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Flying the Plane You’re Building

Deborah Lohse
Associate Director, Media & Internal Communications

The day we packed up our offices and left for “shelter in place” felt very surreal. The risk had at first seemed so remote, another wave of misfortune happening elsewhere. Then the cases started hitting the U.S. People coming off cruises were infected. The first case in Santa Clara County, the fourth. Like others at SCU, I had to cancel plans for a planned April event, a media lunch featuring veteran journalists. Soon all campus events would be canceled, indefinitely—something no one could ever recall happening before. 

During those days before the official March 16, 2020 “Shelter in Place” order that would send us all home, I walked around the office with an unsettled feeling, arriving early to meetings to wipe down all the chairs with Clorox wipes that within a week or so were going to become impossible to find in grocery stores. 

Nobody was wearing masks yet, except the people who had immunocompromised health or family members, and they were always sort of apologetic about it. “Sorry, I’m immunocompromised,” said the guy who wore a mask to loan me a pink guitar I’d requested on Nextdoor (once I realized there were to be no summer camps to occupy my young teen daughter). 

Soon masks were ubiquitous, then mandatory. I admit I joined the hordes buying too much toilet paper, bleach, Clorox wipes, and canned soup. Still, it took a few months to realize this work-from-home was for the long haul. In April I felt like a cat burglar as I entered our empty offices, rolled my office chair down the hall, into the elevator and heaved it into my car. I thought I would feel silly in a few weeks bringing it back. But well over a year later, it is still parked next to my dining table— my tiny Zoom Potemkin Village obscuring the chaos of 24/7 live-work space for two humans and a dog. 

The job of University communications was the busiest it had ever been, and we were navigating an uncharted path—the classic building a plane as you were flying it. We had the eyes, hopes, fears and concerns of parents, families, students, and the campus on our shoulders. Communicators from universities all over the Bay Area uncharacteristically collaborated, sharing their plans and announcements in a gigantically long email thread that spanned months. Nobody felt like the expert, and we all learned from each other’s good ideas and mistakes. The range of concerns from our constituents ran in all directions. Why aren’t you opening up sooner? How could you risk students’ lives by bringing them back? SCU announced a short-lived plan to slowly reopen, then agonizingly had to reverse after a COVID resurgence after the 2020 holidays.  Parents wanted their children, who were signing into classes online from all over the country and world, to have the full college experience. But they also wanted a level of safety that was not yet within our control to promise. 

Meanwhile I’m still working from home, 14 months later. I still host a Sunday afternoon Zoom poker game I started in July, attended mostly by senior relatives who live alone, across the U.S.  Everyone is getting vaccinated, and I wonder if our weekly game will end as people resume things like birthday parties, in-person Mass, or book clubs. But so far, they still show up, and I deal the virtual cards. 

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