First Day of School

Remember all those pictures of kids on their first day of school? The pictures may be a little different this year. Yesterday was the first class day at Mississippi University for Women, where I have taught for 26 years, and though campus was abuzz with activity (at least compared to being a ghost-town during quarantine and over the summer, when I was often the only person in our building).

Still, with only one or two classes at a time in our building and class sizes for most face-to-face classes at 10 or fewer, it was nearly impossible to take a photo of students in the hallway. They can wander in a few at a time and follow the arrows on the floor to their classrooms. We have 1 class per day in each room of our building, and most of our classes are online, especially the larger ones, so we feel pretty comfortable.

Chairs and desks have been moved to create work spaces for students that will keep them at least 6 feet apart, and if the instructor is wearing a face shield rather than a mask, then the front seats are left empty so we have at least 10 feet (probably more like 12) between the instructor and the first students. All classrooms have webcams and microphones for Zoom broadcast of a class to a student who can’t be present or recording if they can’t be there at the same time.

With these measures, the number of students in our building and the number of students who are living on campus has been dramatically reduced. We hope that we can go for some weeks and maybe until Thanksgiving before we have to send students home. But we don’t know what students will do in their free time or who they may come in contact with when they’re not on campus. Ours is a commuter campus and not primarily residential in a typical year. Students often go home on weekends, so there are many uncertainties.

Nonetheless, we’re doing what we can to reopen safely. If anyone is interested, you can view our campus renewal plan. It’s far from perfect, but for a small, regional public university, we are doing our best. One thing that has helped us is that we have been involved with online learning since the beginning. I’ve been teaching online for nearly two decades, longer if you count the supplemental online discussion boards I set up before we ever got our first LMS (does anyone remember WebCT?).

This year, we’re experiementing with more synchronous online classes, which I’ve been doing in our MFA program for years. But now we can finally list a class as synchronous on the course schedule and list the timesthat a student is expected to be in class. It will take some re-education of students to train them what to look for: some thought they had to come to a classroom since a time was listed (but no room), and some probably think they can do any online class asynchronously.

We know there will be challenges, but if some of the measures we have implemented work and if we learn from the ones that don’t work. We should be able to move to a slightly more normal semester by Spring 2021. And if it all goes to heck again as it did last semester, we will be better prepared to pivot to all online learning.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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