Well, it is the Monday before Thanksgiving and we are hosting the last of our in-person classes this week. By Wednesday all of our residential students will have gone home and, after a few days off, we will return to classes online for the rest of the semester. It seems we averted the worst disasters of COVID-19, with only a small number of infections related to campus and no known spread in the classroom. I am thankful.
Our collective efforts seem to have worked. We reduced room capacities and wore our masks. Our facilities team kept hand sanitizer distributed everywhere and produced plastic barriers in the necessary locations. Hours of operation were reduced in common areas, mostly for our sanity – it is stressful managing the protocols and the fear. Most of our classes are hybrid and online, but we preserved important in-person experiences, particularly in our labs and our visual and performing arts programs. It hasn’t been an ideal learning environment, but it has been acceptable.
As we look ahead to spring, our campus is not planning to make many changes to our fall plan. Given the outcomes, it seems like we have chosen a prudent course of action, and with all magical thinking in place, I don’t want to jinx it. So, as I reflect on the fall, I want to say thank you to our entire university community for their collective efforts at safety. Despite the distance and the endless virtual meetings, we came together as a community and rose to the challenge of this crisis.
What next? Well, since we already know that spring is more of the same, I think we can focus on getting better at creating connections in a virtual world. As a person who has taught online, I know that it takes a few semesters to get really good at teaching this way. Since online teaching is no longer a one-semester (plus the abrupt spring exit) experience, I hope that everyone takes to opportunity to review what worked and revise what did not. It is an effort, of course, but these online courses are likely to be part of our regular teaching portfolio from now on, so getting good at it is not a bad goal.
We might also look at how to strengthen our support programs. Our tutoring centers are reporting a drop in usage, which is unfortunate, so it is clear that some in-person tutoring is a good idea. Perhaps, we should be examining how to get that first connection, that usually happens face-to-face, to happen online. It is clear to me that once the connection happens, people use the services. It is also clear that for some of our students, online is the better platform, for scheduling reasons. That being said, we should also look at that schedule. When not bound by buildings, it is easier to imagine support at later hours, which often suits students well. I’m not sure what we need to do, but there are lots of things to explore, because this online delivery of support services is also likely to be a permanent part of our portfolio of services.
Office hours moved online this year. This was probably the easiest decision I had to make in this whole mess, because the technology we have is great for one-on-one meetings. I am very curious about how students and faculty feel about this. Was it effective? Did students show up? Perhaps, it is time to take a look at how well this is working and recommend some best practices to everyone. Like later hours for tutoring, it might be that the flexibility of on-line office hours is better for everyone involved. I’m not sure, but I’d like to know.
It is also time to figure out if we were able to make our first-year students feel like they were part of our community. Our returning students, though not thrilled with the distance, know us already. They expressed their connection by re-enrolling. We are happy to have them back and, it should not go unstated that we feel grateful as we see familiar faces and names in our classrooms – virtual or otherwise. But our first year students had a tough start to college. Some opted out of college this year, and I get it. I am tremendously grateful to those who chose to try this strange campus environment out, but I do wonder if we were able to support them enough. Perhaps, as we move to the completion of the fall term, it might be good to ask them how they are doing. I’m thinking about how to best accomplish this one.
All of this is a to-do list of sorts, but I feel so lucky to have this list. It means we are still here, and we are still working hard to create good educational experiences. It also means that we are no longer in the morass of unknowns that made decision-making so difficult last summer. We have acted on the best guidance of the health experts and it worked. Uncertainty about how to navigate this environment has been reduced. There is a path forward–a path I recognize, where the choices are within the realm of my experiences.
So here we are on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and yes, I am thankful. I feel so much better than I did in August and I hope that everyone else at WCSU feels the same. We showed that adhering to the recommended protocols can work. We showed that we can do this thing called higher education in a COVID-19 world after all. So, yay team!
Now let’s not blow it people. Keep following those CDC recommendations during the holidays and protect your loved ones. Because, after all, my magical thinking is silly. It’s not magic – it’s masks.
Stay healthy everyone.