Lots of people have spent time shopping online thanks to the pandemic. Dave Roberts never thought he’d be spending a Friday night this summer ordering thousands of dollars’ worth of video-based temperature scanners.

As Columbia College’s dean for Student Affairs, Roberts is part of a large and diverse group of staff across a number of departments who came together to coordinate the college’s response to the global pandemic.

The president and provost, as well as officials from Student Affairs, Campus Safety, Plant and Facilities Operations and more, all convened to map out the policies and protocols that would guide the reopening of campus.

Terri Zeilenga (left) and Jeanne Naeger-Ruth
Terri Zeilenga (left) and Jeanne Naeger-Ruth are just two of the stars of the Wellness, Health & Counseling Services team at Columbia College.

“There were medical decisions, academic decisions and business decisions – it was a team effort, and that’s where we shined as an institution,” Roberts says. “Even where we disagreed, this is where we could find a middle ground, especially when there were so many unknowns as it related to the pandemic.”

The goal of the plan was to be able to reopen campus safely and, utilizing the college’s unique High-Flex education option, make it to Thanksgiving break before students returned home to complete the semester virtually. Over the course of the semester, the college had a total of just over 100 positive student cases on Main Campus, which includes the Evening Program. With nearly all of them recovered entering Thanksgiving, officials are thankful for the cooperation of the entire college community.

Roberts credits Jeanne Naeger Ruth, the college’s nurse practitioner, for guiding the college’s medical protocols. Naeger Ruth’s job is to help prevent contagion on campus, and has been the college’s primary communication point with the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services (PHHS) and local hospitals during the pandemic.

“Jeanne’s been incredible throughout all this,” Roberts says. “She’s a very solid professional in her field. She’s not just a ‘school nurse.’”

He holds equally strong feelings for the entire Wellness, Health & Counseling Services team (WHC), led by Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Terri Zeilenga. “Terri’s amazing and has served Columbia College well for a long time,” Roberts says, noting that ability to hire a team that can address student health issues while protecting their privacy has been key to the college’s success. “She’s also been a great resource and advocate for students herself,” he adds.

The ultimate goal of the WHC team is to help students graduate. Numerous studies show that if students maintain a healthy lifestyle, they succeed academically. Roberts is proud of the way his team is integrated into all of Student Affairs, and Zeilenga echoes the benefits of an on-campus health center.

If a student were to, for example, have a counseling session with someone outside of the college, and they shared that they were upset about something occurring in their residence hall, the counselor would only be able to offer a general direction of support. Zeilenga notes that if the same issue happens with Chris Lee or Molly Sartorius, the college’s other two Licensed Professional Counselors, “We can tell students exactly where to go” because they work side-by-side with those professionals every day. “It helps with problem-solving.”

The staff is able to maintain confidentiality while also providing support. If a counselor finds out second-hand that a student is experiencing challenges, no one outside of the counselors knows the student is under the team’s care, yet the counselor can bring up that info with the student at their next session.

Roberts is clear to point out that he tells parents and students at the first orientation session, “The only way I’ll ever know your student is in counseling is if they tell me themselves.” He’s also proud of countless stories from alumni. “We’ve had a number of students who’ve come back and said, ‘If it wasn’t for counseling, I wouldn’t have been able to graduate.’”

With the onset of the pandemic, WHC has transitioned delivery of care to telehealth appointments via online video conference tools. It’s similar to the Zoom call you had with your relatives over Thanksgiving – as well as the classroom experience now that the college has gone fully virtual for the remainder of the semester – yet is done so through a secure, private system that complies with the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).

The transition wasn’t immediate. Because of confidentiality laws and additional standards of care, the team had to complete 26 hours of training specifically created for telehealth care before beginning that mode of support; CARES Act funding defrayed the expenses.

While mental-health visits are up compared to several years ago – due in large part, Zeilenga believes, to a generational acceptance of the benefits of counseling, as well as the negative effects social media is having on younger adults – visits haven’t spiked during the pandemic. “I think the biggest reason is ‘Zoom fatigue,’” Zeilenga says. “Even though students are used to using FaceTime, telehealth is part of the challenge of having students meet virtually when they’re tired of doing things virtually.

“We know from research that everyone’s anxiety has been higher, but I think we’ve done a great job of telling students that it’s OK to get help,” she says. And while students continue to get help, the effects of COVID-19 will linger. As Roberts notes, “There’s not going to be a light switch on the pandemic. The fallout from this will take years. We’ve got freshmen who didn’t have a normal senior year of high school, haven’t had a normal freshman year here and have no clue about all of the cool things we typically do at Columbia College. They don’t know that they just missed out on Holiday Lighting, or hanging out in the commons, or Storm the Gate, and we’ve got alumni who never got to experience Ivy Chain. There’s a time that we’ll rebuild that, but it’s going to take some time.”