Teaching in a Pandemic
Last March, I came home from a conference in Nashville on a strangely empty plane, the only one sitting in my row. Since my son was home for spring break the next week and I was looking forward to my annual basketball binge-watching, I didn’t comprehend how much COVID-19 would impact all of our lives until the ACC ended its tournament early and the NCAA canceled March Madness. Next, my son’s school announced they would extend spring break by a week, and a friend told me, “Prepare for schools not to reopen.” She was correct; I would have my teenage son, who is on the autism spectrum and nonverbal, home full-time from March until September. Our lives now revolved around social distancing, online grocery shopping, and spending most of our time at home.
Honestly, aside from my son being out of school and my husband working half-days, life was not that different for us; we don’t socialize much, and I already worked from home. I have been teaching composition online for 15 years, so I experienced no rush to transition to virtual learning. Each week Purdue Global’s faculty and students gather for a live seminar and spend the rest of the week sharing insights on a discussion board; students submit assignments every other week. We didn’t have to change how we delivered classes—no rush to prepare video lectures, no Zoom meeting confusion, no need to develop an LMS (learning management system) for students to log attendance and submit assignments. However, having my son home and trying to juggle his virtual learning with my classes had me in a panic mode, especially during the weeks I had to grade assignments.
I knew my students were feeling this panic, too. My students are adult learners, many with full-time jobs and families, and they were facing tremendous challenges balancing work, life, and school even before the pandemic. Now, they are worried about being out of a job, having a job that puts them at risk of getting COVID and bringing it home to their family, or trying to juggle their schoolwork and that of their virtual-learning kids.
I began a new term just as the shutdowns ensued, so I thought about how I would handle this change in all of our lives. I have always been a bit of a stickler for rules; in particular, if students turned in work late, I assessed the late penalty unless they had an excellent reason, like a last-minute military deployment or a death in the immediate family. After all, I had defended my dissertation the day after my beloved grandfather’s funeral and taken exams after a trip to the ER my sophomore year of college. Why can’t everyone else suck it up and get the work done? That attitude had eased somewhat as I learned to live with a son on the autism spectrum; he doesn’t understand rules in the way a neurotypical person does, and I certainly have had to learn to ask for help and extensions on projects when a crisis hit. Now, though, all of us were facing a pandemic and had to figure out how to navigate that together.
The first change I made was to stop assessing late penalties. I still stick to the two-week deadline for late work; in a ten-week class with assignments built on the previous unit’s knowledge, students who take longer than two weeks to submit late work will get too far behind to pass. Honestly, about the same number of students still get their work in on time as before, but now those running behind get less panicked, meaning I get fewer emails at 2 a.m. the morning after an assignment was due. I have more of those students who used to fall far behind catching up instead of dropping out of sight, and they do a better job communicating with me about their struggles because I admit that I am struggling, too.
The course I teach, College Composition II, asks students to develop a proposal to solve a problem in their community or workplace. Many of them have chosen to write about COVID-related topics in the last year. Some of the issues they have tackled are improving broadband internet access so that no student is left behind, advocating that companies keep work-from-home options for those who prefer it, reducing food insecurity, and cleaning up the mountains of discarded PPE that we now generate. Together, we are learning how to take better care of ourselves and our community during a crisis.
Talking about the challenges we face helps, too. I often begin the live seminar by asking how they are doing and even looking ahead to what we will be able to do when life gets “back to normal.” I asked them one night, “What do you look forward to doing the most when this is over?” One student answered, “Hugging my friends.” Others mentioned seeing a movie on a big screen, going to a concert, eating indoors at a nice restaurant, and taking a well-deserved vacation—all simple things in the pre-COVID days that now seem like the ultimate bucket list. For me, attending an in-person conference and getting to see my friends from work after more than a year of seeing them only on a computer screen will be a welcome return to normal.
For now, I am taking it one step at a time. My son has been back in school all year except for vacations and a one-week quarantine, and he should be in summer school for at least a few weeks. My husband, son, and I have all had our vaccinations, so I breathe a little easier, albeit through a mask that fogs up my glasses. I have a vacation planned for July, giving me time to recharge, relax, and spend time with my family. Then I will be back to work, helping my students become better writers, but more importantly, supporting them through what I know will still be a challenging time.