In the final days of spring break, uncertainty spread throughout the USF student body following President Paul J. Fitzgerald’s announcement that the rest of the spring semester would be conducted online due to the threat of COVID-19. Unsure of what the future would look like regarding their profession, professors at USF dealt with a panic of their own.
As the University shifted to an online learning model, professors and students alike wondered what the remainder of their semester would look like. Kimberly Ding, a former nursing clinical instructor, said, “Day one, I told my students, ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna do this, but we’re gonna do it.’”
After recovering from the initial shock of the announcement, professors had to rework course syllabi for the remaining months of the academic year in less than a week’s time. Then they had to figure out how to implement hybrid instruction for the fall semester, a format of learning that combines in-person and remote learning.
Prior to the decision made in July to go fully remote for the fall, Interim Provost Tyrone Cannon explained the various forms of hybrid instruction the University intended to implement in a June 22 email. This included “hyflex,” in which some students could have attended classes in person while others joined remotely, and an option where classes would meet with a mix of in-person and remote meetings.
These options were eliminated as a surge of coronavirus cases led California Governor Gavin Newsom to announce that the state’s reopening plans would be pushed back. Then,specific instructions issued to higher education institutions by the San Francisco Department of Public Health sealed the fate of the fall semester. On July 14, Fitzgerald announced that the fall semester would be completely remote.
Over the summer, faculty underwent extensive online training, experiencing first-hand the ins and outs of Canvas from a student’s perspective. “We had a Canvas site, I had a log in, I had to read other people’s posts, I had to watch videos, I had to post. And that really helped me see what it’s like on the student’s end, and what I really learned about was the time commitment,” said adjunct English professor Ana Rojas.
Professor John Lendvay, chair of the environmental science department, recalled conversations across departments of how to assure students were learning what was needed to graduate. “My department and I sat down on the lead with those fundamental thoughts in mind. ‘What do we do? How do we do this so that we can still proudly say this is one of our graduates?’” recalled Lendvay.
Some professors also had to consider how to approach learning that must be experienced hands-on. Lendvay says his department found new ways for students to engage in coursework, regardless of their geographic setting this semester. For example, the environmental science department sent out science kits to their students, giving them the ability to complete experiments such as analyzing pH levels using ingredients likely found in a kitchen. They have also taken advantage of students’ unique surroundings — for instance, the department created field studies that are conducive to a student’s particular location by assigning students to explore whatever body of water is nearest to them.
Building an online community from scratch is another challenge professors face for the fall 2020 semester. Professor and founder of the music program at USF, Alexandra Amati, sympathizes with students, particularly freshmen, who might be uncomfortable with the idea of participating through a screen. “When we switched to remote, I had already known the students personally for two months. Whereas now, I will never meet the students in person. I can’t see their body language,” she said. “In a live situation, you can respond to discomfort and unease … and that has gone out the window.”
Online classes also present professors with the challenge of rethinking what in-class work looks like. “It’s a whole different way of thinking about the time spent in the class when you are not learning synchronously,” said Rojas. After experiencing online class from a student’s perspective over the summer, Rojas said she learned to be more cognizant of how much time students have to dedicate to classwork depending on the length of recorded lectures and required discussion posts outside of Zoom meeting time.
Amati’s biggest issue with online learning is the lack of fairness and equality in students’ financial and living situations.
Outside of their online classrooms, University budget cuts have added pressure for academic faculty to deliver, with salaries being lowered across the board, regardless of position. Lendvay and Amati, who have both worked at USF for more than twenty years, took a 15% reduction in salary for the academic year.
Amati spoke about the stressful reality that has come with her pay cut. “It’s scary because the mortgages that I have, and the loans that it took to put my three kids through school, they don’t know COVID. I still have to pay them the same amount,” she said.
Despite the challenges, there have also been positives that have come with shifting to remote learning. Amati, Ding, Lendvay, and Rojas credit the sense of routine that online classes give them and their relationships with their students, even if through a screen, with helping them get through this difficult time.
Ding found comfort in the success of her students. “It was an inspiration to see that people can thrive. I think it’s seeing the human resilience, that you can find a way out, that you can have original thoughts, you can make the best of a situation,” she said.
All four professors also expressed their hope for the future and acknowledged the changes that will come as academia navigates what this new classroom experience looks like. Recalling campus shutdowns that have happened in recent years due to California wildfires, Lendvay said the current online shift has shown that it is possible to move to a virtual classroom quickly if needed in the future. Rojas said she feels that core classes with increased numbers of students could continue to be offered as an online option once the University returns to in-person learning.
When asked about what students should remember when they navigate the reality of earning their degree online at this time, Ding said, “Please work hard, continue to work hard, control what you can, take away any distractions that you have from your life, and study as best as you can, because it will get better.”