Dustin Lowman (MFAW 2020) is the SAIC editor at F Newsmagazine. In 2020, he would like to see a cardigan elected president.
Illustration by Audrea Wah
Way back in the halcyon days of January, you might remember a general impression that the coronavirus was serious abroad, but not cause for domestic panic. Past outbreaks characterized in apocalyptic terms — SARS, bird flu, H1N1, and ebola, to name a few — had come and gone, rarely having any significant impact on life in the U.S. It seemed natural to drop COVID-19 into this group and go about business as usual.
Consequential concern about the disease’s spread didn’t set in until earlier this year — though mystery illnesses in the U.S. now believed to be COVID-19 have been traced back as far as Jan. 2019. Call it Normalcy Bias, call it a "crying wolf" effect, blame it on President Donald Trump’s denial and inefficacious leadership; whatever the case, U.S. institutions of all kinds attempted to function as normally as they could for as long as they could.
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) was no exception. A campus-wide Jan. 24 email from Executive Director of the Wellness Center Joe Behen reported that “SAIC is closely monitoring the outbreak of the novel coronavirus,” explaining the disease’s geographic origins, its symptoms, and how to avoid contracting it. The email also mentioned that there had been 800 cases confirmed globally, including only two in the U.S., one of whom was a Chicago woman in her 60s.
In February, COVID-19, which originated in Wuhan, China, continued to spread within and beyond the country’s borders. In addition to more than 14,000 new cases in China’s Hubei Province, France, Iran, Brazil, Italy, Nigeria, and many others all reported infections and deaths. The global economic impact shook the U.S., with markets taking significant hits, including a nearly 5,000-point plunge for the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
SAIC admin addressed the mounting global crisis in a Feb. 28 email from President Elissa Tenny and Provost Martin Berger. The administrators reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) predicted that the disease would soon become more pervasive in the U.S. The email also stated that SAIC had been in close communication with the CDC, and assured readers, “When and if health officials advise us to take additional measures … we will reach out to you right away.”
The following day, the first U.S. coronavirus-death was reported near Seattle, WA. The death catalyzed drastic action within and outside of SAIC. President Trump issued bans on travel to and from Europe, and later declared a national emergency. A March 4 email from Provost Berger announced the suspension of SAIC-sponsored travel to countries with 2- or 3-level CDC travel health notices, including China, Iran, Italy, Japan, and South Korea. A March 10 email announced “increased housekeeping services,” and a March 11 email announced modifications to the opening of the spring Undergraduate Exhibition.
On March 12, with U.S. cases beginning to grow at an exponential rate, SAIC announced its most drastic regulations to date, including extending Spring Break to March 16 – March 29, moving the remainder of spring classes online, limiting event capacity to 100 people, and suspending all non-essential SAIC-sponsored travel. Harvard University, the University of Dayton, and others had announced similar changes of plans on March 11, with Harvard going the extra step of requiring students to vacate residence halls. At SAIC, campus buildings, dining facilities, and the Sullivan Galleries were to remain open during the extended break.
U.S. institutions of all kinds attempted to function as normally as they could for as long as they could.
Four days later, SAIC implemented even more severe restrictions, including closing campus buildings to nonessential operations beginning Tuesday, March 17; suspending all on-campus events, exhibitions, and programming; requiring students to clean out lockers and/or studios; requiring students living in residential halls to vacate by Sunday, March 22. (Students with no place to go could appeal using an online form.) Later, they announced that the 2020 commencement ceremony would move online.
Since then, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has ordered a stay-at-home policy, causing SAIC to close its campus to all but essential staff. SAIC’s alerts page lists its most up-to-date policies, including extending Spring Break until Apr. 3 and delaying Critique Week until Apr. 20 – 24.
Beyond SAIC, the E.U. has implemented a 30-day ban on visitors from outside the bloc, and the closures of at least 26 national borders. France has imposed a nationwide lockdown. New York City has deployed a stay-at-home order, as has the entire state of California. Total coronavirus cases have passed 380,000 globally. Amid this all, there is one bright spot: on March 19, China reported zero new local infections.
It is unclear how long COVID-19’s spread and social distancing measures will endure, though some experts estimate another 12 – 18 months of containment. Effects on quality of education are also unknown, but concerns have resulted in Congress’s $2 trillion “emergency package,” including more than $30 billion devoted to “emergency funding for education.” At Yale, more than 100 MFA students have petitioned for a partial tuition refund, alleging that online art education “has severely curtailed the viability of the unrivaled visual arts education that [the Yale School of Art] claims to provide.” Similar petitions exist for New York University’s Tisch School of Arts, New York’s School of Visuals Arts, and the Maryland Institute College of Art’s LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting, though no refunds have yet been offered.
Citing significantly reduced access to campus resources, increased financial pressure, and new challenges for international students, a group of SAIC graduate students penned a letter addressed to President Tenny, Provost Berger, Dead of Graduate Studies Arnold Kemp, and Interim Dean of Faculty and Vice President of Academic Affairs Jefferson Pinder, seeking additional accommodation — financial and otherwise. As of Apr. 1, the letter has 361 signatures, more than half of the graduate student body. Over 3,000 students have also signed a petition for a partial tuition refund. f