Blog Post

Reading Tea Leaves - A Recollection of the Moments Leading in Spring 2020

A cup of tea with loose tea leaves next to a tablet

Covid-time is either a blink or forever.  The memory of how we got here is starting to fade … and I wanted to jot down how slow and then fast the moments leading up to this strange reality began.

I lead a teaching and learning center at a private university in Long Island, NY.  Considered part of the greater metropolitan New York area, the neighborhoods around our three campuses have been in the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Our CTL handles everything from faculty instructional support to online course development, with a just-in-time center (previously walk- or call-in, now through a LiveChat on our webpage). 

In retrospect, we were lucky or prepared.  “Maybe luck favors the prepared.”  We were tuned in early to what was happening globally with the Corona virus.  One of our team members is from the same province as Wuhan, China.  And as a team we were discussing the virus in China back in January, before the MLK holiday and then as it locked down for Chinese New Year.  We read about American universities with Chinese campuses shifting to remote learning in reaction to travel restrictions and shelter-in-place orders.  My husband still has family in Iran so I knew that the virus was spreading beyond Wuhan.

Two summers earlier, one instructional designer on our team was tasked with drafting a resiliency plan for our CTL.  He listed weather as a significant and reoccurring disruptor — we’re in the Northeast and snow storms close our campus frequently.  Super Storm Sandy in Fall 2012 closed the main campus for more than a week, while crews restored power and cleared trees and debris.  He also listed cyberattack as a potential disruptor, and mapped through what we might do in this scenario.  And on a lark, because every list is better when it comes in threes, we suggested “pandemic.”  It wasn’t seriously discussed — he just needed a third scenario.   None of the preparations and recommendations in the plan were prioritized.  We were busy with online course development and a New Faculty Orientation, the Teaching Fellows, workshops on Universal Design for Learning, or how-to for grade book in our LMS, all of the usual activities of an engaged educational development unit.  

But by the middle of February, we knew it was coming; team members were already collecting stories off social media indicating the virus was in NYC, in China Town, or Queens.  And so quickly, my team revised our Continuity of Instruction site.  We updated our tutorials, videos how-to’s, we committed our February newsletter to “Continuity of Instruction.”  I asked my team to work weekends (I don’t think they will ever forgive me … but we were running out of time.) We scheduled workshops on COI for the last week of February and the month of March.  Our Provost cancelled travel and pointed to our workshops … but there was no plan, no communication with us on timing or scope.  Crickets.

Our early workshops were sparsely attended.  Four with maybe three more via Zoom.  Ten or so for the actual how-to Zoom workshops. Our February newsletter was passed around and forwarded back to me with notes like “super timely.”  I asked Deans to let me talk at their faculty meetings; I toured the colleges.  My line was “it's the same plan for one student who may go away for Spring Break and return sick, or for an entire campus to shift to online.”  I didn't want to panic folks and I also needed save myself if this pandemic was a two week quarantine.  

March 7, Saturday, I drafted an email that could come from the Provost Office, a mandate to move all instruction online as a fire drill.  I copied the Senate chairs from the Academic Innovation and Technology Committee, the Teaching and Advising Committee, the CIO, the Help Desk, Librarians.  No one asked me to do this — I wonder now if that was too much.  The next day, Sunday, I was told, “it’s not time, we’re not there yet.”  That afternoon, a university three miles away closed their campus — they had their first Covid-positive case.  The next day, another university ten miles away closed their campus when a student tested positive.

For me the week before Spring Break was the only opportunity to test the system that would support large numbers of remote learners.  I called it a fire drill.  But you can substitute any equivalent — active shooter drill, test of the emergency broadcast system, stress test.  There is a reason we have these exercises — we need to asses if the infrastructure, tools, people, and plan works.  I was up until 1 AM that night.  I noticed that my CIO was up too … a green dot next to her name on Google Meet showed she was online, not sleeping.  It was coming much faster than we anticipated.

March 9, the Provost rewrote the draft and removed the mandated stress test.  Faculty could go online if they wished or deliver instruction, do labs or hold midterms in person in class.  It wasn’t a fire drill: there would be no alarm, you could stay in the building, no headcount in the parking lot, the fire department wasn’t coming.  Confusion ensued.  The Faculty Senate released their own version of a fire drill, urging faculty to plan to go online that week, sometime.  That afternoon, I was asked to sit on a task force that would assess the Stress Test, post-run.  In that meeting in front of an Associate Provost, I almost got myself canned by pointing out that we in fact had not run a fire drill/stress test, therefore there was not much to assess.  

The two days later, the Provost walked it back.  Everyone was to go online, unless you were giving a midterm.  Or holding a lab.  You could ask for an exception if this was an inconvenient time.  Faculty were unsure what was happening … but more people started attending our workshops. 

Thursday, March 12, they closed campus.  Our workshops went from single digits to triple digits. We had a line to get into our walk-in site.  I had three faculty in my office, at my desk, sitting at the round table — our staff was running to and fro.  Multiple hand sanitizer stations were set up in our hallways.  It was so packed we couldn’t wipe down units, sanitize, not touch or breathe on each other.  My staff broke down in tears at our Friday morning meeting.  They hadn’t signed on to be front line workers; some were immunocompromised; they had worked through lunches for six weeks, 12 hour days and given up weekends several weeks in a row.  We were beyond capacity, even with all the preparations we had made.  That afternoon, I shut it all down.  I fed everyone lunch.  We sat down as family, and then sent everyone home, with laptops, and webcams - eight professionals and ten student techs.  That afternoon, I hired every work study student on campus who could work from home — I would lend them laptops, train them to become Tech TAs.  It was time to go entirely remote.

In the next two weeks, our workshops had almost 1200 faculty attend (some of them repeat participants).  In the beginning most people transitioned their face-to-face minute for minute to synchronous video conferencing, via Zoom at our institution.  But after the first shock wave settled, questions started coming in on how to improve the quality of instruction.  There is a petition from students to reduce the amount of time in synchronous instruction, less homework, a plea for compassion while they grappled with the realities of homeschooling their kids, sharing space and devices, economic and health challenges.  And I understand why -- most of what they are experiencing wasn't great or equitable or at times accessible.  

I don't believe that learning is limited to classtime, but I do believe that we haven't incentivized professional development in our faculty (ironic in an institution that promotes life long learning); and that it takes effort to make online instruction engaging, or equitable. What is sacred, in face-to-face or online, is community.  Learning is social and that is now evident.  

Early in the semester In Cathy Davidson's Introduction to Engaged Teaching course, co-teacher Eduardo Vianna talked through Vygotsky’s theories on learning.  It was an engaged conversation in class — we watched a video later about a preschool in New Jersey that used pedagogies for scaffolded learning in young minds.  And if there was a separate track, one where Covid-19 never became a pandemic, that may have resonated beyond that class.  But in the epicenter, still on lock down, it is on my mind.  When we learn we need that communal sense-making, and rehearsal and feedback.  We need to share our epiphanies and discoveries...and make connections in real time with others on what we believe, build on existing foundations.  It feels like that part of the learning process is fractured right now.  As we look out at the Brady Bunch faces, we are not getting that visceral confirmation that we are a community, together.  And we need this right now.  Perhaps anxiety and the uncertainty of what comes next is playing a larger role than in past online community makings.  It's a challenge I have been working on for a while but this pandemic is definitely bringing it front and center. 

Last month, the teaching and learning staff was finishing up the "Online Academy" in effort to move our institutions’ instruction closer to an inclusive pedagogy for summer.  In four weeks, we will build online courses that are normally constructed in fifteen weeks.  This week our faculty participants (and there are over 100) are  mapping our their courses, looking for assignments and assessments that are asynchronous, ”filming” the testimonials that will humanize online offerings.  They are thinking about who their students are and what they may be facing over summer — they are working on ways to build communities where all learners feel like they belong.

This shift to "remote learning" and now to "online" has been a process of reading tea leaves, convincing leadership that this is indeed a strategy in the foreseeable future and then, with a staff built for small production with very limited resources, attempting to scale to a much broader faculty audience.  It was exhausting and I am burning out.  Tomorrow after the three hour Zoom session on how we will restart next Fall "in person," I am going to read a book.  A mystery.  

Monday morning I will rise.  I make some tea and reach out quietly, one-by-one to my faculty colleagues and help them build their fall courses online.



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