Q&A with Emerson COVID Lead Erik Muurisepp

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Photo: Alec Klusza

COVID lead Erik Muurisepp sits at his desk on the fourth floor of the Walker Building.

In April, Assistant Vice President for Campus Life Erik Muurisepp was handed a herculean task: leading the college’s implementation and communication of coronavirus safety policy as reopening was planned. 

Almost a year after implementing one of the most successful campus reopenings in the greater Boston area, Muurisepp looked back on stepping into his role as “COVID Lead,” the biggest challenges of his position, and what he wishes he’d done differently. (Note: text has been edited for brevity and clarity). 

Q: When did you realize the tide was really turning towards the worse? 

A: Probably that week we were saying ‘Hey, we’re ending classes on the 13th, everyone’s getting a week to then start back up.’ The other key was March 11, and I was sitting at home, and my wife and I were watching CNN … the President of the United States came on and did the travel restrictions. We had an 11:30 p.m. meeting that night, because that impacted a lot of other things. That was the other defining moment of like, ‘Oh bleep. This is a new reality.’ That started those late-night meetings at my dining room table. We knew it was real, but we also left this space, packed up my stuff, saying, ‘Okay everyone, we’ll be back.’ And then boom.

Q: What was that week like, from a leadership perspective? 

A: In the moment, I was in my AVP zone. We were all in that mode of do, do, do, do, do. I like a good crisis. I hate that they happen … but that’s sort of when I get into my zone of, ‘Great, let’s go.’ It was March 12th, 13th-ish that we had decided to pull one of our kids from school. He has cystic fibrosis, so obviously there was a concern there. For me, that was hard, because I was going full force and a leader here, so I didn’t even have time to pause and think about it. For me, when I’ve had those crises in the past, I go in, make sure my students are okay, make sure my colleagues are okay. They’re my forefront, and then I get home, usually, I walk through that door, and that’s where waterworks start. 

Q: How did you step into that role? 

A: A lot of us had been tasked with chairing work teams, and I was chairing the work team on housing and dining. We put together a great presentation and said, ‘Look, these are the options. This is full capacity. This is at 75 percent, 50 percent, worst case scenario, one person per bathroom.’ I’m a pilot by education, so we were completely flying blind. The cliche that everyone keeps using is we’re building the plane as we’re flying it. Two days later, I got asked based on that presentation, ‘Can you help us with this, this is the goal, we want to have a playbook, we want to have a plan that we can look to.’ That started my foray into being “COVID-19 Lead.”

Q: What do you see the role as?

A: In the beginning, it was reading, it was compiling, looking at state guidance, looking at federal guidance, looking at other states surrounding us. It was all night long, all day long, creating 210 tasks, and then calling people from all over the institution to come together. That’s where it started to shift, because it became this major project. It started as, ‘I’ve created manuals before, I’ve created guides and I’ve done trainings, this is fine.’ But what was hard, it was all outside of one person’s expertise. This was another area where I’ve been able to grow, of being honest with, ‘I have no idea. I need to learn about that, I need to bring in the expert.’ 

Q: Is there anything you regret or wish you had done differently over the past year?

A: I don’t have any regrets about it. I often wonder … Did we make the right decisions on policy? I believe we did. But I often wonder, ‘Could we have loosened up a little bit?’ I don’t know. Right now, I think we could have, because I see how quickly and wonderfully our community rose up to the masking and distancing and all of that. We had no measurements of success inside besides staying open, and we did, so I think right there that is success.

Q: Did you ever feel like these decisions could have a really grave impact? 

A: There were definitely times, right before reopening, where privately, I would say, ‘My gosh, did we advocate enough to make sure this is the right decision?’ Because you just never knew. What if we had a superspreader? That’s where for me where the personal and the work came together. 

Q: Is there a playbook for what the rollback of regulations look like?

A: We’ve had some of those conversations. Nothing’s finalized yet, but I think I imagine a lot of that will look different than it does now for the fall. It’s not going to be like fall of 2019. We’re gonna be somewhere in that middle. But I think it’s gonna be a glorious middle that we all deserve, and we’ll be able to enjoy.