Office of the President

March 5, 2021

One year since going remote, our community’s strength is inspiring

Ana Mari Cauce

One year ago, the University of Washington became the first major university in the nation to announce that all classes would be conducted remotely. Then, as now, we were in the final weeks of winter quarter and we hoped — naively — that after a few weeks of physical distancing and a deep cleaning of campus facilities, normal operations could resume with the start of spring quarter. I vividly remember my last in-person meal with our Deans at Harbor King restaurant where we discussed the risks and benefits of going to remote instruction. At the time, we simply could not fathom what the future held — the enormous challenges, losses, hardships and achievements — that our community has weathered over the last twelve months.

Throughout this extraordinary and difficult year, we learned a lot of lessons — many of them painful — but we also discovered reserves of strength, generosity and kindness within ourselves and each other. We found ways to maintain balance, like spending time in nature or adding a furry friend to the family. And we stayed focused on our great public mission. I’m continually awed by the unwavering determination of our students, faculty and staff to keep learning, teaching and serving the public.

For many, this year meant working full time while juggling caregiving responsibilities after K-12 schools and care centers went remote. Our Center for Teaching and Learning helped our faculty innovate and set the standard for delivering outstanding online instruction. Students, from first-year students just starting at the UW to those completing their PhDs, pressed on in pursuit of their degrees. Everyone has worked to ensure that learning and discovery continue, and that we will be able to welcome all our Huskies safely back to campus by the fall if conditions continue to improve.

All across our institution, we’ve persevered through even the most frightening periods of the pandemic when we didn’t yet know what precautions could most reduce our risk of COVID-19 transmission. We’ve made do with video chats instead of hugs and handshakes. Some have lost loved ones, witnessed their suffering, or suffered themselves. Across our university, some units have been hit with significant economic hardship, including the very hospitals on the frontlines of the COVID response. I have been inspired by how our community rallied to support one another, from giving to employee and student assistance funds to donating PPE. Again and again, our community has shown up to keep each other safe and share each others’ burdens when the burdens were too heavy to bear alone.

This year has laid bare many hard truths about our society. From the earliest days of the pandemic, we saw how racism and inequity exacerbated the suffering caused by COVID. Sadly, Asians and people of Asian descent in our community and elsewhere continue to face stigmatization and even violence. And for Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities, COVID has hit harder, due to economic and health disparities that flow from systemic racism. The killing of George Floyd and so many other Black Americans inspired outrage, amplifying the call of Black Lives Matter until it could not be ignored. Meanwhile, division, misinformation and a loss of faith in science and institutions continue to threaten our democracy even as more than half a million lives have been lost to the virus.

In the face of all this, just keeping the train on the tracks at our University would have been a significant accomplishment, but our community’s achievements have far exceeded that benchmark. In our labs and research centers, scientists and scholars have attacked COVID from all sides, working to understand it, model it, treat it, prevent it and mitigate its most devastating effects. Frontline healthcare providers have administered or processed more than 2 million COVID tests, treated and cared for thousands of patients, and administered more than 100,000 doses of the vaccine so far. Thousands have taken up the call to ensure that as we rebound from this crisis, we rebuild a world grounded in equity, opportunity and inclusion. The recognition that racism and systemic inequities are as much as threat to public health as COVID must inform the work that lies ahead of us.

Without a doubt, there is much work ahead. And one year in, we are still in the midst of the pandemic, although we can sense a real turning point IF we stay vigilant. There is great risk that if we allow COVID fatigue to lower our guard,  the rates of infection, hospitalization and death will resurge. The development of effective vaccines and the increasing availability of vaccinations is among the greatest scientific achievements of our lifetimes — no less dramatic or awe inspiring than the recent news about Perseverance rover landing on Mars, which millions followed online. But as the vaccine becomes widely available, it’s imperative that people put their faith in evidence-based public health policy. The signs of human ingenuity are everywhere we look, from the genomic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 that is allowing us to stay one step of ahead of new variants to the increased success of treatments and ongoing acceleration of research against other devastating diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. Our capabilities as a species are limitless, but we must be united in our desire for scientific progress that offers advancement for all.

As we mark an entire year of constraints imposed by the pandemic, it’s difficult to acknowledge that this era is not over. No doubt this time will have shaped us and our society, long after it ends. There is light at the end of this tunnel, and together, we will reach it. Let’s continue to keep ourselves and each other safe by wearing masks, watching our distance and washing our hands. And, please get vaccinated as soon as you are eligible. I am deeply grateful for and proud of this incredible community. I know that when I look back on this time, it will be what we did as a community to keep each other healthy that I remember most.