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The Fraternity's Response

The following piece serves as a snapshot of the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The feature focuses specifically on the pandemic’s impact on Sigma Nu Fraternity and the roles the Fraternity’s members played in reacting to what will most certainly go down in history as one of the greatest global public health crises of the 21st century.

A Novel Virus Enters the Stage

On January 5, 2020, just as Sigma Nu Fraternity was wrapping up its 2020 College of Chapters, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a special news release about a localized outbreak of pneumonia cases in Wuhan City in China. Pneumonia itself, while still serious, wasn’t the primary concern of the WHO. The concern was that these cases were coming from some unknown cause and had happened in quick succession.

The first assessment from the WHO was fairly benign. There was “no significant human-to-human transmission, and now health care worker infections have been reported.” There were no travel restrictions or changes in behavior, at least none more than what one would expect during a typical flu season.

By the end of January, the picture had changed dramatically. China had quarantined the entirety of Wuhan, including its population of 11 million, and had released the genetic breakdown of the 2019 novel coronavirus.

On January 31, 2020, the WHO declared a public health emergency, just the sixth time it had done so in its history.

Even then, COVID-19 was still something off in the distance for most Americans. While cases had been reported in the United States, Taiwan, Germany, and Japan, the outlook seemed to be that this would be contained and managed. Up until then, pandemics were things that happened in faraway places without significant medical infrastructure. The most recent coronavirus-like outbreak had been the SARS outbreak 17 years prior, and while it had been devastating in China, it had never reached the United States.

But that too would change quickly. With a case count of more than 9,800 and more than 200 deaths confirmed worldwide, the Trump administration declared a public health emergency on February 3, 2020.

Throughout February, COVID-19 looked like a storm on the horizon, with most of the United States unsure of whether it would grow and reach them. But instances of it touching close to home began to appear. The first confirmed case in the US was in Washington, and shortly after that, two General Fraternity staff members connected through the airport in Seattle on their way to finishing the last sessions of the Sigma Nu Institute. But it was still very easy to brush away most of these small instances because either they seemed so insignificant or the information about COVID-19 was still so new and still changing.

What would eventually become known as COVID-19 was unlike anything seen before. Its transmission from human to human seemed to be alarmingly quick. Furthermore, it carried the worst traits of a deadly disease. An infected individual might even spread the virus during close interactions for several days before showing symptoms if they showed any at all. When symptoms did appear, they could be as light as a mild cold or as severe as rapid deterioration of lung functions. Even worse, the disease could cause a cytokine storm, a sort of immune system response overload. The human body working as hard as it can to save itself but instead causing the opposite and leading to organ failure.

There is a saying that it is always darkest before dawn. For the world in the early spring of 2020, the sun was beginning to set, and no one knew when it would rise again.

The Pandemic Reaches Sigma Nu

On February 27, 2020, the General Fraternity released its first Coronavirus Advisory, with many more to follow, noting that it was following the ongoing development of COVID-19 and guided members on proactive health measures to take.

“A lot of uncertainty, a lot of variables that were changing, almost by the minute it seemed,” says Fred Dobry (Indiana State), Director of Health and Safety for the Fraternity, of those first few weeks. “I remember us issuing that initial advisory statement that provided some CDC guidance, and then just a week later, we were pulling all our staff off the road, closing Headquarters, and starting to work with chapters that were being told to go back home for the remainder of the spring academic term.”

That decision was announced on March 14th and was the first major move of Sigma Nu Fraternity into what would become a “new normal.” Leadership Consultants were told to return home as all remaining chapter consultations were to be done virtually, the Headquarters office was closed, and Lexington-based staff at Headquarters were to begin working remotely for an indefinite period of time.

Early on, the Fraternity made it very clear that it had three guiding principles as it entered the pandemic. The first was efficient and proactive communication with its members and constituents. In a time when there seemed to be a lot of noise, it was imperative that the Fraternity deliver updates to its members and ensure they were aware of actions taken and the next steps planned.

The second was the continuity of the Fraternity’s operations at all levels. The Fraternity had weathered the Spanish flu pandemic, two World Wars, and other moments of crisis in its history. This pandemic would present unique challenges, but none that were insurmountable. Failure of the Fraternity’s mission, and the support of its members who live out and execute that mission, was not an option to be considered.

The third was the health and safety of the Fraternity’s staff and members. In the early months of the pandemic, this would mean thinking about the present and the future.

With a decision-making framework in place, the focus shifted toward gathering quantitative and qualitative data.

On the qualitative side, that meant listening first and foremost to understand the immediate needs.

“We started trying to figure out what the needs of our constituents were,” recalled Dobry. “There was a lot of surveying and anecdotal observations based on what we were hearing from collegiate members, alumni volunteers, and Fraternity and Sorority Life advisors.”

On the quantitative side, the Fraternity began composing a COVID-19 dashboard to collect and organize data on whether campuses were in-person or not, what chapters had gone to virtual operations, and pulling data from other sources to best paint a picture as to what the pandemic looked like for Sigma Nu at that time.

The initial picture did not seem all that bleak, at least for the Fraternity. On April 1st, the Fraternity launched a Virtual Operations section of the Best Practices Library to provide chapter officers guidance and ideas on how to translate in-person operations into a virtual environment. The CARES Act was poised to provide some relief to House Corporations, now saddled with empty properties and mortgage payments, through Economic Injury Disaster Loans. Finally, virtual chapter consultations ensured chapter support continued. If the initial goal was to simply get through to the end of the academic term with as little disruption as possible, the Fraternity was in a great position to achieve it.

But the state of the country looked drastically different. April 15th marked a high point in daily COVID-19 deaths in the United States for that spring with 2,752. Americans were under stay-at-home orders across the nation, the message being that a two-week period of limited contact would flatten the curve of new cases and deaths. This wasn’t an attempt to suffocate the pandemic but to provide breathing room for the country’s medical infrastructure. Hospitals quickly outpaced their capacity, and Army Corps of Engineers units were working as fast as possible to construct temporary medical wards to accommodate overflow patients.

During this, alumnus Dr. James Paxton (Case Western Reserve) was on the medical frontlines. In an interview with The Delta at the time, he conveyed just how precarious a position the medical field across the country was in.

“Healthy patients are being turned away after a brief interview and exam, not because we don’t want to help, but because we must conserve our resources for those who will not survive without them,” he said. “Few events have prepared us for the difficulties that modern healthcare will be facing over the next few months.”

Perhaps two scenes best illustrate those weeks when the country walked along the razor’s edge of the pandemic. The first was the USS Comfort, the United States Navy’s hospital ship entering New York City’s harbor to support medical relief efforts in a city becoming the country’s epicenter of the pandemic’s deadly impact. As it entered the harbor, tugboats fired off streams of water across their bows in salute and appreciation, a scene that mirrored the spirit and emotions of September 12, 2001. The second was of a fleet of refrigerator trucks parked outside hospitals in the city, sent to assist the overflowing morgues.

At Headquarters, the size of the crisis also began to take its toll.

“We were fully prepared and had a system to help chapters through crisis moments and disasters,” Dobry shares. “Usually that’s from a natural disaster like a hurricane or blizzard where we know, in advance, it’s coming and can communicate with the chapters that are likely to be impacted. We reach out and support those chapters as best we can and follow up to continue support after the disaster. But

this impacted every chapter across the country almost simultaneously, so it was all-hands-on-deck. It was certainly challenging for the students, volunteers, and staff.”

Those first weeks held a maelstrom of change and pivoting. In a testament to the fortitude of the Fraternity’s staff and members, over a span of just 30 days, the Fraternity issued numerous advisory statements, created new resources, switched to virtual consultations, began connecting collegiate members to resources to both get home safely and move to virtual operations, and do the important triage work to get the Fraternity to a place where it could pause, ever so briefly, and begin looking ahead.

Necessity is the Mother of Innovation

As much as the General Fraternity was working at a break-neck pace to adapt to this “new normal,” collegiate and alumni members were doing the same. Chapters began hosting virtual game nights to foster brotherhood, alumni held virtual Zoom reunions, and collegiate members frequently shared resources and best practices with the General Fraternity that were, in turn, shared with the entire Fraternity.

As spring began to move closer to summer, several key elements of the Fraternity had to be considered in light of the circumstances: the Pursuit of Excellence Program, annual awards, and the 69th Grand Chapter, which was scheduled for later in the summer of 2020 in Denver.

“Early on, there were discussions about some of these items and whether these were things that should be paused or not done,” says Scott Smith (Central Arkansas), Director of Leadership Development. “Very quickly, there was an understanding from the High Council and agreement from the larger group of collegiate officers and alumni volunteers that the pandemic, while impacting our lives in every facet, should not discount the work of our chapters throughout the academic year.”

As a result, the Fraternity first looked at the Pursuit of Excellence Program criteria to see what accommodations should be made to account for the simple reality of the pandemic’s impact.

“We made some reasonable and practicable accommodations for all chapters before the evaluation began, and then worked with chapters individually to extend deadlines for PEP or awards submissions so chapters could provide a 100% effort and review of their academic year.”

It’s important to note that no changes made should be considered a lowering of the bar. If a chapter held an annual philanthropic event during the Founders’ Month of Service in April, that event was likely canceled outright as 100% of chapters had gone to virtual operations.

In adhering to those guiding principles set early on, the Fraternity committed to continuing its work toward its honorable mission and, in that spirit, celebrating the achievements of its collegiate chapters and alumni volunteers. The pandemic had already robbed the Fraternity’s brothers of so much. It would not rob them of this.

Article 13, Section 5.1

The focus soon shifted to the 69th Grand Chapter. Even without a pandemic, executing a Grand Chapter is a herculean task. It requires a significant number of resources, planning, and manpower, which is expected for arguably one of the most critical pieces of the Fraternity’s governance.

By late spring, the list of organizations postponing or canceling their in-person events scheduled that summer grew by the day. Most notably, the Summer Olympics announced that they too were postponing, and they were scheduled for late summer.

For the Fraternity, the immediate questions were apparent. First, is it safe to hold an in-person Grand Chapter? Second, could it be virtual? Third, what if the answers to the first two questions were no?

The first question had a clear answer. Even with the country’s efforts to “flatten the curve,” the pandemic still held far too many question marks. As soon as the situation in New York City seemed to be coming under control, a new area of the country would see a spike in cases and deaths. Furthermore, the logistical challenges of simply traveling to and from the Grand Chapter seemed insurmountable.

The second question was harder to answer but became clearer as time passed. The feasibility of shifting to a virtual format in late April, amidst everything else going on in the country and with staff resources focused on chapter support, would also be nearly impossible. Planning for Grand Chapters begins years in advance, and significant work begins several months prior, and that’s with a clearly understood format and flow of business.

This left the Fraternity with the last question and required a dive into The Law of Sigma Nu Fraternity, Inc. and the archives.

It turns out, a Grand Chapter had been postponed before. During World War II, when travel was restricted by the government for fuel rationing and saving space on railways for priority equipment, the 32nd Grand Chapter was postponed from 1945 to 1946.

But how did Sigma Nu operate without passing a biennium budget, electing a new High Council, or conducting the other critical business of the Grand Chapter?

In the years leading up to and into World War II, the Fraternity recognized that the war effort could cause an emergency in which a Grand Chapter couldn’t be held. With this knowledge, the Grand Chapter made the proactive step of amending The Law to allow the High Council to postpone a Grand Chapter in the event of a national emergency. This amendment allowed the High Council to adopt budgets for operating expenditures and other measures to ensure the continuity of the Fraternity in the absence of the Grand Chapter. It did come with an important caveat that the High Council would be required to submit a report to the Grand Chapter at its next meeting, detailing its actions during the emergency.

With all three questions answered, the High Council’s decision to postpone the 69th Grand Chapter and enact Article 13, Section 5.1 of The Law was announced on May 8th. The 69th Grand Chapter was postponed to the summer of 2021.

The Only Way Out is Through

May of 2020 marked a turning point in the pandemic for the Fraternity. Most academic terms had ended by the end of the month, and summer break had officially begun for collegiate members. Regent John Hearn (Georgia) shared a special video message to graduating seniors, thanking them for their service to the Legion of Honor as collegiate brothers and welcoming them to the alumni ranks.

As Memorial Day approached, the unofficial start of summer, the Fraternity looked forward. The initial chaos from February to May had been one of the most significant crucible moments for the Fraternity at

every level. Collegiate officers had to scramble to adapt their operations. Collegiate members had to deal with their entire education being uprooted from classroom to Zoom call. Volunteers worked tirelessly to deliver guidance and support to the collegiate brothers. Alumni brothers set up impromptu home offices, their families juggling everything from new childcare schedules to toilet paper shortages.

At the General Fraternity, attention turned to the coming academic year, and it seemed there were more questions than answers. Would students go back? Would recruitment still happen? What would recruitment look like? How would candidate education operate? How would collegiate chapters survive? How would the Fraternity weather a storm that looked more like a marathon than a sprint?

With the same resolve exhibited by its fraternal ancestors, the Legion of Honor knew that the only way out was through. The past few months had shown that the Fraternity had the resolve to rise to the occasion and step confidently into the unknown. With the support of the General Fraternity staff, our faithful volunteers, and the hard work of our collegiate members, the Fraternity would walk in honor, committed to fulfilling its mission.

SIGMA NU FRATERNITY, INC. – COVID-19 PANDEMIC INITIAL RESPONSE TIMELINE

February 27: Advisory statement issued to collegiate chapter leaders, alumni volunteers, and Fraternity & Sorority Life Advisors.

March 9: Began tracking campus response and collecting data on campus operations.

March 10: Advisory message sent to collegiate chapter leaders, alumni volunteers, and Fraternity & Sorority Life Advisors yet to complete Spring 2020 consultation with an alert that virtual consultation may be necessary, pending local conditions and response.

March 10: Advisory statement issued to collegiate chapter leaders, alumni volunteers, and Fraternity & Sorority Life Advisors.

March 11: Advisory statement issued to collegiate chapter leaders, alumni volunteers, and Fraternity & Sorority Life Advisors.

March 12: Confirmed cancelation of Habitat for Humanity’s Collegiate Challenge and planned use of Carriage House.

March 12: Canceled remaining scheduled spring pilgrimages, tours, and use of Alpha Room at Headquarters campus.

March 13: Advisory statement issued announcing the release of a dedicated coronavirus webpage as a clearinghouse of all applicable internally and externally created resources.

March 14: Decision made to transition all remaining chapter consultations to a virtual consultation model. Headquarters office closed and all staff to work remotely.

March 16: Advisory statement issued to all members.

March 18: Advisory statement issued to collegiate chapter leaders, alumni volunteers, and Fraternity & Sorority Life Advisors.

March 19: Guidance about adjusting philanthropy event plans sent to chapters using the CrowdChange platform to raise funds for upcoming philanthropy events.

March 20: Advisory statement issued to all members and Fraternity & Sorority Life Advisors.

March 23: First round of chapter check-in calls begins. Staff to contact via phone each collegiate chapter and colony Commander and Treasurer.

March 23: First round of chapter check-in calls began. Staff made phone calls to each collegiate Commander and Treasurer.

March 25: Conference call held with Division Commanders to provide latest updates.

March 25: Advisory statement issued to all House Corporation Presidents.

March 30: Released a special video message from Regent John Hearn (Georgia).

March 30 and 31: Two webinars held for all alumni volunteers to provide guidance and highlight available resources.

April 1: Launched the Virtual Operations section of the Best Practices Library.

April 1: Message sent to all alumni volunteers sharing analysis of the CARES Act and providing guidance on applying for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan. The message also shared a recording of the recently held alumni volunteer webinar.

April 3: Made Sigma Nu-sponsored Zoom premium account licenses available on-demand.

April 6: Promotion sent to Community Service & Philanthropy Chairman about upcoming webinars hosted by CrowdChange on effective virtual fundraising strategies.

April 6: Follow-up message sent to House Corporation Presidents providing additional guidance and resources on the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.

April 6: All host institutions at which an active Sigma Nu chapter was located have announced that the remainder of the academic term would be conducted 100% virtually.

April 9: Survey sent to all House Corporation Presidents to collect data on the financial impact experienced and anticipated due to the pandemic.

April 13: “Top 10 Things You Should Be Doing Now” message sent to all chapter and colony officers, alumni leaders, and Fraternity & Sorority Life Advisors.

April 14: Second round of chapter check-in calls began. Staff made phone calls to each collegiate Commander and Treasurer.

April 16: Educational Foundation webinar held to update donors on Fraternity’s response to date.

April 24: Updated advisory statement issued to all alumni members.

April 29: Conference call held with Division Commanders to provide latest updates.

May 4: Advisory statement issued to all Lt. Commanders, Marshals, Chaplains, alumni leaders, and Fraternity & Sorority Life Advisors providing guidance and sharing resources to help engage and retain current candidates and initiated members.

May 7: Chapter financial statements are issued for the first time 100% digitally.

May 7: Initial call held with a focus group of Collegiate Grand Councilmen to collect insight on the pandemic’s impact on chapter operations and members.

May 8: Statement issued announcing the postponement of the 69th Grand Chapter.

May 11: Survey distributed to all collegiate members to collect data on the experienced and anticipated impact of the pandemic.

May 11: Webinar held for all alumni volunteers to provide updated guidance and highlight relevant resources.

May 13: Special video message from Regent John Hearn (Georgia) to graduating Sigma Nu brothers published on Sigma Nu’s YouTube channel and publicized on social media channels and via email sent to all members.

May 15: Email message to all house corporation officers announcing a partnership with Alpha Tau Omega and Kappa Alpha Order to develop and collect guidance, best practices, and other resources to assist house corporations in preparing for the upcoming academic year.

May 18, 20, and 21: Recruitment webinar series completed. Webinar recordings and accompanying resources are published on the Sigma Nu coronavirus webpage.

May 21: Release of new Mental Health Quick Takes resource. A series of short videos with accompanying discussion guides on mental health topics related to the pandemic.

May 22: Email message to chapters planning a Fall 2020 Lexington pilgrimage confirming visit dates and cancelation plans should the Headquarters have to be closed.

© 2015-2021 Sigma Nu Fraternity, Inc.
9 North Lewis Street, P.O. Box 1869, Lexington, Virginia 24450
Phone: (540) 463-1869 | Fax: (540) 463-1669 | Email: headquarters@sigmanu.org

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