President José Padilla officially stepped into the role of President on March 1 amidst a pandemic.
One of his very first tasks was tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and keeping the campus community safe. On his first day in office, he had made the decision to move the university to remote learning for two weeks.
“I had no expectation of that [going online for two weeks] because I heard very favorable information about how we are keeping things under control,” Padilla said. “When that was presented to me on the afternoon of my first day, one is obviously I’m thinking immediately ‘Ok we have no choice, we've got to go on remote learning’...We’ve got to get our arms around this very quickly so that’s why we put us there.”
While it had been his first day in office, Padilla was not new to the Valpo COVID-19 response. He had spent the prior months at Valpo as president elect, learning his role.
“I was working part time as president elect, I was transitioning from the University of Colorado to here so I had some information I knew who the players were that I had to assemble very quickly to help me make that decision,” Padilla said. “And as a leader, you only make the decision, you’re the person...the buck stops with you but as a leader you’ve got to rely on other people who have expertise and background in this area and get their wisdom, advice and council and fortunately I was able to do that.”
The decision to move Valpo to remote learning came after a spike in positive cases and quarantines due to surveillance testing. However, according to Padilla, not all of the positive cases may have been positive.
“As you know, we had a testing service that was our contractor to do it and we started hearing anecdotal information that they were sloppy and so forth,” Padilla said. “And a couple of the students who tested positive and went to quarantine back home, they had parents who were medical professionals, one of whom was a Valpo alum and who called [and said] ‘listen I’ve got to tell you we just immediately retested our kids and they were negative.’”
Due to the reported ‘sloppiness’ of the testing service, there was a possibility of cross contamination amongst tests.
“Now we didn’t go back and retest all sixty students, so there may have been a fair portion of them who indeed were positive but it may not have been as bad as we thought it was. But again, because I had to make that decision right away before we had a superspreader going on, I had to just go ahead and do that,” Padilla said.
Valpo has since switched testing companies. According to Padilla, Valparaiso University now has a positivity rate of less than one percent while Porter Country has a positivity rate of about nine percent.
According to Padilla, one of the negative effects of going online for two weeks was the impact it had on enrollment.
“We had various scheduled tours during that time and on a very quick and sudden basis we had to reschedule those right away,” he said.
However, the tours were rescheduled and enrollment numbers have recovered, putting Valpo ahead of enrollment last year and competing to be ahead of two years ago.
“So that's good so it didn’t hurt us that much, but one wonders if we were able to have done those tours could things have been even better?” Padilla said.
Padilla credits a large part of the success of Valpo’s COVID-19 response to the students.
“The one thing that really impressed me here is just the discipline and the just the self policing they did of themselves…” Padilla said. “It really impresses me. And I think it’s what’s great about a small, intimate school like ours you really are able to see yourselves like family and that's what I want us to be.”
Due to the diligence of the students, Valpo was able to plan for an in-person commencement for the graduation class.
“Again it goes back to this class, your class has been the most adversely affected. The seniors last year they only had maybe two months of their college career messed with right? You had thirteen-fourteen months most of this was under what I call a rolling fog of COVID. And I just felt, again, I want to give you the best possible sendoff as you leave this institution and you deserved it,” Padilla said.
In an effort to return the university to normalcy next semester and due to the lowering of age requirements for the COVID vaccine, Padilla is requiring that students, staff and faculty be vaccinated next semester.
However, the COVID response team will work closely with health officials to determine the best course of action for the university next semester, especially in regards to new COVID variants and vaccine exemptions.
“You have to have your head on a swivel, you’ve got to look at the present but also the future and you have to rely on people who are more engaged and subsequently involved in a particular issue and that’s what happened here,” Padilla said.