Teaching in the time of COVID

By Peyton Edwards

Staff Writer

In a world where our new normal is through a screen, students and professors have had to learn to adapt when everything changed at a moment’s notice. The inside of a classroom is now a brand new scene. This new era is causing classrooms to be completely rearranged, measured out so that desks are exactly six feet apart. Nevertheless, some professors at St. Michael’s College and around the country have chosen to teach in an online setting, for personal or medical reasons.

“Saint Mike’s is so well known for the small classroom experience… that, I don’t think anyone can replicate in this time,” said Elizabeth Peterson, instructor of Education. Peterson has been teaching virtually since March 13, 2020. “There has to be a certain emphasis on the social component because it is so much harder to get that through a screen,” she explained.

People have very distinct learning experiences, even though everyone is experiencing the various difficulties of COVID-19. “All of the inequities that have already existed in education which are substantial, just were magnified,” Peterson said. These inequities often affect people with disabilities, black and indigenous people of color, and those with limited access to technology and resources to be able to learn online, she said. In contrast, those with access to better technology, resources, and a better economic situation would have an easier time with learning online, Peterson noted.

Matthew St. Pierre ’23 recalls that the transition from in-person to virtual classes over Zoom had proven to be a very challenging task. “The difference is pretty extreme. I find that even in classes I’m interested in, I’ll get distracted,” he said. Many students have been feeling the effects of what some people call “Zoom fatigue,” and have yet to find a way to combat it. “The myriad of challenges they are facing, it’s too much,” said Tara Natarajan, dean of Faculty and professor of Economics. It is good news for students that many professors understand the effects of Zoom fatigue, mainly because they are also experiencing it themselves, she said.

On the other hand, online classes can have its benefits. “Having everything online gives you the opportunity to get ahead on work. If you can get ahead on things, that’s really going to help you make things less stressful later on,” St. Pierre said. In an effort to get students back in the classroom, some professors have chosen in-person classes to provide a more authentic experience for students. This has been a big step in transitioning back to normal, but there are still many obstacles. “The fact that we wear masks makes it close to impossible to read people’s expressions,” Natarajan said. In classes where there must be discussions, presentations, or group work, body language and facial expressions are crucial in evaluating the emotions in the room, and masks alter that in a way that we never would have thought, she explained. Masks have a way of inhibiting our ability to interact with each other in ways that we used to, and “when you sit down with a mask for a long time, there’s a kind of weird exhaustion,” she explained.

As hard as it is to navigate online learning, people may not know how much planning went into getting the College to this point. Natarajan was part of a planning committee for the College last summer, and figured out how classes and in-person activities would work. She invited faculty and staff from different departments, and led the team to formulate guidelines and plan for teaching during a pandemic.

After this planning, Natarajan, along with Allison Cleary, Kristen Hindes and Anne Crowley, organized two full-day professional development panels and workshops in July to brainstorm ideas and learn how to teach courses online. One of the workshops specifically focused on “Awareness of Student needs” which covered topics like mental health, race and ethnic inequalities, and learning differences in the classroom.

In addition, IT hosted approximately 16 workshops related to educational technology. “These workshops provided training and development for redeveloping our courses to be taught in new modalities while being both nimble and agile to be able to shift to virtual teaching on a moment’s notice,” Natarajan stated in an email.

In these workshops, the goal was “to think about what we are experiencing, what do we need to be thinking about, and what is the vision,” she said. The College community has been very fortunate in that the technology is accessible to us here, and that professors were prepared for this more than in other institutions, Natarajan explained.

Professor Thomas Meyers, who currently teaches a mixed-model first year seminar in which students both in class and on Zoom meet together said, “I will say there’s definitely some anxiety about making sure that the students online are feeling part of the class.” “It is sometimes frustrating when one or two students can’t log on” he expressed with regard to the unconventional class, but said “I had a lot of faith that it was going to work and it has.”

Although this time has taken a toll on most people in some way, there are many benefits that have come out of what was at first a very daunting situation. “It is important during a stressful and confusing time like this to take time to focus on yourself and take care of yourself. Exercising, getting good sleep, doing things you enjoy, and maybe even trying meditation,” St. Pierre said. The College community is slowly transitioning back to a busy and bustling life, so taking time to work on your mental health is critically important. “I see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I am throwing logs on it,” Peterson said.

We have become so accustomed to the world of Zoom, where one does not have to be attentive 100% of the time, that the shift back into the classroom is proving to be a challenge for some students, said Natarajan. “It is so hard to keep them on and engaged, especially with masks,” she explained. This new taste of reality may prove to be a challenge for many people that have been stagnant for the majority of the past year.