Inspired by the way Macalester College has embraced the safety protocols of the COVID-19 pandemic, Highland Park resident Bridget Faricy put together gift bags for the many Mac students who will remain on or near campus through the holiday season.

Faricy, a wholesale distributor of knitwear, had a back load of unsold merchandise after months of canceled markets and other boutique events. Without customers to serve or markets to attend, she had a yen for helping people through the pandemic.

Early in the pandemic, Faricy noticed Macalester students wearing masks and maintaining a safe social distance. She called the college and learned that about 150 students would be staying in the area over the long winter break rather than returning home.

“Macalester students are super-mindful of the COVID precautions,” Faricy said. “With the winter coming, I had thousands of pieces of knitwear left and I wanted to give it away to people who would welcome it.”

Macalester has done an impressive job of limiting the spread of the coronavirus. According to the college’s COVID dashboard, during the week of November 24-30 Mac experienced just four positive results out of 174 students tested. With an enrollment of 2,049, the college had a total of just 46 coronavirus cases between August 26 and December 2. As of late November, Macalester’s test positivity rate stood at 2.3 percent, compared to the state average of 10.2 percent.

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Duane Nyugen (second from left) and three other Macalester College students who declined to give their names received the gifts donated by neighbors as comfort to those students who will not be going home for the holidays. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Faricy enlisted several friends in her gift bag project. Amy Wescott mixed 35 pounds of caramel to produce 650 pieces of the confection. Local fashion designer Laura Hlavac donated masks for the gift bags. Artist Amy Fyle chipped in candles. Another local woman, Susan Duffy, added neck gaiters. A GoFundMe campaign raised $670, enough to buy 50 gift cards from TeaSource in Highland Village and 17 more from Roots Roasting on Saint Clair Avenue.

Contributing to the gift bags was a chance “to give back to the community,” Wescott said. “Bridget’s initiative was a good one in recognizing the students for everything they were doing to prevent the spread of COVID.”

“I thought it was amazingly generous. It was totally unexpected, and everyone was so grateful. It lifted a lot of spirits. It was nice to see students smile about something, because it’s been a really gloomy semester.”

Macalester’s student government distributed the gift bags to the students, many of whom are from other countries or distant states. A representative of the student government, who wished to remain anonymous, was moved by the neighbors’ gesture. “I thought it was amazingly generous,” she said. “It was totally unexpected, and everyone was so grateful. It lifted a lot of spirits. It was nice to see students smile about something, because it’s been a really gloomy semester.”

Macalester biology professor Paul Overvoorde, co-chair of the college’s Infectious Disease Task Force and a special adviser on COVID to Macacalester president Suzanne Rivera, offered a note of caution. Though the case numbers have remained low, he said, “the reality is that things can change quickly.” The college remains vigilant, he said, with a coordinated response across all departments and disciplines and strong communications.

The Macalester community has embraced the need for masks, social distancing and remote learning, according to Overvoorde. “We’ve been fortunate that our students and staff are responding in ways that enable us to get through it,” he said.

It is primarily first-year students who are living on campus this fall and attending the few in-person classes or meetings being held at Macalester. The students live alone in their dorm rooms, a strategy that has allowed those who need to quarantine to stay put. The college also provides isolation rooms for those who contract COVID.

Macalester divided its first semester into two 71/2-week modules. Full-time students are enrolled in two courses in each module to make for a typical four-course semester load.

With the low number of cases, more professors were able to offer in-person classes and meetings by the start of the second module, according to Overvoorde. But because of the rising number of COVID cases statewide, the campus went to all remote learning on November 20. A college survey indicated that 20 percent of the students who were on campus planned to remain at home following the Thanksgiving break and study remotely through the end of the semester on December 19, he said.

Macalester’s second semester, which begins on January 19, will also have two modules, but beyond that, the spring term is largely unscripted. “This virus is so unpredictable,” Overvoorde said. “I have a sense of optimism, but there are still a lot of lingering questions. We’re hoping that by next fall the concern about COVID will be a lot lower.”

Faricy’s hope is that the gift bags will give Macalester students some joy over the holidays. As for her own contributions, “I could be sad about the tens of thousands of dollars going out the door,” she said, “but it’s beautiful stuff, and it’s making people happy.”

— Frank Jossi

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