I work at Widener Law Commonwealth as the faculty secretary. Mother Widener (as we playfully call “her”) has signed my paychecks for 7 years in November.
My first 6 years were relatively peaceful, despite some notable challenges. But this year at Widener (as well as virtually everywhere else) is the first one that could reasonably be labeled as “absolutely, brain-meltingly bonkers.” The shutdown in March was something no one — beyond soothsayers and epidemiological experts — could have predicted. As you might imagine, and surely have gotten a taste of in your own lives, 4½ months of remote learning and remote working have offered quite a, shall we say, education for all of us Widener folk.
Which brings us to July. Every one of us, from the faculty to the students to the staff, were waiting for weeks with bated breath and clouded mind to learn the verdict. What will the fall semester look like, given the pandemic that rages all around us?
On July 27th, exactly 3 weeks before the start of classes, we found out. President Wollman sent out a carefully crafted, warmly empathetic, superbly detailed missive explaining that the three Widener campuses will function in a virtual capacity once again this fall. All classes will be held online, which means that the staff (including freelance dad bloggers who may or may not be involved in the post you’re reading) will be working from home for the indefinite future.
I have many thoughts, and even more feelings, about this verdict and about the virus itself. I will proceed to lay them out with careful consideration for everyone involved.
Students deserve empathy. All the empathy.
I start with this point because students are the lifeblood of the law school. Any academic body that doesn’t earnestly acknowledge that salient fact isn’t worth the letterhead their acceptance letters are written on.
I can vouch for this fact: Widener Law Commonwealth greatly values its students. And I myself happen to positively adore all 300 or so of them. There may be no aspect of my job I enjoy more than getting to know each new class of students and rubbing shoulders with them for 3 to 4 years. When they graduate, I feel like a proud uncle patting them on the back and feeling nostalgic for the days when they arrived, wide-eyed and nervous, for orientation week. It brings me great pride and joy to watch our plucky, promising students go out and change the world using the tools they learned from Widener’s esteemed faculty — whom I also happen to positively love working alongside.
I repeat: Students are the lifeblood. And being around them puts life in my blood.
This brings me to my salient point, which there’s no way to get around: This pandemic has been devastating for students. And that goes for all students, everywhere, from kindergarten to graduate school. In no universe does remote learning constitute an optimal education, and in no universe does the Zoom website constitute an optimal learning platform.
Not even close.
So many essential components of the educational experience are lost when the physical classroom is removed from the equation. Computer screens should not stand between students and professors any more than plexiglass should. All of this is far from ideal.
I can’t decide who I feel more badly for this fall — first-year students who won’t even get a taste of campus life until next spring or fall, second-year students who were just coming into their own as freshmen before being abruptly knocked out of their groove mid-spring, or third-year (and fourth-year evening) students who now have to face the prospect of a senior year without most of the mileposts and mementos that make a senior year exciting, meaningful, and socially connected. I can only imagine that the disappointment must sting like acid poured on a not-yet-healed, maybe-even-still-gaping wound.
I could say much more on this subject. But suffice it say: This is a gut punch for our beloved and beleaguered Widener student body. And I have all the empathy in the world for each of them, many of whom I consider warm acquaintances and some of whom are my friends. To those of you who are reading this, let me just say, for what it’s worth:
This sucks. And I’m sorry.
But laying aside (if it was possible to do so) warmth and empathy and the things that make life worth living, what about the considerations that make life able to be lived? What about public health? What about the pandemic itself and our moral responsibility to respond to it? This brings me to a less emotional, more rational, and equally pressing point.
This was the only humane decision that Widener could have made.
Nothing I will say on this point detracts from anything I said above. And nothing I said above detracts from this point: There was simply no other decision that would have adequately protected students, faculty, and staff. Going virtual was a public health necessity.
Covid-19 has forced our hand. Or more to the point, Covid-19 (combined with our country’s woefully inadequate response to it) has forced our hand. We are currently at the mercy of an invisible, marauding virus that, after dying down during the early shutdown period, is now raging through large portions of the country once again.
Major League Baseball is quickly learning that all their best and most insistently laid plans can’t prevent a pandemic from infecting groups of people who are traveling across state lines and interacting in close (even if socially distanced) quarters.
Governors who have prioritized their economy over public health are quickly learning that they have done so at the expense —both metaphorical and financial — of their constituents.
And academia, to the extent that it tries to maintain some kind of status quo of faux-normalcy this fall, will quickly learn that it just doesn’t work. Even with masks and wipes and plexiglass and social distancing, you simply can’t operate a college campus during a pandemic.
All those Hollywood movies happened to get it right on this one: A virus will always find a way to creep in.
So this is my avowed contention. While all of these disruptions fully and unquestionably suck [pardon my language, Mom; the virus forced my hand], there’s just no way around it. Widener’s superlatively progressive and intuitive president, Julie Wollman, made the only humane and sustainable decision she could have made when she pulled the plug on an in-person fall semester.
I am deeply grateful to President Wollman and to all of the administrators who played any part in rendering this verdict. I am grateful that they listened to medical and scientific advice. I am grateful that they did this despite the inevitable loss of enrollment revenue. I am grateful that they valued the lives of students, faculty, and staff over maintaining a façade of normalcy during a moment in time that is anything but normal.
I feel grateful.
And I feel relieved.
And I feel safe.
*The 2nd half of my blog post will come sometime next week. It will tackle the family side of working remotely, which is the part I have even more thoughts (and feelings) about. Thank you so much for reading this far. I’m grateful for your engagement with my blog.*
One thought on “My Thoughts (& Feelings) on Widener’s Decision to Go Virtual This Fall”
I agree that colleges should at least begin the year learning virtually. I was great to hear how this type of non-personal interaction will affect 1st year beginning students / middle years/ and senior year students differently.
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