Heading into the 2020–2021 academic year in the midst of a public health crisis, universities across the globe were faced with the difficult decision of how to approach learning in as low-risk a way as possible. According to data from the National Conference on State Legislatures, 44 percent of institutions in the United States conducted their education primarily online, 27 percent stayed in the classroom, and 21 percent adopted a hybrid model. For Northwestern, students always come first. So, when leadership was faced with the weighty question of what the school year would look like, the answer was clear: create a learning experience that was as close to “normal” as possible. This meant in-person learning, all year long. It was a critical decision—one that UNW did not take lightly.
Enter Anna Mukaria, PA-C, director of COVID Operations. As the pandemic began to impact the Northwestern community, it was paramount to engage someone who could help create a campus-wide strategy and implement rapidly changing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). With a master’s degree in public health and several years of urgent care experience, Mukaria—who was already serving students in UNW's Health Services clinic—was asked to step into this role in August 2020. Understanding the need to stay current and provide extra support for students, staff, and their families, Mukaria’s new role helped ensure that departments across campus were resourced with the most up-to-date information and guidance available in order to navigate the year wisely.
Mukaria came to work at UNW initially in 2018 out of a desire to help more patients while also caring for them spiritually. “I was drawn to being able to work medically within a faith-based organization where you can freely share your faith or pray with patients,” she said. She added that having the opportunity to serve the next generation of leaders is especially meaningful to her. Mukaria’s heart for equipping and empowering UNW students was clear, even before COVID-19 arrived.
While Mukaria’s role at Northwestern focused on the physical health and safety of everyone on campus, it also became more holistic in terms of leadership, as she worked to bring clarity and decisiveness in a time of heightened anxiety. Preventing the virus was at the forefront of everyone’s mind. There were also other critically important aspects of caring for the community, such as mental and spiritual health. Mukaria weighed all of these aspects as she consulted with virtually every academic department and aspect of campus life, whether it was residence life, events, athletics, food services—“You name it, it’s basically the whole campus”—to help make decisions that ultimately put students first.
The sheer volume of decisions made, questions answered, and guidelines enforced presented a unique challenge, but Mukaria has a unique adaptability: her previous experience working in an urgent care setting helped her to develop a calm presence and sound mind under pressure.
Besides ensuring that the core operations of the university ran smoothly, other important parts of creating a “normal” experience for students were the social and community aspects. “We tried to provide as many in-person events, especially for students, and we were able to do that in a low-risk way,” said Mukaria, adding that she was impressed with the detailed planning and care that student leaders employed when planning in-person events.
In terms of virus prevention, the student clinic on campus provided COVID-19 testing for students and employees, and Mukaria said she was pleased that UNW was able to extend this service to families as well. Northwestern also maintained a public-facing dashboard online, which reflected the number of COVID-19 cases on campus at any given time and answered frequently asked questions about COVID-related policies and procedures. Mukaria commended her team when it came to the tremendous amount of work that went into testing, contact tracing, and communicating with the student body.
Even with the university’s proactive approach to in-person learning, there were of course stressful times throughout the year. Mukaria recalls a time in late October as being especially busy and hectic, but she also felt God’s faithfulness was unmistakable. Northwestern recorded 26 positive cases of COVID-19 in the span of three days—the highest all year. Mukaria said that although cases were high during this time, the vast majority of exposure happened off-campus. “There was hardly any transmission in the classroom when guidelines were followed,” she said, crediting everyone’s cooperation.
In addition to the prevention measures that this spike in cases required, more testing was needed for symptomatic students. The problem was the testing equipment Northwestern had at the time was not fast enough. A rapid testing machine had been ordered in July 2020, but it was extremely backordered. Amazingly, and with some effort, Mukaria’s team was able to get in touch with a warehouse that happened to have an older model machine in storage, and UNW was able to borrow it just in time to handle the influx of testing.
Mukaria said the rapid testing machine was extremely helpful when it came to students’ wait time to return to classes and other activities. “To have that result in 15 minutes versus having to wait two, three, or maybe four days, when they were so busy having to test, was a Godsend,” she said. She noted that, although some rapid testing in the United States was known to not be very accurate, the specific machine UNW used was 96 percent sensitive. This provision allowed students to have more days in the physical classroom.
Ultimately, Northwestern’s goal of keeping students in the classroom all year was a great success. Classes were held in person all the way to graduation, with very low risk to students and staff. “I’m really thankful we were able to accomplish that,” Mukaria said. It was by no means an easy year, and Mukaria said she felt everyone was fairly weary by the end of it. “Thankfully, we were able to stay consistent.” Mukaria said she is looking forward to the 2021–2022 year, when—as we all hope—things will be closer to normal.
Looking back, Mukaria reflected that any success UNW had as a result of her role goes back to trusting God. “If He puts you in a position, whatever that role is, He is going to equip you to get the job done,” she said. Throughout the year, she leaned on the promise that God never changes. “He is steadfast. We can always go to Him for wisdom and strength.”