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Notes on Teaching During a Pandemic

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Santa Barbara, California /March 9 – 29, 2020

 

On Monday, March 9, in the year 2020, life as a community college English professor is still fairly normal, although the rapid spread of COVID-19 has everyone who’s paying attention on edge. Schools—and shops and restaurants and bars—are still open, but there is talk that soon they might be closing “for a while.”

 

I meet with three classes on Mondays. There are some absences, but this is Week 9 of our 15-week semester; absences are inevitable. Some students seem more aware of the virus than others: they have scooted their desks away from the center of the classroom. In general, though, we interact as we normally would, which means we are in close quarters.

* 

The next day, at home, I grade some late papers, take a walk around the neighborhood, and read the news, which is grim. Our Executive Vice President announces in an email: “Get Prepared to Continue Instruction in an Alternative Method.”

*

On the morning of Wednesday, March 11, I tell my hybrid English 110 class to be “really ready” to go online. I reassure them, as I had Monday’s section, that as a hybrid class we are already well-suited to make the transition to a fully online class.

 

Between the early morning and late morning’s classes, I read that the World Health Organization has officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. By the time I head off to teach my other two classes, word is spreading that this could be our final day of face-to-face classes “for a while.”

 

Students ask: “How long will this last?” “Are we going to be coming back later in the semester?” “What if I don’t have a Wi-Fi connection at home?” “Can we borrow computers from somebody?” “Will this affect summer school?”

 

My answer to every question is the same: “I don’t know.”

*

That evening the EVP emails: “We are moving as much instruction online as possible and as quickly as possible.”

*

On Thursday, things change quickly, sometimes by the hour. Our college president announces, “SBCC will not close our campuses unless directed to do so by the County Public Health Department.”

 

At home, I begin working on my two non-hybrid classes, sketching out ways that I can bring them online.

*

On Friday, March 13, President Trump declares “a public health emergency.”

 

The Chancellor of the California Community Colleges issues a blanket waiver allowing courses that do not have an “approved distance education component” to nevertheless move online as soon as possible.

 

Our EVP answers some FAQs via email, including “Is online instruction for the remainder of the semester?” Her answer: “We are planning in shorter increments as we move forward. Plan to be online for the foreseeable future. We are continually assessing this plan.”

 *

The weekend is full of rumor and uncertainty. Hospitalizations in California are beginning to rise. The number of deaths from the virus in Italy and Spain is terrifying.

 

My youngest daughter is a freshman at NYU, and like most college students around the country, she has been sent packing. I pick her up at the Santa Barbara airport on Saturday night. The situation being what it is, I don’t give her a hug.

*

On Sunday, March 15, SBCC’s president officially closes the campus. The EVP asks faculty and employees to stay away unless they are very briefly picking up “needed equipment, books, or other materials.”

*

My previous Bedford Bits post, written in the ancient days of February, was entitled “Self-Sufficiency in the Community College Classroom,” and lauded actions like meeting deadlines. Self-sufficiency is still going to be important for my students, but they are not going to make it without plenty of community help.

 

Fortunately, my school has gone into overdrive. Chromebooks are being loaned for the remainder of the semester. Counseling and financial aid have gone online. Indeed, everything is moving online.

*

Above all, there is a lot of Zooming going on. “If I never have to Zoom again, it will be too soon,” a colleague texts me, and I respond with the emoji with the exploding head.

*

Still, I feel extremely lucky that I spent a recent sabbatical converting face-to-face to online courses. While the work in front of me now is time-consuming, I know how to do it.

 

In contrast, one of my older colleagues doesn’t even have a computer at home: she does all her online work at the office.

 

She is given a loner Chromebook and reckons that she will teach the final five weeks of her classes via email.

*

On Thursday, March 19, our president confirms that “a currently enrolled credit student is positive for COVID-19.” Anyone who has come in contact with the student will be contacted by the Public Health Department.

 

We also learn that “Instruction will continue online for the remainder of the Spring term.”

 

That same day, Governor Gavin Newsome issues a statewide “Stay at Home” order.

*

Our spring break, which begins on Monday, March 23, doesn’t, of course, feel like a break at all, although I am glad that all the members of my family are healthy. I spend the first part of the week grading papers online, and the second part making sure that my two non-hybrid classes are ready to go when classes begin again on March 30.

*

On Tuesday, March 24, our president reminds us that as we are now under a declaration of emergency, there are “implications for public employees.” Apparently, there is a government code stating “that all employees of the District are declared civil defense workers during emergencies, subject to such defense activities as may be assigned to them.” What, I wonder, might those duties be?

*

The vast majority of my students seem to be working hard and earnestly to adjust to these unprecedented circumstances in their schooling and their lives, so why am I so annoyed by the few angry and irrational emails I receive from students who have clearly not read my emails or Canvas announcements?

 

I have to remind myself how upsetting all this is for students, and that finger-pointing is just a way for them to deal with stress. Patience, I tell myself, although it is not my strongest quality.

*

On Friday, March 27, the Chancellor’s office issues Executive Order 2020-02 and Guidance Memo ES 20-10, which, among other provisions, extend late-drop deadlines, waive the pass/no pass deadline, and allow students retake any class they were enrolled in during the pandemic.

 

That same day, our president announces, with genuine sadness, that this year’s commencement will be virtual.

*

I spend Sunday, March 29, the final day of spring break, tinkering with Canvas assignments for the next day and typing up my notes for this blog post.

 

The windows are open as I work. Outside, it is a pleasant Southern California spring day. The air is lush with birdsong, and the hills are green from the recent rains. I can smell the smoke from my next-door neighbor’s barbecue.

 

You’d never know that the world had changed.