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Students And Faculty Grapple With Virtual Challenges As Colleges And Universities Move Online

University of Iowa
University of Iowa
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Students and faculty at colleges and universities across the state are grappling with how to transition to online instruction due to the COVID-19 emergency.

Classes are back in session at Iowa colleges and universities this week. But in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, classes are being held online. The process of going virtual is presenting challenges for students and faculty at the University of Iowa.

The new coronavirus is upending campus life across the state as colleges and universities close dorms, lock classrooms and cancel commencement ceremonies.

It’s all in an effort to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus.

The decisions have forced some students to move back in with family members, and sent instructors scrambling to overhaul lesson plans and test out video calls.

Lizzy Handschy is working on her PhD in anthropology at the UI, and is a teaching assistant for a 200-person lecture class.

She says it’s been a relatively smooth transition for her.

“Just the nature of what our class is, that is a little bit easier but I know students in other departments, graduate workers in other departments are facing greater barriers or their department doesn’t have as many resources,” she said.

Handschy, who also serves as the press and publicity chair of the Campaign to Organize Graduate Students or COGS, says other students are wondering how they’ll pay rent and whether they’ll get funding for upcoming semesters, as their student loans hang over them.

Just the nature of what our class is, that is a little bit easier but I know students in other departments, graduate workers in other departments are facing greater barriers or their department doesn't have as many resources. -Lizzy Handschy, PhD candidate in anthropology at the UI

Some professors are having to scrap their lesson plans, while wondering if their students are getting by. Art professor T.J. Dedeaux-Norris is teaching painting and drawing this semester.

Instead of hanging her students’ work in a class gallery, she’s been giving them advice on finding makeshift studio space.

"[One student] took a bunch of stuff and shoved it in their car and drove to their sibling's house," Dedeaux-Norris said. "Another student is using their mud room in their apartment. Another student has gotten permission from their landlord to use the basement as a studio."

The news that BFA and MFA exhibitions are being canceled is a major blow for some students, Dedeaux-Norris said. But this abrupt transition is also something of a practice run for life as an artist after school.

"This is also a crash course to like, once you leave you were going to have to figure out what you were gonna do anyways. Like, what does studio space look like outside of the institution?" she said.

That's the beauty and the curse of the music that we deal with [...] All of those things that are absolutely vital to the very essence of the music we simply are, for the next six weeks, unable to truly address in actual practice. - Damani Phillips, UI jazz professor

For some students, it just won’t be possible to get the experiences they signed up for this semester.

Study abroad programs are canceled and laboratories are closed.

Damani Phillips is a jazz professor and says his ensembles simply can’t perform remotely.

"In a music style like jazz where it is very much about being in close proximity and chemistry between players and being connected to the moment and interacting with an audience you know what I mean, and getting them on board," Phillips said.

That kind of performance and experiential learning just can’t happen during the pandemic, he said.

"That's the beauty and the curse of the music that we deal with," Phillips said. "All of those things that are absolutely vital to the very essence of the music we simply are, for the next six weeks, unable to truly address in actual practice. We can address it in theory, but in practice, there's not a whole lot we can do."

But he says he’s trying to come up with ways to make the last few weeks as meaningful as he can.

For some students, these emergency measures are an inconvenience.

For others with different learning styles or special needs, moving to online instruction may be a major challenge.

For Brittany Anderson, it means rethinking her entire dissertation.

I mean, I had a lot of backup plans. But I didn't really have a backup plan for an epidemic that affected the entire world. - Brittany Anderson, PhD candidate in anthropology at the UI

She’s working on her PhD in anthropology and says she had only been in Sierra Leone for two days when the University of Iowa announced its international travel ban.

She was slated to do nine months of research for her dissertation on the long-term health outcomes of people quarantined during the Ebola outbreak.

"I mean, I had a lot of backup plans," Anderson said. "But I didn’t really have a backup plan for an epidemic that affected the entire world."

She says she won’t be getting back to Sierra Leone any time soon, and the funding for her research there won't necessarily be transferrable to another project.

But as people around the world go into quarantine due to COVID-19, she may not have to go very far to do more research on social isolation.

"That has been one of the things I’ve talked to my advisor about. Especially because my project really dealt with, in Sierra Leone, what the long-term consequences were of quarantine both for people who were ultimately infectious and those who weren’t," Anderson said.

Based on her previous research, her advice for those of us in quarantine now? Try and be there for each other.

"The people who did the best and the people who were able to make those kinds of improvements moving forward were the ones who had family and the community to kind of lean on. So really make sure that you're kind of keeping those connections moving forward, and reaching out, both when you need help and when you think somebody else might need it," Anderson said.

It’s too soon for Anderson to know what the full impacts of COVID-19 will be for her education.

In the meantime, colleges and universities across the state are urging faculty and students to try and be patient during this transition, and to ask for help when they need it.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter