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How Duke Spent Spring Break Preparing For Whatever Comes Next

Faculty, staff and students look back at a hectic week as Duke pivots to remote learning

duke staff move packages to be shipped to students during Spring Break week.
Duke staff load packages to be shipped to students during Spring Break week.

In any other year, this would have been spring break.

But in 2020, with Duke’s physical campus all but closed by the coronavirus pandemic, students hunkered down wherever they were. Faculty prepared to begin teaching online. And thousands of staff spent the week figuring out how best to support the Duke community while working remotely across Durham and beyond.

Here’s how some of Duke’s leaders, faculty, staff and students spent a spring break that will live long in memory.


“Things have been changing so quickly. We’ve mounted responses and then needed to adjust those mid-response to accommodate the changing information. And we’re not just responding to what’s happening right now, we’re also making projections about what’s going to happen in the next week or two, so we can make sure we’re keeping people safe.”  – Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost/vice president for campus life


“We had to shrink the numbers of people on campus explicitly because we are trying to lean into the CDC-recommended strategy of social distancing. It’s designed to minimize the footprint of people on campus and that has required us to make some extraordinarily hard decisions.

“But we had to do it, both because we are concerned about our students’ health, with tons of students coming back from spring break from all over the world, and because we’re concerned with every member of this community.” -- Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education


“I got an email looking for faculty and staff willing to volunteer in the effort to pack up and return essential items to students who’d had to vacate their dorms, so I signed up. I was expecting it to be a bit chaotic, that we’d have to go in and hunt around trying to find stuff. But it was incredibly well-organized.

“Students had filled out online forms explaining what items they wanted, and I was amazed at how clear they were about where everything was, down to which shelf. But what I really loved was the opportunity to meet people from other parts of the university I would never have interacted with otherwise. Everybody was so invested in getting students as much of what they needed as they could.“ – David Rabiner, research professor of psychology and neuroscience, director of the Academic Advising Center, and one of hundreds who volunteered in the move-out effort.


“Edmund Paolantonio is a brilliant jazz concert pianist who retired to Durham and teaches a small class at Duke, with students scattered all over the country and beyond, including in China. Today I got to teach him how to use the camera on his laptop for the first time, so he could see his finger placement while he played, and get his students to record themselves in the same way so he could give them feedback.

“He was willing to learn something totally foreign to him because he wants to keep teaching. So in this time of such stress, students get to do something as rewarding as learning from a master pianist from wherever they are.” — Kim Manturuk, associate director of research, evaluation, and development with Duke Learning Innovation, who moved into a new home last Friday and has been supporting the Keep Teaching effort remotely from locations including a grocery store parking lot.


“It's very disconcerting not to have everybody around, but I’ve been able to walk around the quad at least a little bit. I know how lucky I am to still be in the environment, to have that sense of stability. While this is a really intense and crazy situation, I have living evidence that Duke is still here and that we're doing the right thing.” – Alex Gara, a junior from Budapest, whose spring break plans changed from a trip to London to a trip to D.C., to staying put in Durham.


“I looked out of my window and the only people I saw were professors carrying plants.” – Erin Kramer, executive director of media and public affairs, working on emergency communications from the Allen Building


“Normally I would be prepping for outdoor track and field season. Our two track and field student athletes that qualified for the NCAA were in Albuquerque getting ready to compete right when they called it off. Kids are disappointed. It’s heartbreaking for some of the seniors who lost their last opportunity to compete in a sport that has defined so much of their lives up to this point.

“But all students have lost something this year. Chris Kennedy, one of our senior deputy directors of athletics, always says we're in the kid business. At a time when it's very easy to think about everything we're losing, it’s inspiring to see people come together from different walks of university life to support our kids and do whatever we can to get them through this, and to stay positive.” – Becca Wilusz, director of athletic facilities, game operations and championships


“This time of year is when we're doing our final building for the next incoming class and finalizing our events for admitted students. Now that we’ve canceled our in-person programming, like Blue Devil Days, we’ve been challenged with how we welcome and connect with our students. In the past week, we’ve found new solutions – teleconferencing, chat forums, digital media and our amazing campus partners. We want to properly welcome new Blue Devils, build community and connect admitted students to current students, faculty and staff members across campus.” – Meghan Rushing, public relations specialist in admissions, trying to work from home while playing golf with her 17-month-old


“Normally we're interacting with roughly 900 faculty over the course of a year. But now suddenly we are providing support to hundreds in the same week and potentially thousands in the weeks to come.

“It's definitely been chaotic, but I do feel really fortunate, because it's very clear that I joined a really great team. As stressful as it’s been, I’m interacting with co-workers who I might not have worked with directly so much so early on if we were following the traditional route. We’ve been thrown at it together and there’s a mutual trust there already.” – Blythe Tyrone, a communications strategist who joined Duke Learning Innovation on March 9 and is helping build the Keep Teaching imitative


“I heard from the school that our defense would be moved online less than one day beforehand. I thought everyone would be panicked, but in reality everyone was so calm, delightful and supportive. I started by saying, ‘Welcome to my cyber presentation,’ and it made people laugh. It’s weird, but I feel even more connected with other people now, after doing this online.” – Eunji Cho, one of three PhD candidates at Duke’s School of Nursing who defended their dissertations remotely this week


“The students provide the minds; I provide the hands. Since we won’t be able to work in the 150 Hudson Hall lab, I am setting up shop in my garage. Master's students in the mechanical engineering & materials science capstone class will send me their designs and computer files that I will 3D print, prototype, assemble and test. We’ll debug, redesign and improve these designs together over Zoom. The experiments will be used by all MEMS grads and undergrads in the new engineering building opening fall 2020, while simultaneously fulfilling the current students' graduate project requirement.” -- George Delagrammatikas, assistant chair and director for master’s studies in the Department of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science at the Pratt School of Engineering


“I was trying to text Gary (Bennett) about an important question the other morning, and my kids kept asking me if I’d rather get in a staring contest with a snake or with a cat. I ended up asking Gary, and his girls weighed in before my kids could decide. When I think about how we’re all going to figure this out, we’ve got to have a sense of humor, and we’re going to have to do things in a different way. And I’d rather get into a staring contest with a cat.” – Mary Pat McMahon

“It's a snake for me, all the way around.” – Gary Bennett