As we close out this disrupted and odd spring semester, I am thinking about our normal practice of wrapping things up–turning in grades, congratulating our graduates, and going home for a little rest and relaxation. My husband and I had, indeed, planned to be sitting on a beach in Miami right after we finished congratulating the last student to walk across the commencement stage. Obviously that isn’t happening, not just for safety reasons, but because there is too much to do. It is time to figure out what happens next at our university.
Uncertainty is all around us. We do not know how long we will be compelled to stay home. We do not know when there will be a true treatment for this virus. We do not know when there will be a vaccine. We do not know if there will be a second wave (although evidence suggests there will be). And so on. How does one plan for the future of a university with so many unknowns? One decision at a time.
This week we made our first real decision about what is next. Having cancelled our usual commencement ceremony, we were left with very big sense of loss. At all universities, commencement is an important ritual, sealing that feeling of pride and accomplishment that should accompany completing one’s degree. At a university like WCSU, with a large proportion of students who are the first in their families to go to college, it is all the more profound and meaningful. Something had to be done. After consulting with our students, we have settled on a fall celebration on our campus. That announcement was met with cyber-cheers from everywhere.
I am thrilled, assuming it can actually happen. If we are allowed to gather in a pretty large crowd in September, this will be a wonderful, soothing, experience for all of us. If. There are real threats to the feasibility of this event, but we have a plan and we all feel better. It is action. It is decisive and it gives us a sense of hope and progress.
So on to the next. How shall we plan for the fall semester? We are diving into that conversation right now. Like our students, who loudly rejected the idea of a virtual commencement ceremony, none of us wants to be a fully online university in the fall. It just is not who we are at WCSU. We are more high touch than that. It comes from our commitment to meeting students where they are, with the goal of helping all of them succeed. We have a student body with incredibly varied educational experiences prior to college. Those varied experiences require nuanced responses that are just harder (though not impossible) in a fully online environment.
This observation tells me that I have already made a first decision about the fall. We will not operate solely online. That doesn’t reduce uncertainty much, especially since I don’t have the power to make that decision alone. Nevertheless, it does remove one option from the logistical map we will try to create at WCSU in the next two weeks.
Next question…what does a campus look like when it must consider social distancing as a key variable? Do we reduce the number of students on campus at any one time? What will be the maximum occupancy of each room, and how will that impact class size? How will that impact the budget? What will we do about gathering spaces? Will we ban them? How will we make sure people wear their masks, if required? How will we protect the most vulnerable members of our community? That is not a next question, is it? It is a barrage of variables that must be considered.
The question right after those addressing a theoretical return to campus is, what if we have to go back home? Now the ruling out of an online only environment requires a little more thought. It seems we will have to be prepared to go back online at any moment during the fall (the next year?). Oh boy. Now I have a new list. How do we make sure that our online offerings are of the highest quality? How do we support our faculty as they fully develop their courses online? How do we adequately support students in this environment in a developmentally appropriate way? What about the quality of our technological infrastructure – can it really support this? And so on.
Beyond the academics, what on earth do we do about student life in either scenario? It is a lot to think about folks, a lot.
Nevertheless, the act of thinking about it is a relief. This long list of questions can have answers. We can make a complex logistical map that helps us develop strategies for addressing each scenario. It will be very hard, but the answers can be developed, evaluated, and decided upon.
I have listed a lot of questions here because listing the questions is that very first step toward uncertainty reduction. Despite the missing pause for recuperation at the end of the semester, I am thrilled to get started on this, because the uncertainty is really the worst part of this whole situation. Making plans, however complex or vulnerable they may be, is a kind of serenity-prayer for our campus, as we endeavor to control what we can, and accept the fact that we truly cannot know what comes next with this virus.