There’s plenty of parking, professors are wearing masks and face shields, and the campus buzz has been dialed down. Despite this odd campus vibe, however, the fall semester is off and running.
The prevalence of fully online and hybrid classes has reduced the number of students on campus to about 600 per day. Hallways are less crowded, and every class has an in-person roster that seems appropriate for a senior seminar.
Don’t be fooled by the hush, though. In addition to the 600 walking through Bachmann and Abessinio every day, there are about 1,200 other students learning remotely. This new instructional model has benefits and challenges.
“The benefits,” says Maria Traub, associate professor of French and Italian, “are seeing the students and interacting with them in real time! There is great joy in that.”
Ria Troilo, a junior CDM major, agrees: “The campus vibe definitely has shifted to a more solemn tone this semester but overall, I am very grateful to be able to walk the campus grounds again and share conversations with my peers, teachers and faculty. These opportunities I will cherish now more than ever.”
“Campus is quieter,” writes Jenelle Abnett, assistant professor of Education. “It is sad not to see and hear the buzz that is the first week of school. I used to love the picnic lunch and seeing students hanging out in the courtyard at the start of a new year. As I saw students and faculty this week that I haven’t seen since March, I wanted to embrace them. The need for connection is so prevalent.”
“The vibe is certainly different, but it is not all bad,” quips Janis Chakars, associate professor of Communications and Digital Media. “For instance, if students fill up the back rows first, I don't think it necessarily is because they want to hide from me and avoid contributing in class.”
Many students have reacted to the new normal in innovative ways. Cybersecurity major Desiree Naugle has developed a unique approach to remote learning. “I have been keeping myself motivated and focused by coming to campus to take my online courses. I’ve found a quiet space to focus and attend my classes on my computer.” She adds that some of her commuting classmates are having difficulty finding quiet space on campus.
Alexis Lomax, a senior CDM major, likes that her professors “are remembering to record the MS teams video call at the start of class so that students can refer back to the lecture after the class has ended. I know my roommate and I have already taken advantage of relistening to the lectures if we missed something the first time.”
More good news is that the vast majority of students are acting responsibly. “I have not once had to ask students to mask up or spread out,” Chakars reports. Abnett notes that students are having fun with their masks, which have become fashion statements.
Meanwhile, faculty have to adjust to a new classroom challenge. “Trying to engage the online students and the face to face students at the same time can be a struggle,” admits Abnett. “Under the guidelines of social distancing, good pedagogy is hard ... but technology is helping greatly.”
Geoff Karabin, assistant professor of Philosophy, sums it up well: “The campus and the classroom are profoundly changed in terms of the dynamics and rhythms of a normal semester. The reduction in the volume of human activity leaves the campus feeling sparsely populated and even empty. By the same token, those that are involved in the on-campus experience seem to possess a real sense of camaraderie and generosity of spirit. Even though the virus has transformed our campus and social life, a Franciscan spirit, made up of a concern for and joy in the presence of others remains alive and well.”
Across the country, many large universities (Alabama, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Temple among them) have experienced outbreaks of COVID-19 and have switched to online instruction either temporarily or for the fall semester. Neumann published its first COVID dashboard on September 4 and, according to the Chester County Health Department, there are no cases among students, faculty or staff.
The current Labor Day weekend is certainly the first major test of campus resolve to control the virus. Fingers are crossed that a summer of planning and the university’s family spirit will allow this new campus vibe – however odd – to succeed.