Shelter in the storm: The classroom can be a refuge for students amid the chaos of COVID-19
Published: August 3, 2020 / Author: Jason Reed
And just like that, on March 29, my wife Meghan and I welcomed Elsie Rose Reed to the world.
In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, and alongside the accompanying uncertainty and fear, here was this new beacon of love and hope — a reminder of the preciousness and fragility of life. Elsie, like all new family additions, represents a time of flux, changing dynamics and exhaustion … oh, the exhaustion. We now had to navigate a new layer of uncertainty, in an already uncertain time.
In the weeks leading up to Elsie’s birth, everyday life in our country came to a sudden and screeching halt. I’m sure you remember it well. I do. One day I’m teaching equity valuation to 24 undergrad and MBA students at the University of Notre Dame, and the next, the University made the decision to extend spring break by another week.
Once that happened we all recognized the potential seriousness of the virus. Many of us began preparations to pivot away from in-person instruction to a virtual learning environment. It was soon after that the governor of Indiana announced shelter in place orders. With those words, we knew our lives might never be the same.
Email after email flooded my inbox. Almost all of them were from colleagues with offers of help and guidance. There was an instant renewal of community and reminder of this shared experience. Here, just a few days before Elsie’s arrival, was the first beacon of hope in what seemed like fog of ambiguity. Everyone went to work. Our new goal was the continuity of instruction. Even though we could see the finish line, no one knew how to get there. I’m sure I questioned my efficacy as a teacher more times in these few weeks than I did in my entire career. Staff, faculty, it didn’t matter, I’m sure we all felt the weight of the world on our shoulders.
For many of my colleagues, the transition to virtual learning was a Herculean feat. New, uncomfortable pedagogies were deployed and curricula revamped in order to satisfy our new mandate. Students, understanding the enormity of the transition, graciously accepted these new pedagogies and worked right alongside instructors to finish the semester strong.
These few weeks of remote instruction reminded me why I came to Notre Dame. Students and faculty were continuously looking in on one another. Inspiring words of hope and reminders of our shared experience were all around us. Personally, my favorite small reminder was reading every “Be safe” or “Be well” email conclusion. In these few words, there stood a declaration of our commitment to each other. And every time I wrote those words, I hoped that someone else felt that they were not alone.
So began our new normal. My class, Applied Investment Management, moved online but not without the help of many people. Zoom became our home, meeting every Monday and Wednesday. Each meeting started with a simple question: How is everyone doing? This question was so much more powerful now. You could feel the gravity of the question, and the relief was palpable when students affirmed their good health. For those few hours, I held Elsie while she slept, talked to students, listened to their stories and somehow taught class.
In years past, I’d employed Zoom for office hours, assigned online work through Sakai, and developed countless hours of video content in Panopto, in hopes to create convenience and facilitate learning while doing so on the students’ schedules. Now these same strategies were bringing a sense of normalcy amidst the chaos that was surrounding them. The synchronous structure of the class and asynchronous tasks that they had to complete helped to shape their day-to-day schedules. Almost counterintuitively, these tools, which are meant to distance users, actually brought us closer together, affirming our shared experience and giving ourselves an anchor point to set.
Throughout the remainder of the semester, there were good days and bad days. Parades of cars would announce their congratulations to recent graduates, or well wishes on best friends’ birthdays. Neighbors relocated their teddy bears to street-facing windows to brighten children’s walks. Many working parents, however, were now saddled with facilitating their children’s learning or asked to share their precious work space with their adult children. It wasn’t just our internet bandwidth that was stressed.
As spring turned to summer, the severity of the virus and the impact of isolation were exacerbated by the economic crisis that was developing. Yet again, another layer of uncertainty. For what seemed like forever, we watched as cases climbed, as the death toll rose and as the most vulnerable bore the brunt of COVID. We needed another beacon of hope.
To paraphrase Mark 7:7, ask and you shall receive. Father Jenkins’ announcement proclaiming that Notre Dame would be ready and will be returning to in-person instruction in the fall, was the new beacon many of us needed. It was a rallying point, an all-hands-on-deck call. As the story made its way around the national news cycle, you couldn’t help but feel rejuvenated. However, the news of in-person instruction also revealed the molten ambiguity just bubbling under the surface, ready to break through.
Now, many of us find themselves teaching in new classrooms, with untested technology, with new learning goals or unfamiliar pedagogy. Helping hands continue to reach out and offers of consultation chip away at all of the known unknowns that the fall brings. All of us, however, are acutely aware that there are still so many unknown unknowns.
Slowly, our plans for the fall are becoming clearer, though, and it seems that our classes will now have two important functions. Not only will they be places of learning and scholarship but now they will be places of refuge. Hopefully, classes provide some shelter from a world fraught with uncertainty and give students some sense of normalcy. Maybe we — the faculty, staff, administration and Notre Dame as a whole — can stand in as the beacon of hope that our students need.
Preparations for fall are accelerating now that classes are starting on Aug. 10. On July 29, Elsie will be four months old, marking that it has been about four months since we were all on campus together. Right now, Elsie is happily sitting and playing with my wife, Meghan. She has no idea about the turbulent world around her. One day, we’ll tell her about the time of COVID-19, the resiliency of our community and the support system we’ve developed.