On March 11, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that all SUNY and CUNY schools must transition to distance learning models by this coming Thursday. Binghamton University approved its own COVID-19 response plan — one that sought to keep courses on campus for as long as possible — just one day prior to Cuomo’s sweeping ultimatum. It is an unfortunate but necessary situation that brings about more questions and concerns than answers.
Upon hearing that all courses would move online for the remainder of the semester, several students reached out to the Student Association (SA) with a variety of issues such as: “How will students obtain credit for health and wellness studies courses, labs or other classes that are dependent upon an in-person element?” and “Will this impact a student’s ability to graduate?” In speaking with administrators, who went on to broadcast these answers, we found that students will receive necessary credits and seniors will graduate uninhibited. While we commend the administration for their responses to such questions, it is imperative they take the mental health concerns that come out of our current predicament as seriously as they have the academic ones. The immediate future is still vague to all parties: administrators, faculty and students alike.
As the March 19 deadline approaches, the SA has been notified by multiple students that their professors are moving up exams. These accounts state that exams originally scheduled for after March 19 were shifted to just before the transition. One student noted that their professor would distribute the original exam despite the lack of instruction on some of the content; moreover, the professor would attempt to make up for lost time by supplying students of the course with an “upgraded” study guide. While we are pleased to see Provost Donald Nieman’s March 15 B-Line message indicating that tests cannot be moved up to a date before classes go online, professors should still consider how the current situation may be affecting their students’ mental health and respond accordingly.
We are currently faced with what may be the most stressful period in modern academic history. COVID-19 has thrust the United States into a state of national emergency. Such sentiments are not lost in the BU community, where students are faced with threats of a pandemic that has already drastically altered their learning environment. It is difficult to “unwind” and “connect with others,” as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests, while practicing social distancing and acclimating to an unfamiliar model for coursework. In times of such crisis, the University can show it cares about mental health.
We implore the faculty at BU to consider the strain that a sweeping online transition will place on the student population — to consider the well-being of students overall. It is understandable that professors would make amendments to syllabuses in response to the upcoming conversion. Yet, we strongly advise against arrangements that add undue anxiety before the switch, of which the sole purpose is to avoid certain inconveniences of distance learning. There is no acceptable reason why a student should balance adjustment to current health standards and online academic tools with unexpected examinations.
Furthermore, we call on the administration to address concerns related to the mental well-being of the BU community. The World Health Organization (WHO) has compiled a comprehensive list of mental health considerations that range from the general public to those in isolation. A step in the right direction would be to mimic — or even adopt and promote — this wording in a University-wide announcement. Although BU prides itself on academic achievement, it is essential that we prioritize health and safety over collegiate endeavors. As such, we must adopt a campus-wide mentality of leniency as to not compromise on our promise of protection.
While it is increasingly apparent that this pandemic weakens both physical body and social order, we encourage all appropriate entities to collaborate on proactive measures to contain a mental health epidemic.
John Santare is the SA vice president for academic affairs (VPAA) and a senior double-majoring in biology and comparative literature. Maxwell Hisiger is the chief of staff for the VPAA and a senior double-majoring in economics and mathematics.