Cooper and COVID-19

By Barry Drogin EE’83

The Shutdown

In the beginning, New York City was the epicenter of the virus, with a first confirmed case on March 1, 2020, turning into over four thousand confirmed cases a day through the end of the month of March, peaking on April 9 with over seven thousand five hundred confirmed cases on that day.  It wouldn’t be until late April that the daily confirmed case load would fall below four thousand a day, and below one thousand cases a day in late May.

The Cooper Union initiated a Coronavirus Response page as early as January 29, 2020, and later set up a COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund to raise money to defray the economic impact of the pandemic on the college.  Quick response emergency grants of up to $1500 per year to students with short-term financial emergencies were made available through the Carroll and Milton Petrie Student Emergency Grant Fund.

When the campus started to close on Saturday, March 13, 2020, for the start of spring break, it ended up not reopening on Sunday, March 22.  A visiting professor in the School of Architecture who had last been on campus on March 10 was reported as the campus’s first case on March 16, and on April 6, 2020, Cooper reported the first “presumptive case” of a student who had not been on campus since March 12.

By March 18, Cooper had announced the cancellation of the May Commencement ceremony, the End of Year Show, Senior Shows and Exhibitions, and all other on-campus events.  Students in the Residence Hall were given the option of vacating by March 29 or being relocated in the building to better accommodate social distancing rules.  On March 23, Cooper commenced an Independent Study Week, and by March 27, an art student collective petitioned the school to change grading.  As a result, on March 30, all classes were changed to Pass (P) or No Credit (NC).

Cooper Goes Virtual

Although remote and virtual, some Cooper events were re-imagined.  In lieu of a graduation ceremony, a YouTube tribute to the Class of 2020 was posted on May 27, 2020.  The students, staff, and faculty of the Architecture School created a virtual Architecture End of Year Show on June 17 , featuring a recreation of the entire Foundation Building.  Curated by Steven Hillyer and Farzin Lotfi-Jam, with assistance by Mindy Lang and Mauricio Higuera, amongst many, many others, the virtual Foundation Building will remain as a digital resource to future college projects. 

The Art School students, staff, and faculty launched their own virtual Art End of Year Show on July 28. 

The Mechanical Engineering Department presented Capstone Senior Projects in a virtual showcase, as did the high school students of the Summer Art Intensive.

The Cooper Union Alumni Association had already been incorporating videoconferencing into its Council meetings when the first all-virtual Council meeting was held on April 16, 2020, on Webex.  The First Tuesdays Happy Hour went virtual with a First Tuesdays Storytelling Hour on May 5, 2020, and the CUAA Alumni Excursion to Green-Wood Cemetery was turned into a virtual visit on May 13, both streamed live on Webex.  Meet the Candidates Night was held on Zoom on May 20. These were followed by many other virtual CUAA events, retreats, and Council and committee meetings.  The CUAA election, which had switched to Internet ballots years ago, went off without a hitch, with over 700 votes cast. 

Two highlights were Giving Tuesday Now on May 5, which raised over $330,000 from over 200 donors, and the free YouTube Concert for Cooper held on August 12, which raised another $350,000.

The Cooper Community Responds

In addition to official events and actions taken by Cooper and the CUAA, individual alumni, students, faculty, and staff have launched efforts in response to the pandemic.

Robert De Saint Phalle A’01 launched a GoFundMe campaign that raised $10,000 to offset material costs to produce over 1,000 face shields for local hospitals.  A similar effort used 3D printers in Cooper’s new Art, Architecture, Construction, and Engineering (AACE) Lab to manufacture 1,500 face shields for local hospitals. Read article.

Calil Arguedas-Russell of the graduating Art Class of 2020 launched a mail-art exchange project that attracted nearly three dozen participants from throughout the Cooper Community, from New York to Florida to Boston to California and many places in-between.  Ben Werther, also of the graduating Art Class of 2020, prior to the Art School End of Year Show, helped organize BFA students from over 60 art schools in creating an on-line art exhibition hosted by Serving The People.  Brian Rose A‘79 published In Time of Plague, a photo book documenting his neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, during four weeks of the lockdown.

The Coopertones, Cooper’s a cappella student singing group, released a couple of virtual choir videos. Topos, co-founded by Will Shapiro AR ’13, created The COVID-19 Compiler , a visualization tool that shows county data layered in user-controlled dimensions.  And Barry Drogin EE’83 created and moderates an on-line COVID-19 support group for the Cooper Community on Facebook.

The Cooper Union Website for information on the Cooper Union COVID-19 policies at the school is here.

A New Academic Year

New York City started opening up non-essential businesses on June 8, 2020, as the “long-tail” of the pandemic brought the number of confirmed cases in NYC below 300 cases per day (on average) throughout the summer.  Starting with orientation, Cooper started plans for a mix of on-line and in-person events and instruction, including a virtual walking tour of the neighborhood presented on August 27 by Queens Borough Historian Jack Eichenbaum CHE’63.

Although most classes will continue to be held virtually, maker spaces, studios, and labs opened on October 1, 2020, following the protocols detailed in a “Returning to Cooper Guide.”  Students, faculty, and staff who need to return to campus must submit negative COVID test results by the first of every month.  Cooper has also issued digital thermometers to all students, and has created an app, CUSAFE, that implements a health questionnaire, provides access to the campus each day, and helps control the capacity of each room and building.

For the Cooper Community as a whole, the college has continued to provide virtual events, such as Cooper Union On Demand and the Cooper Union Intra-Disciplinary Seminar.  Cooper and the CUAA kicked off the semester with an Alumni-Trustee Event on September 29, 2020, featuring Meredith Bergmann A’77 .  The CUAA Events Committee is working on more virtual events for alumni and their friends.

In Memoriam

The families of the deceased decide whether to publicize whether deaths are linked to COVID or not.  The CUAA knows that many of those listed below were suffering from long-term health problems when they passed.  Nevertheless, here is a partial list of some of the notable members of the Cooper Community who have passed since the pandemic began:

  • Bill N. Lacy, former CU President
  • Robert Hawks, former CU Vice President for Business
  • Jean Le Mée, former Professor of Mechanical Engineering
  • Margaret Morton, former Professor of Art
  • Nicholas Amplo, former Professor of Art
  • Anders Abraham, former Professor of Art
  • Keith Godard, former Professor of Architecture
  • Milton Glaser A’51, former CU Trustee
  • Mina Greenstein A’56, former CUAA Vice-President Faculty and Student Liaison, 2011 CUAA Alumna of the Year
  • Gerald Ryan EE’83, former CUAA Council member

A longer list of those who have passed in 2020 is maintained on the CUAA website (https://cooperalumni.org/2020-in-memoriam/).