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During the last week of class this quarter, my First-Year students gave presentations on topics related to viruses. They used PowerPoint and shared screens—sort of old school meets Zoom school. I was really impressed by how the talks opened up larger discussions, especially on the social and economic effects of COVID-19.

Listening to my students

Security: Many, if not most, of our UWB students have to work and some are supporting their families, as their parents have been laid off. We know that students with financial need and students of color are disproportionately impacted by COVID; my students felt this impact. Unemployment increases financial stress and can lead to food insecurity and even homelessness. It also can lead to or exacerbate mental health issues in our students and in their family members.

COVID disease: My students understand what it is like to have COVID. Some caught it this quarter. Some had really strong disease symptoms while others were hardly affected. Like many who catch COVID, some either got it from their families or worried about spreading it to their families. Among their parents, some are elderly, immunocompromised due to cancer treatment, or have other risk factors. Others worry because transmission to other workers in the family could cripple family finances. This is stressful and emotional for them.

How to cope:  Students also have great ideas about how to cope with the pandemic—how to stay safe and keep others safe (masks, physical distancing, staying home), how to get tested for COVID, what each test can tell you and about the trade-offs between expense and speed vs accuracy. Many are ready to roll up their sleeves for the vaccine but also appreciate that they will not be first in line. They will continue to mask up and stay in their bubbles. They can give you the number for hotlines to call when the stress is getting you down.

Yearning for the “university experience”: Most students would like to return to a form of normalcy—especially the “university experience”. They want to be here on campus, meeting each other and their faculty in person, going to labs, club meetings, the library, the ARC. They understand that the current surge will delay a return to campus. They are thinking creatively, and some have expressed a desire for hybrid courses in which those who don’t feel safe coming to campus can have an online option. I estimate that at least half of my students think that being in in-person classes would help their learning process.

Thoughts on hybrid courses: the students suggested a hybrid option that could work if adequate computer access is available in the classroom. Right now, student teams meet in breakout rooms on Zoom and they could still do so if students both in class and at home are all on the same Zoom call—as is done in some global learning courses. UWB currently has only a couple of rooms with computers for each student; the maximum number of computers is 32. These rooms could work for First -Year classes, which tend to be capped at 30 students. Is it time to consider creating more classrooms with computers?

My reflections on Fall Quarter 2020

The two things that encouraged student engagement most were (1) working in teams and (2) especially having a targeted project that each team produced. Working in teams was helpful on its own, but adding the longer-term targeted project united each team around a common goal. What didn’t work as well were shorter projects such as team worksheets around topics such as vocabulary. While helpful at the beginning of the quarter, they were not as engaging as the projects (a debate and a presentation). Getting to worksheets on Google, completing them as a group, then uploading a copy into Canvas to be graded took too long. For some students, just learning how to use Canvas was enough challenge, and was reliable, so we tended to use it to access group work.

Teaching during the Time of COVID has made me think about the question, “What is essential?” It has been challenging. I have refined my approach but see room for more improvement. But if there are silver linings to the pandemic, one is that it has made me think more seriously about the answer to this question. It, and the Black Lives Matter movement, are making me think about inequity in the classroom and motivating me to find better ways to understand and address what is essential in my courses.