On a sunny Thursday afternoon that feels like six months ago instead of three weeks ago, I smiled at the antsy students (mostly graduating seniors) who were leaving my class for the last time before spring break. The news of the novel coronavirus was something we were hearing about in other parts of the world, but it felt like a distant threat. “Y’all be safe on spring break, get some sunshine, and wash your hands,” I called to them as they left class that day. I never imagined it would be the last time I would see them in person.
COVID-19 has hit all of the world incredibly hard, endangering lives, shuttering businesses and turning the world’s entire academic system upside down. Kindergarten students to Ph.D. students have had their academic year suddenly disrupted, with the expectation that learning would continue online for the remainder of the academic year. Also caught in this whirlwind, of course, are the people who teach all of these students.
University faculty are part of a large group of teachers who have rapidly had to adjust our courses and learn new techniques for online instruction. We University of Georgia faculty are fortunate in many ways.
First, after an initial stutter-step on whether we would delay the resumption of classes, the UGA administration announced that we would halt all instruction for two weeks after spring break to give faculty time to retool our courses. To some, this may have felt like an overly conservative pause in the semester, but in hindsight, most faculty I know were glad to have time to thoughtfully consider how to modify our courses, get up to speed on online instructional tools and deal with all the other aspects of personal and professional life that have been disrupted (canceled research travel, labs that are now shut down indefinitely and student research collaborators who have suddenly been sent home for an indeterminate length of time).
Online instruction is hard, and doing it well is not simple. UGA faculty have received tremendous support from a wide variety of campus offices, in particular the Center for Teaching and Learning, which immediately created guides for online instruction which were continually updated and expanded.
But at the same time that faculty faced a steep learning curve in how to teach our classes, we had decisions to make — should we try to deliver content at the time of our class (i.e., synchronously), or create videos ahead of time that would be posted (asynchronously)? How long should those videos be? How should we do tests? Should we modify assignments and due dates? What if our students get sick, or have other personal or financial stressors that make finishing the class difficult? What if we don’t have reliable high speed internet at home? This became a real issue once it became clear that we were strongly discouraged from coming to our offices on campus to work any more.
Added on top of these varied challenges, many faculty (like other teachers) have family responsibilities that we are juggling in the midst of this chaos. With schools and daycares closed, faculty — particularly female faculty — with children at home suddenly find ourselves having to radically restructure classes mid-semester while working from home and serving as homeschool teacher, sibling squabble referee and short-order cook. Workplace analyses consistently find that even in dual-income households, female professionals shoulder a heavier load of child care and domestic responsibilities. In a time when all normal forms of child care are eliminated, working productively from home (and remaining responsive to student needs) is a particular challenge. These hurdles are expanded for single parents, those with children with disabilities and/or those with elder care responsibilities.
Despite all of this, I have seen UGA faculty unite together like never before in the past three weeks. We have all become adept at Zoom meetings, and have gleefully oohed and ahhed over babies and puppies we have met in those sessions. We have shared tips and tricks with each other for how to create engaging online videos. We have solemnly discussed how we would cover for each other if one of us gets sick. And we have mourned with students over cancelled end of year events (especially graduation).
These lost experiences of the spring 2020 semester are irreplaceable, but the UGA community will come back strong. And for faculty, at the end of the day, it’s not research, it’s not conference travel, it’s not academic papers, but it’s students — and our genuine enjoyment of teaching you, working with you, sharing in these sacred years of your lives — that make our jobs worthwhile.