COVID’s Critical Decisions
The unprecedented challenges of a pandemic have led to tough choices for many alumni. Mark Wilson (’13), Jefferson County’s health officer, and Bobbie Knight (’06), Miles College president, walk us through their most consequential decisions.
Mark Wilson: My public health order on March 16 limited gatherings to less than 25 people and closed certain venues. I also asked the state health officer to extend the order to surrounding counties. The negative impact weighed heavily on me because I put thousands of people out of work. It was heart wrenching. At the same time, it felt like our house was on fire, and I had to act quickly.
I had watched COVID-19 cases pop up across the United States, and as they got closer to Alabama, I thought we probably had cases that were undetected because of limited testing. I also had read horror stories about overwhelmed hospitals and rationing of ventilators in places like Italy. I started drafting orders and calling colleagues for advice. On March 16, I scheduled a call with all Jefferson County mayors and commissioners. I asked Drs. Michael Saag and Jeanne Marrazzo from UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Dr. Paul Erwin, dean of the UAB School of Public Health, to paint a picture of what we were facing. I then shared my plans to issue orders that evening and received questions and feedback. There seemed to be a general understanding and assent that we needed them without delay.
Because of relationships developed through Leadership Birmingham, I had people I could call for information, advice, or assistance. Several members sent me words of encouragement. The program gave me a broader, deeper knowledge of many sectors of our community, which was invaluable as I considered the pandemic’s effect on different groups of people and the quick mobilization of a response on multiple fronts.
Our actions probably flattened the curve after early April, when our local hospitals saw a tsunami of new COVID-19 admissions. At that time, those hospitals had only a few days’ supply of personal protective equipment and limited knowledge about the best way to manage critically ill COVID-19 patients. When we faced a bigger surge during the summer, our hospitals were much better equipped and able to manage more patients and get better outcomes. I also believe our local actions had some statewide influence.
Bobbie Knight: On March 5, the Board of Trustees elected me as permanent president of Miles College. Within days we were pulling our athletes off the road and gathering the cabinet and critical staff to begin shutting down the campus. With the support of our board, we began to navigate uncharted waters.
We got students home safely and trained faculty within days to deliver courses totally online. The next challenge was ensuring that students remained engaged and that we continued our robust recruiting and enrollment efforts.
After normal operations were disrupted, students reached out to seek assistance for themselves and sometimes their families. We received calls daily from students who had no place to go or no stable housing in their home cities. Their top concerns were access to technology, access to emergency financial support, preregistration for classes, and housing.
Miles College assisted each student who requested emergency support of any kind from the start of the displacement in March through the end of the semester in May. Administrators even assisted students as far away as Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles who faced housing or food insecurity.
Many students still required support this fall. In addition to distribution of funding from the United States Department of Education’s CARES Act to students, we assigned staff to help students handle needs that might impact their matriculation.
CARES Act funding, along with our aggressive enrollment, grant-writing and fund-raising efforts, has helped us emerge in a position of strength. Assisted by alumni, numerous local and regional corporations and foundations, local fraternities and sororities, Trellis, and Project Success, we provided emergency assistance to every student who needed it, particularly those who lost parents to COVID-19.
Our goal is to build on that strength as a more student-centered, innovative, forward-thinking, and fiscally responsible institution. I am delighted that we reopened our campus early for the fall in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and social unrest. We remain committed to our students and to the mission of Miles College.
What are the crucial decisions you’ve made during the pandemic? Share them with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.