Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything, forcing Binghamton University to alter the ways in which it serves, educates and engages its students and community.
On March 11, 2020, New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that all SUNY schools would shift to a remote learning model for the remainder of the semester starting on March 19. This unprecedented shift was against the backdrop of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic. The announcement marked the beginning of a new reality for all students, faculty and staff, as education and campus operations were shifted into uncharted waters.
The shift to remote learning was a procedure University administrators were prepared for but still posed many challenges, according to BU President Harvey Stenger.
“We were already anticipating something like this and had already begun a remote teaching pilot program through the Center for Learning and Teaching,” Stenger wrote in an email. “Still, the announcement required us to make a number of changes involving almost every aspect of the campus, since not only were classes going remote but so were almost all of the University’s day-to-day operations, with the exception of what were deemed ‘essential’ campus services.”
While campus administration was actively preparing for this outcome, students like Victoria Gilliams, ‘20, were shocked by the sudden situation.
“When the campus actually shut down and everything started to set in I got scared, especially for my family given I live a block away from New Rochelle, where the outbreak was traced back to,” Gilliams said. “Unfortunately one day my parents just showed up to my apartment unbeknownst to me and told me to pack everything up. At that moment, I was really upset and knew college was over, I wasn’t going to have a chance to say bye to my friends and realized that it was highly unlikely there’d be a graduation.”
Along with students, professors and teachers like Amy Parker, who is a teaching assistant and doctoral student in English and creative writing, faced many obstacles with the sudden change to remote teaching. Parker taught Writing 111: Inquiry and Academic Writing, a class focused on in-person instruction, during the shift to remote learning and recounted the stress of restructuring the class.
“The Writing Initiative guides instructors with the class, and they continued to do so during [COVID-19], but no one saw this coming,” Parker wrote in an email. “For me, the switch to Zoom presented issues, especially concerning workshops and presentations, as nonverbal cues can contribute to the atmosphere of the class. This is also why I prefer teaching in person — I can tell how responsive students are.”
These challenges continued into the fall 2020 semester, as the University administration and students faced challenges in a multitude of areas, including the cost of testing BU community members for COVID-19, providing quarantine and isolation housing to students, new sanitization procedures and the cancellation of social and athletic activities.
Many leadership roles throughout campus shifted due to the pandemic and fostered new obstacles as well. One particular challenge was the expanded role resident assistants (RA) assumed to maintain COVID-19 precautions in on-campus housing, such as mask and social distancing violations. RAs were now obligated to write up students to Residential Life for possible expulsion on campus. An RA, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed frustration about their new status as a “bad guy” among fellow students.
“Pre-[COVID-19], I was able to bond and connect with residents in a much more open, comfortable and natural way,” the anonymous RA wrote in an email. “Now, all interactions feel forced, and nobody likes being told that they have to meet with their RA. [Residential Life] implements an artificial relationship in the building. Everyone is trying to do their best, but [Residential Life] has significantly cut our budget from last year. That’s what really got me. This proved to me that [BU] is a business.”
The spring 2021 semester aimed to fix many of the issues and grievances expressed from the previous semester. For example, the implementation of rejuvenation days to support student mental health and the creation of more accessible testing procedures for students and faculty. Even with improvements in certain aspects on-campus, COVID-19 cases remain at an all-time high with 407 estimated positive cases on-campus during the Feb. 27 to March 12 period. This increase in numbers has resulted in shortages in isolation and quarantine housing. Despite the continuing issues on campus, Brian Rose, vice president for student affairs, said he believed that as long as students and faculty maintain diligence, the campus will eventually see improvement.
“My ask for all members of our community, including but not limited to students, is to continue to care for each other and come together,” Rose said. “Follow safety guidelines to protect your friends, classmates and peers. Instead of pointing out the examples of failures that can be easy to find amidst such an overwhelming challenge, acknowledge the many successes and the efforts of all those doing their best to provide a genuine residential educational experience.”
Along with Rose, Stenger said he believed if the University unites together as one, there will be a sense of normalcy in the near future.
“I’d like to tell everyone how proud I am of the campus and the way our community has pulled together,” Stenger wrote. “And while the crisis isn’t over, it is time to start looking ahead to what the next year or two will be like. Fiscally, there will be some challenges, and we will need to be cautious in how we address them. But I think that there is a lot to look forward to, as well. I think there will be a great deal of demand for [BU] over the next year or two, particularly as travel restrictions from other states and nations are relaxed. And while I don’t have a crystal ball, I think that the University should be well on its way to normal by next fall and certainly by next spring.”