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From the Archives: Echoes of the coronavirus crisis in our tri-campus history

, and | Monday, April 6, 2020

Diane Park | The Observer

The escalation of COVID-19 into a global pandemic has plunged the world into a state of crisis. In an effort to curb the virus’ spread, colleges and universities around the world have suspended in-person classes indefinitely — including, of course, our own.

The coronavirus is a global tragedy that few other world events since Notre Dame’s 1842 founding can compare to. Still, we can look to our past to better contextualize the crisis and our response to it.

This week’s From the Archives poses the following questions: When have we seen Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross grapple with crisis before? How was our community impacted by other pandemics like the 1981 flu and H1N1? And when did colleges start developing technological infrastructures that can support remote learning?


Archives Fast Facts

Oct. 6, 2006 and Jan. 31, 1992 | Researched by Jim Moster

The 1879 fire

  • In a 2006 column about Fr. Basil Moreau’s beatification, columnist Fr. Richard V. Warner makes reference to Notre Dame’s devastating 1879 fire. 
  • University President Fr. John Jenkins, in an email about the changes made to this year’s commencement, mentions the same fire. The class of 2020, like the class of 1879, faces a disrupted graduation due to an unexpected crisis. 
  • Warner describes the aftermath of the fire as a moment solidarity within the Notre Dame community. At 65 years old, Fr. Edward Sorin led the effort to rebuild his life’s work. Students joined Sorin with wheelbarrows full of bricks to restore what was lost.

The 1918 flu pandemic

  • On Jan. 31, 1992, Sports Editor Dave Dieteman documented several major events in the University’s history.
  • He briefly mentioned the 1918 flu pandemic, commonly known as the Spanish flu. According to the CDC, over 500 million people were infected by the flu between 1918 and 1919. There were about 50 million deaths worldwide.
  • Notre Dame didn’t escape the pandemic. In a time “before infirmary-sponsored flu shots,” Dieteman writes, 10 Notre Dame students died and over 200 were hospitalized.


“A dress rehearsal of what could happen in the future”: The H1N1 pandemic

Mar. 31, 2010 | Carolynn Smith | Researched by Andrew Cameron

The effects of the current pandemic, caused by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, are without modern precedent. Hundreds of thousands have been infected around the world, and restaurants, workplaces, churches and universities — including Notre Dame — have been closed to curb further spread of the disease. 

In 2009, another pandemic swept the globe, a novel strain of H1N1 influenza commonly known as “swine flu.” While the 2009 pandemic didn’t result in the widespread closures and disruption we see today, the CDC estimates 151,700 to 575,400 people may have died worldwide due to the disease. 

On March 31, 2010, news writer Carolynn Smith covered a lecture on the H1N1 pandemic by Dr. Mary Anne Luzar, a 1972 Saint Mary’s alumna and prominent doctor at the National Institutes of Health.

Luzar shared how a pandemic differs from an epidemic, and touched on the history of pandemics, including the 14th century “Black Death,” the 1918 Spanish Flu and AIDS. She then discussed H1N1 — still listed by the WHO as an ongoing pandemic at the time — and the international response to it. 

“We have to look at what we can learn from pandemics,” Luzar said in the lecture. She described the response to H1N1 as a success “because of rapid worldwide communications, and the vaccine was approved quickly and given to priority groups first.”

 “It is very hard to know if you are successful in these endeavors. I’m proud of what we did. I think we did the right thing. And not doing anything would have been unacceptable,” Luzar said. “This pandemic taught us that we are not immune to them because we are in the 21st century. Virus and disease are always just one step ahead of us. This was a dress rehearsal of what could happen in the future, so we need to be prepared.”


Online learning, forever a topic of controversy

Nov. 16, 2000 | Nate Phillips | Researched by Meg Pryor 

On March 18, the Notre Dame student body was notified in an email the rest of the spring 2020 semester would be conducted remotely online. Before the coronavirus pandemic, technology already played a central role in modern communication. Still, when technology takes over the academic side of student life, not everyone is happy. 

In 2000, news writer Nate Phillips reported some professors were creating controversy among faculty by beginning to post lectures online. 

Observer archives, Nov. 16, 2000

One former theology professor, Basil Davis, said face-to-face instruction was much more effective at engaging students.

“Students actually get to see the teacher moving and interacting,” he said. “There is a constant movement of attention.” 

Still, many professors found communicating with students via email was an efficient way to keep tabs on students outside of the classroom. Today, this is certainly still the case — even before the coronavirus pandemic, most campus-wide announcements were dispatched over email.

Not surprisingly, Notre Dame’s Office of Information Technology was an early proponent of integrating technology into the classroom.

Then-head of OIT Barbara Walvoord said “the purpose of technology is to enhance communication between teachers and students.”

As students begin to adjust to online learning, they would be remiss not to appreciate the communication enabled by advancements in the tech of which Walvoord speaks.

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About Andrew Cameron

Andrew is a senior from Orange County, California. He is an associate news editor at the Observer, and is majoring in Biological Sciences and English. While he has greatly enjoyed his time at Notre Dame, during the winter months he often wonders why he ever left the perennial warmth of Southern California.

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