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Columnists

A Year of COVID College

May 21, 2021
By Connie Michalos

It’s official. The first year of COVID College is over. Finals are done. Grades are submitted. Now what?

Well, we wait to see if it will be safe to return to campus in the Fall. More important, we wait to see what students will be like when we come back. This has been a difficult year on so many levels – academic, social, emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual, financial. We are all exhausted, and though we did our best to communicate information in creative ways, I’m not certain we were very successful.

We all have COVID fatigue, a certain malaise that infected us without the attendant fever and breathing complications but still a threat to our academic lives. And like our response to the pandemic, we were woefully unprepared.

We left school on March 12, 2020, for a week of Spring break and what we thought would be a few weeks online while the powers-that-be figured out how to handle this coronavirus business. We all know what happened next. It is now 14 months since that exodus, and we’ve learned a lot since then. But there’s so much more we don’t know.

I wondered about faculty who were tech-resistant before the pandemic. One 91-year old professor made the national news because he defied expectations and made Shakespeare come alive on Zoom. Too many other much younger colleagues stayed true to form and resisted any training. Instead, they silently communicated through electronic work sheets. Boring enough if you’re standing in front of the students. Disastrous when done remotely.

During the Summer, everyone was required to undergo training. Over 70% of the faculty opted to teach online in the Fall (and Spring, it turned out), but classrooms were retrofitted with state-of-the art technology for those who were returning to the classroom for what was euphemistically termed hybrid learning: to maintain social-distancing, half the class was present one day while the other half learned remotely, and then switch. Students were also expected to sanitize their areas before and after class. Good luck with that. They just stopped coming.

We quickly learned that too many of our students, and even some faculty, did not have access to technology and reliable WiFi. One computer in the family would not serve when three children and two parents were working remotely. Thanks to the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act, we were able to distribute hundreds of Chromebooks to students, but we couldn’t guarantee reliable internet connections. Nor could we address circumstances at home for a substantial number of our students. One nursing student cried that she had to take her exams in the bathroom to have some privacy. God knows where the rest of them go.

My students looked haggard by the end of the year. Many of them refused to leave the house. They didn’t exercise, eat properly, enjoy any me-time. We all complain about maintaining a healthy work-life balance. That line blurred beyond recognition with the pandemic. This year, my travel time to my office has been about three seconds. If I don’t have classes or meetings, I’m still in my pajamas at 10. I have taught myself to eat lunch away from my computer, but I find my day is much longer because I schedule student meetings way later than I would if I were in my office pre-COVID. I spent many Saturday afternoons zooming with my thesis student. That would not happen face-to-face. The break is built into the calendar. It’s called a weekend. During the pandemic, the week never ends.

Students complain that they are tired and unmotivated because classes bleed one into the other and their day never ends. I suggested that they create, online, the boundaries that normally exist being on campus. Study outdoors. Set up a zoom lunch break with a friend, close your books, and just eat and visit. Turn off your computer after class and listen to your playlist for an hour. Do jumping jacks or take a walk in between. I’ve even recommended Hallmark movies before bed – beautiful people, even more beautiful scenery, vapid dialogue, predictable storylines. How better to fall asleep?

“Great ideas!” they say. Do they take me up on any of them? No.

Not many of my students will attend Summer school, even with the discounted tuition. I can’t blame them. They’re exhausted.

I worry about them when we return to campus in the Fall. I worry more about them if we don’t come back.

Then there are the incoming freshmen. After a year online in high school, what have they learned? What have they retained? How prepared are they for college-level work? On the first day of class, I remind them that this is not the 13th grade. Maybe this Fall, I won’t say that.

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