching to remote learning, canceling events for more than 150 people and asking most workers to do their jobs from home.
This dramatic action, like countless others nationwide, was taken to help stem the tide of the coronavirus, which was just then beginning across the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as to give public health authorities time to get ahead of COVID-19.
Instead, a year later, 500,000 Americans have died, most Berkeley students are still learning online, campus performance venues are dark and research labs are filled with bare-bones staff.
Still, there have been moments of brightness: innovative online performances, blossoming pandemic-made friendships, fresh approaches to research, a renewed emphasis on social justice and a clarifying focus on public service.
Berkeley News talked with students, faculty and staff across campus about their experiences over the last year. Below are their stories, lightly edited for length and clarity.
‘A humanitarian approach’ to pandemic operations
When California’s shelter-in-place mandate first went into effect last March, Felix Deleon first thought of his staff. As the director of campus operations at UC Berkeley, he oversees the custodial department, the landscape department, fire mitigation, as well as waste management and the Zero Waste program. In addition to making sure that campus operations continued to run smoothly, it was important to him that his staff, many of whom have long commutes and children at home, were taken care of. So, he got on the phone with the union to figure it out.
“Because of the relationship that we have built with the union, we were able to pick up the phone and say, ‘Look, this is where we are. We need your help,’” he said. “Then, we had meetings with the staff to explain where we were, and that we were there to help them in any shape or form. It was more of a humanitarian approach than anything. And it worked out.”
In the months that followed, as restrictions tightened, the workload went up. The campus had new sanitization procedures — high-touch areas had to be thoroughly disinfected more often. Restrooms had to be cleaned twice a day instead of once. Door knobs had to be sanitized for 40 seconds instead of 20. And priorities shifted — instead of focusing on cleaning offices, the teams spent more time on gathering areas, like conference rooms.
Although staff adjusted to the changes, they were scared — scared of bringing COVID home to their families, especially if they had older parents living with them. And scared of losing their jobs. But, fortunately, Deleon said, everyone in the operations he oversees has remained employed.
“The chancellor and senior leadership did a tremendous job at keeping people calm and informed on the financial side of things,” said Deleon.
Amid the challenges have come new ways of doing things and a greater focus on staff well-being that Deleon hopes will continue after the campus reopens, like regular Zoom meetings to share campus resources, more collaboration with other departments on campus and staggered shifts to accommodate varying schedules.
“Historically, one of the things we have said to the workforce is, ‘You need to leave your personal issues behind when you cross the line to work,’” said Deleon. “But that’s not a reality. If staff members aren’t doing well at home, they’re not doing well at work. That’s something we’ve told our staff: ‘We’re here to help.’”
Through the campus vaccination program, much of the operations staff has now been vaccinated, something that Deleon said they feel grateful for.
“It was a tough year, but overall, it was not as bad as we expected,” said Deleon. “I think we should continue to operate the way that we have been operating — actually thinking more about the staff than the operations, because when we do that, the operations will fall in place.”
On being critical, but grateful
For political science senior Grecia Resendez a Transfer Student Center peer advocate lead and student-parent, the switch to online learning was an abrupt reminder that community is important.
“For a lot of people, the pandemic, and the closing of campus instruction, came abruptly. And very quickly, we saw inequities in the student population, where some students did not have the resources they needed.
Going into the summer and fall sessions, I think professors thought students should have been acclimated by then, but a lot of things weren’t considered. I remember professors requiring certain things, like always having your camera on or other things that may seem like small requests. But I’m a student-parent, and living in University Village, we’ve had issues with Wi-Fi, and my son and partner are at home with me in a one-bedroom apartment. So, when we have to work around each other, the space that we have to work around is much smaller than a house.
Not everyone is a single student at home living with their parents.
I think they forget about those things sometimes. I still have to worry about rent. I have to worry about keeping my son on track while he learns from home, and all these other things that some students don’t have to worry about.
Through Berkeley’s Student Advisory Council on Undergraduate Education, I was super vocal and able to present and speak to faculty members and vice chancellors across campus about these inequities. And I think folks have done a great job adjusting and understanding this moving forward.
All that said, the Berkeley campus community really came through for me and my family during this time.
I remember when the campus first began transitioning to online instruction, the Transfer Student Center took a break to let all of us student staff get adjusted to our lives, which were all changing in different ways.
That was something I appreciated and was grateful for. At the time, my son, who is in sixth grade, also had to transition to online learning: But we only had one laptop to share.
My professors were very flexible, but I was missing classes in order for my son to use my laptop. Thankfully, Lorena Valdez and Andrew Henry from the Transfer Student Center, they knew I was struggling and moved quickly to find scholarships and funding for a new laptop: I am so grateful for that help.
I am also amazed by how fast student parents at University Village have organized to get a lot of the resources that we needed during the pandemic. From getting access to more food for our food pantry, to PPE and masks, our student-parent community sometimes moved even quicker than the university itself.
I think being a transfer student, and a student-parent, you come to realize that you’ve only made it so far because of the community around you. My Berkeley community is something I have come to appreciate even more this past year because of that.”
Continuing to work with communities in crisis
Sarah Pierluissi is a new graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Master of Social Welfare Program. A San Francisco native, she earned her bachelor’s degree from Boston University, then returned to the Bay Area last year when she was accepted to Berkeley. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down the campus in March, she worried most that it would stymie her internship as a social worker with Oakland’s Fred Finch Youth and Family Services. Her two clients through the center are young people who are homeless or in transitional situations, and her ability to interact with them and support them turned out better than she expected.
“I would meet my clients at a park or the BART station, or I would pick them up in a car, and we would drive to the different places they needed to be, like food banks or doctor’s appointments or benefits offices. A lot of our meetings involved therapy on the go. Being socially distanced and masked was difficult, at times. We tried to spend as much time outside as possible. In terms of them being worried about getting sick, it seems like they had basic needs that were actually more of a priority than the pandemic, which makes sense.
What was kind of a bummer for me was that I couldn’t incorporate the kind of creative outlets that I usually use in my work, like outings to museums or the zoo, or going on hikes or doing art. These activities bring people joy and hopefully change negative thoughts and feelings, and normally they would have been open to the public.
What inspired me was the dedication of the people working at Fred Finch and their willingness to go out in the middle of a pandemic because their clients are going through crises and need therapy and interaction with people who really care.
It was also wonderful how UC Berkeley prioritized students who work with communities in crisis, providing testing and vaccines. I felt really supported.
One thing I’ve learned is that you really have to come at obstacles from every angle and not give up. You have to pull from everything that you can to try and meet your clients. I will definitely take that kind of relentless outreach skill and bring it to my next internship and to my social work career.”
Will Zoom be the doom of higher education?
The pandemic pivot to online classes reminded Paul Fine what teaching is all about. A professor of integrative biology, he was used to creating a community with his students — and his students bonding with one another — during frequent field trips and camping excursions around California to study the state’s various plant ecosystems. With most of that prohibited, he and his graduate student instructor Isaac Marck tried to make the fall 2020 semester as fun as possible without in-person meetings: They produced videos on plant identification and created guided local nature walks — like scavenger hunts — that students could pursue in small groups to explore the local flora. But it wasn’t as satisfying, for him or his students.
“I always knew that maybe the most important part of the class was less about the things that we were teaching and more about the community that we built,” he said. “But the pandemic really drove that home.”
With fewer restrictions on outdoor learning, this spring he has brought some of those same students back for limited local field trips and has recreated some of that feeling of community, which he thinks is fundamental to effective teaching.
“I think all good teaching is about personal interaction. I think that people who think teaching is only about transmitting material to a student are totally missing the boat,” he said. “That is why online learning is such a one-dimensional experience.”
Fine is eager to leave Zoom behind, even for lectures; he believes that the best teachers know how to read a room and adjust to the audience, something nearly impossible to do on Zoom. What about those who predict that online learning will fundamentally change how universities teach, and that Zoom classes will be here forever?
“The university experience is really about building a community, and not just in your classes and on campus — with friends and student groups, too,” he said. “These students (during the past year) got cheated — it is not their fault, it is not our fault. I just feel so badly for them.”
In 2020, new weight to our responsibilities
For Christine Board, an epidemiology and biostatistics master’s degree student in Berkeley Public Health, the stark racial inequities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic and the police killing of George Floyd did not come as a surprise. As a member of the Berkeley student group Black Advocates for Equity in Health, and an organizer of the upcoming Black Womxn Well conference, she was already dedicated to addressing these inequities both on campus and in the broader community before the pandemic hit.
“The events of 2020 brought our work to the forefront in a way that could not be ignored, but also added extra weight to our responsibilities,” Board said.
While interest and demand for her own work and that of her colleagues suddenly skyrocketed, she also had to contend with the personal impacts of the pandemic and the racial unrest that swept the nation in the summer of 2020. These challenges included practical concerns, such as finding creative spaces to work after the campus closed down. For a while, she found herself studying in her garage, she said.
“I think, as students and as academics, we’re expected to always jump on these ‘opportunities,’ but we’re also humans that carry and hold a lot, and sometimes it’s really difficult to keep going,” Board said.
“Something that I appreciated before, but have come to appreciate even more in this time,” she said, “is the support of some of the faculty who really embody what we’re going through, especially as Black women. My personal adviser created a space where myself and other graduate students were allowed to come in with the fullness of ourselves and what we were carrying, and there were some meetings where people would just talk about some of the different burdens that were weighing on them, whether it was things that were happening in family or in society. There were days when this support was really what kept me going.”
Tech giveaway during pandemic represents ‘Berkeley at its finest’
Jennifer McNulty, the Student Technology Fund’s analyst, is proud of the way the campus’s Student Technology Equity Program (STEP) responded to thousands of Berkeley students across the country who, sheltering in place, often with their families, lacked the technology they needed to do their schoolwork remotely. STEP is primarily funded by the campus, with additional financial support from and operation by the fund’s staff.
“The Student Technology Equity Program represents Berkeley at its finest — pioneering, resourceful, and values-driven. There is no other public university in the country offering a program of STEP’s scale — over $5 million — to provide students the technology to equitably access their education during COVID. Under the campus climate of financial austerity, there was no shortage of compelling needs for these funds, and it speaks volumes, and makes me inspired to work here, knowing that Berkeley’s leadership chose to direct these resources to students in need.
Through STEP’s service of approximately 5,000 students, nearly 80% of whom have an expected family contribution of less than $5,000, we were reminded of the daily struggle some students face. STEP has, thus far, deployed almost 10,000 pieces of hardware, most of it mailed to students, across 47 states. This includes more than 2,200 laptops, often to students who were previously vying for time on a shared family computer, and over 2,600 hot spots with paid data plans, commonly provided to students who are living in remote areas with poor connectivity, or to students with insecure housing. I’m so proud to have been part of Berkeley’s effort to provide our brilliant scholars, the ones who so often give us hope, the tools necessary to continue their education.”
Serving the public good and creating good, long after the pandemic’s end
Soon after the pandemic began, researchers at the Innovative Genomics Institute (IGI) quickly repurposed or acquired new equipment to conduct COVID-19 testing and obtained certification of the diagnostic lab through the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) program in order to monitor COVID-19 on the campus and in the surrounding community. Fyodor Urnov, a professor of molecular and cell biology and IGI’s scientific director for technology and translation, found that the response was a model for how academic research can serve the public good.
“All Californians remember the magnificent bloom of flowers in the wake of the devastating fires here in 2019. As our campus, our state, our nation all emerge from a tragic year of the pandemic, it’s timely to ask — what long-term effect will it have?
In working with hundreds of people as we set up and ran — and as we continue to run — a nonprofit, CLIA-certified laboratory for SARS-Cov-2 diagnostics here at the IGI, I found myself indelibly inspired by the spirit of camaraderie across our campus and a connection with our community. I think such cross-campus and across-UC collaboration, and the precedent we set in showcasing how ‘academic’ science can serve the public good — reducing to direct practice our motto, ‘Let There Be Light’ — will be the flowers that bloom long beyond the end of the pandemic.”
Leaning into online performances
Fourth-year student Anna Marie Sharpe, double-majoring in theater and performance studies, found an upside to Zoom theater:
“It was hard at first, I’m not gonna lie. I think I was definitely fighting it — when the pandemic happened and the idea of performing in an online format. I was thinking, ‘No, we’re going to get back into the theater soon.’ So, I was really too stubborn — I wasn’t quite adapting, initially. But then, I was like, ‘You know, just lean into it. Just lean into it.’ But the transition was still really wonky for everyone.
I’m directing a play called Las Pajaritas by Bay Area playwright Jordan Ramirez Puckett about three generations of Chicana women who live in the same apartment together. It’s a collaboration between Colors of Theatre and Barestage Productions. I’m the president of Colors of Theatre. We started the student organization because we wanted to see more plays that were written by people of color that didn’t always make the regular season of the Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies.
Las Pajaritas has a small cast and takes place in one setting, so performing it on Zoom is doable, but there are still challenges. One thing I’m a bit concerned about is the actors having to do certain cues on their end — they have to be on top of their lighting cues and costume changes, all within a reasonable amount of time, because they’re running the show on their end right now. Another thing I’m concerned about is how we portray affection. Because, you know, I don’t want to do anything that seems like we’re faking, like ‘Let’s fake this hug on the side.’ I’m not completely sold on that yet. Those moments of intimacy are definitely something that I’m like, ‘How do I do this?’
As I’ve gotten further and further into socially distancing, I’ve realized that people still crave some kind of connection with anyone outside of who they’re socially distancing with. So, I think there’s more of a willingness to go into these performance spaces and to just be grateful that we at least have that.
I think one of the upsides to Zoom theater is to be able to not only work with students at UC Berkeley, but elsewhere, because now anyone from anywhere can be cast in a play together. And just to see the kind of dynamic and different attributes that these actors have really pushes you to see things through a different lens. Another upside is that anyone can see a performance, regardless of where they are. So, as much as I feel like these little boxes represent borders and separations, I also think that there are so many ways of connection that happen in those places, as well.”
Learning to advise students online in just days
When the Berkeley campus shut down in early March 2020, Sharon Mueller, director of advising and policy in Engineering Student Services, along with the eight advisers in her office and the ESS programming staff, faced the daunting task of finding creative ways to provide remote advising, tutoring and support to the approximately 3,800 undergraduate students in the College of Engineering.
“We really had to rethink the way we do our jobs, the way we communicate with students, and the processes and procedures we use,” Mueller said.
While the team scrambled to digitize student records and transfer advising appointments to Zoom, it became apparent that many students did not have access to some of the basic tools needed to thrive in a virtual learning environment.
“I think immediately there was a recognition campuswide that not all students have access to laptops; not all students have access to secure internet. Students continue to struggle to find quiet space for studying and doing exams. If they’re living at home, they might have a responsibility to care for siblings, or maybe their parents have lost income, and they’re trying to work more,” Mueller said. “The College of Engineering started a student emergency needs fund, and we’re using it to help students hopefully not have to work as much, or to help with technology or rent when needed.”
While she misses walking through the Berkeley campus to get to meetings and feeling the energy of the students shift as the semester progresses, Mueller said she has been grateful to witness the compassion and innovation spurred by the past year.
For campus locksmith, a positive: No crowds
Jeffrey Bovie, UC Berkeley’s lead locksmith, heads up a team of eight locksmiths based at a workspace in a parking garage near the campus’s West Gate. He reflected on both the uncertainty and the positives of working on campus over the past year.
“We deal with touching doorknobs and other hardware, and so, at first, there were a lot of question marks about the coronavirus and how to handle the job. Fortunately, testing was available to us, and I participated in the asymptomatic saliva testing, which was helpful. At first, we had to do online safety trainings and be on standby part-time. Then, after about six to eight weeks, we were all back on campus. Since then, most of our shop has been vaccinated. But there are still a lot of other strains out there, so that’s still an issue.
Our work was easier, in many ways, because we didn’t have to navigate crowds to get to the job. You could focus on your work and make as much noise as you wanted, especially in areas that usually have a lot of foot traffic, like the entrance of Evans Hall.
Of course, there was the dark cloud of the budget looming over our heads, so that’s been a downside. But on the positive side, we were able to catch up on our backlog. On our team, we’ve tried to respect each other’s space. This pandemic might have even made us a little tighter as a work unit.
I honestly felt pretty positive about the way the university has handled this pandemic. They had regular town hall meetings to keep everyone updated. Some of them are gloom and doom, but they also offer solutions to help make the situation better. They gave us COVID time off, if urgent situations came up in other areas of our life. And, you know, they kept us working and paid us to be at home and get trained. And if we had concerns, they didn’t dismiss them.
Meanwhile, the researchers on campus came up with asymptomatic testing, which helped me feel safer, and I’ve been getting tested on a regular basis. Custodial services have been doing extra cleaning. Not everyone is thrilled about wearing a mask, but you know, some people are just opposed to being told what to do.
On a personal level, my experience with solitude has helped me immensely during times in which we are forced to isolate. I’ve been able to maintain a healthy bubble.
There are some people that I don’t get to see as much within my family unit, just because they want to practice social distancing more. But overall, I feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
‘Unity and resilience’ make Berkeley special
For Morino Baca, a first-year graduate student in public health and a member of the campus’s Native American community, this past year tested to the max his juggling skills as a scholar, essential employee with the Cal Bears football team, mentor to underserved youth and the parent of a 4-year-old son, with a newborn on the way.
When the campus shut down to all but essential workers in March 2020, Baca was finishing up a hard-earned double major in society and environment and in conservation and resource studies. While he said he admired the innovation of Berkeley’s virtual Blockeley graduation ceremony, “it wasn’t the same watching digital figures in caps and gowns representing students walk across the stage.” It was also somewhat alienating starting graduate school without meeting in person his advisers and peers in the Master of Public Health program.
But that didn’t keep him from coming to campus. As a student manager working with the Cal Bears offensive line under Assistant Coach Angus McClure, Baca spent time at Memorial Stadium and its training facilities, where new protocols for student-athletes and staff were rigorously enforced. Like others in Cal Athletics, Baca was subjected to such safety measures as the daily symptom screener and frequent PCR and antigen testing. “Players, coaches, and support staff all had to figure out how to remain safe, yet keep that competitive spirit that has long existed within Cal football alive — something I feel we did a great job at,” he said.
In reflecting on the past year, he said, “I often wondered if or when things would ever go back to the way they were before the COVID-19 shutdowns began.” On the positive side, he said, “this sort of unity and resilience is what makes UC Berkeley a special place to be.”
Sustaining yourself in an unsustainable time
Rich Lyons, UC Berkeley’s chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer and former dean of the Haas business school, found two things he’ll take with him to the future.
“During this past year, we’ve all been through so many stages of this pandemic, and moods driven by those stages. For me, there have been two ‘ahas!’ that stand out in sharpest relief.
The first is time management: This sounds pedestrian, in relation to the human cost of this crisis, but Zoom exhaustion and other elements of juggling life have forced all of us to think harder about priorities and whether we are spending time in alignment with those priorities.
More substantively, what time am I taking to keep myself sustained? Unsustainability is all around us in this COVID life.
The second is the idea of a ‘whole’ university: We’ve always known in our heads that Berkeley and what it delivers to society — whether teaching or research — has always been much more than the lectures, or the publications.
Now, we know it fully in our hearts, as well.
The experience for students, faculty and staff is such a rich bundle of critical elements that we can now see clearly during this harsh experiment of stripping so many of the wonderful parts away: Deprivation makes us appreciate.”
These stories were compiled by Bob Sanders, Yasmin Anwar, Kara Manke, Anne Brice, Ivan Natividad and Gretchen Kell.