The Great Experiment: The virtual college campus in the time of COVID-19


For the Gazette

Published: 04-25-2020 8:59 AM

Note: This is the first of three narrative reports in a special series produced by Professor Kathy Roberts Forde’s “Longform Narrative” class in the Journalism Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Until the COVID-19 crisis disrupted the semester, her 16 advanced reporting students had been pursuing their own individual stories about local people and events. But as campus and social life shut down, their stories “went up in smoke,” Forde said. “We were faced with this challenge: I needed to find a way for my students to still have a robust learning experience,” while safely social distancing.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Forde’s students have been reporting on — and participating in — the “great experiment” happening on college campuses around the world, as virtual learning replaces in-person classes. Each student in her class is reporting and writing in teams of two; four students also serve as editors.

They are following six students — from the Five Colleges and Holyoke Community College — as well as profiling select administrators, faculty and staff throughout the spring semester, as they acclimate to the new normal and question what comes next. Here are a few of those stories.

The chancellor and the president


Once a day, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy leaves Hillside, his historic home overlooking the UMass Amherst campus, to walk his dog, Atlas.

They pass the grassy expanse of the Orchard Hill residential area known as “the Bowl.” On warm spring afternoons, it is usually covered with blankets and hammocks. Now, it is barren.

The outdoor basketball court is strangely quiet. The grounds staff have stripped the rims from the backboards to prevent pickup games. The chancellor, known in the UMass community as “Swamy,” said he finds the once-bustling campus “awfully quiet” and “desolate.”

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“As it should be,” he added, given the social distancing practices the COVID-19 pandemic has forced on much of the world.

A month has passed since the chancellors and presidents of the University of Massachusetts system, after weeks of consultation and planning, made the decision to close their campuses and transition to remote instruction. At first, they planned a provisional reopening date of April 6. A few days later, they announced campuses would remain closed for the rest of the semester.

As the novel coronavirus began its spread throughout the U.S., so too did higher ed conversations about the future of the in-person classroom and residential college life. After the University of Washington Seattle announced March 6 that classes would no longer meet in person, rumors about campus closures began to circulate through the Five Colleges and other schools in western Massachusetts.

Students, faculty and staff found their inboxes inundated with messages from their schools and their newsfeeds flooded with stories about the novel coronavirus, but it remained unclear how area higher ed administrations would respond.

Amherst College led the way in Massachusetts. After intense discussions with her administrative team, President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin concluded on Sunday, March 8, that closing campus and shifting to distance learning for the rest of the semester was the best option for her community.

“We were pretty sure we weren’t overreacting,” said Kevin Weinman, chief financial officer at Amherst College, “but when you’re the first out of the gate to make a really serious decision like that, there were some doubts. We hoped we were wrong.”

The next day, about an hour before she informed the Amherst College community of her decision, Martin called the other Five College members to break the news personally. In a Zoom interview with student reporters for the Gazette, Swamy said leaders left the conversation wondering, “What is it that they see that we’re not seeing?”

The senior administration team at Amherst College had been meeting for 90 to 120 minutes every day for weeks before President Martin made her decision, Weinman said. They pondered, “What’s the worst that might happen here if we do or don’t make a decision? And can we handle that?”

Students were preparing to leave for spring break, and Amherst College leaders worried the national transportation system might fail, students would be stranded, and the college would have no way to get them back to campus or their homes.

“We were a little worried about our ability to do that, so we made an early decision,” Weinman said. “A terrific group of people in our Student Affairs Office . . . essentially served as travel agents.” Amherst College provided financial assistance for all those without the means to return home, and “90% of our students are safely home.”

According to Swamy, once you find out your house is ablaze, “The first consideration is to get the people out of the house. You don’t start asking questions about where will I put them and who will pay for it.”

Amherst College was the first to smell the smoke and raise the alarm.

Two days after Martin made her decision public, the other four of the Five Colleges had moved to remote instruction, and Holyoke Community College soon followed.

The cadet


Cameron Brodeur, a second-year criminal justice major at Holyoke Community College, wondered whether HCC would close after UMass Amherst announced that all in-person classes would be taught remotely due to COVID-19.

On Thursday, March 19, Cameron was working the seafood counter at Big Y supermarket in Southampton, his second job, when he received the email confirming that HCC would follow suit with other area colleges.

He knew it was coming since HCC had previously signaled it was moving in this direction, but he was not prepared for the disappointment he felt.

“Online classes don’t work for everyone, especially for me,” Cameron said. “I struggle with learning by myself and need student-to-teacher interactions.”

As a working college student, Cameron feels the loss of employment as heavily as the stress of the transition to online learning. After UMass Amherst closed its campus, Cameron was notified that his hours as a police cadet in the UMass Police Department had been significantly reduced. It was his primary source of income.

Cadets are no longer needed to supervise the once-lively UMass campus. “Without that, it’s just been super stressful,” Cameron said. “We can pick up one shift a weekend, but one eight-hour shift is not enough.”

He is grateful he still has income from his job at Big Y, even though it places him at higher risk for exposure to the coronavirus.

The world around him is changing quickly. Customers are beginning to fear interactions with grocery store workers, and glass walls have been built to ensure the safety of both parties.

Cameron is now working about four shifts a week at the supermarket.

“Some people have their masks and gloves on, and it’s really weird,” he said. “I’m handling raw products in the seafood department, so people give me weird looks and make sure I’m wearing gloves and washing my hands, which I always do. People are really scared.”

When he gets a moment to himself, Cameron relieves stress and practices social distancing by spending time outdoors. He has developed a greater appreciation for the things he could do before social distancing, like spending quality time with friends and family, especially his grandparents.

He worries about the older generations and wonders when things will return to normal, he said. “I just hope we can find a way to control this because there’s no end in sight right now.”

The SGA president


Juniper Glass-Klaiber was in the Student Government Association office at Mount Holyoke College composing an email to the student body about the closures at Amherst and Smith colleges when she learned Mount Holyoke would close, too.

“I heard the news, but I also saw it reflected on nine other people’s faces,” she said. Juniper called her mother in shock. While the office emptied, she stayed to finish the email.

Walking across campus afterward, she saw students crying and hugging, “which is very much the opposite of what you should be doing in a virus outbreak,” she said.

Juniper is a junior physics major and president of SGA at Mount Holyoke College. Her schedule varies day-to-day, but her many responsibilities remain a constant. She says she is a “Google Calendar invite-people-to-lunch type of person.”

When Amherst College announced its closure and move to remote learning, there were no cases of COVID-19 in Hampshire County. Juniper was surprised and thought Amherst was overreacting. “I was pretty sure Mount Holyoke wouldn’t react the same,” she said.

It was confusing how things that were “impossible” to do before were now quite possible, Juniper said. For example, the college, realizing that not all students would be able to move out quickly, offered to store students’ belongings.

Juniper stayed longer than many of her classmates. “I did not start packing until the last day before I left because I couldn’t bring myself to take things off the wall. It was just so sad.”

She drove home to New Concord, Ohio, on March 17, with her belongings. The class she is taking at Amherst College resumed remotely on March 23, while her classes at Mount Holyoke went online on March 30.

At Mount Holyoke, Juniper lived in a single room on campus. At home, her bed is in the mudroom next to a coat rack.

She does her best to keep to a schedule while Ohio’s stay-at home-order is in effect. She wakes and eats breakfast by 9 a.m., completes her schoolwork according to the schedule she has created, takes nature walks and holds her two younger siblings to their schedules.

Days are more uniform now than on campus. She misses working on science problems with her classmates in person. SGA meetings have been relegated to Zoom and email.

“I feel like I’m trying to preserve the quality of my education as much as I’m able to,” Juniper said.

The filmmaker


Mohammed Abdullah Kawish put another chair away in the Kern Center at Hampshire College. It was Saturday, March 7, and a Five College Muslim Student Association (MSA) mixer had just wrapped up. Abdullah, as he prefers to be called, was helping to clean up.

It had been an evening of Lebanese food and lighthearted games, but the conversation felt oddly heavy. One topic was weighing on everybody’s minds: How were they, the students, going to be affected by COVID-19?

Hampshire had yet to announce it would close campus, but some students at the mixer were considering an early return home. At this point, Abdullah had not really thought about it.

Neither had his parents, who were driving across Pakistan from their home in Islamabad to visit Lahore about a week after the MSA mixer, when Abdullah called them on the phone.

Abdullah and his parents chatted, wondering whether they should change their respective travel plans. Abdullah planned to drive to Florida during spring break the coming week, and his parents were about to be away from their home for several days.

Looking back, Abdullah recognizes how little they understood at the time. His parents returned home shortly after arriving in Lahore, having realized the gravity of the situation. Abdullah’s plans for spring break dissolved, and he remained in his mod, or dorm, at Hampshire.

The MSA mixer he attended in early March would be the last social gathering Abdullah would attend for the foreseeable future.

Abdullah is a second-year student studying film, theater and media who organizes campus events for both Junoon, the South Asian club, and Infinity Productions, the media production club. He was not worried about COVID-19 until UMass Amherst announced it would close campus and move to online classes, at least temporarily.

Hampshire College announced the transition to online instruction and remote learning later the same day, extending spring break by a week to give faculty time to move classes online and students and staff time to adjust. International students were allowed to stay on campus.

After speaking with his parents, Abdullah decided it was best to stay at Hampshire for the rest of the semester. With all of the traveling it would take to get home, he felt he’d be risking his health and safety.

He has felt completely supported by Hampshire College, which has prioritized students by providing groceries. Its president, Edward Wingenbach, hosted a Zoom call for all students, although Abdullah missed it.

In these trying times, Abdullah looks to his personal philosophy, “Fear the Lord and no one else.”

The musician


Rongbing Shen, a junior music education and clarinet performance major at UMass, walked into the wind ensemble studio Friday, March 13. She was surprised to see recording equipment.

Professor Matthew Westgate, director of wind studies in the Department of Music and Dance, addressed his class, reminding the musicians of an idea they had often discussed: Music is not only a bridge that connects people but also a gift people give each other.

Today, they were going to create a gift for Brian Martin, a recent UMass alumnus and former member of the wind ensemble who had composed a piece called “Rising Star” for the group to premiere at a spring concert scheduled for April.

Uncertain whether campus would actually reopen in April, as an earlier UMass announcement had suggested it might, Westgate asked his students to perform “Rising Star” for a recording. Rongbing and her classmates rose to their conductor’s challenge.

“Technique-wise, it wasn’t our best,” Rongbing admitted. “But it was the best we could do in the moment.”

The April concert has since been canceled, but Martin has received a special gift: a recording of “Rising Star,” performed by his fellow musicians as the COVID-19 pandemic began to disrupt college life across the country.

Before Rongbing’s wind ensemble class dispersed, they performed, through tears, Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” as a gift to each other.

Later that Friday, March 13, UMass announced the suspension of all in-person classes for the remainder of the semester.

Rongbing was in a practice room in the Fine Arts Center, taking a break from her clarinet, when she overheard two people talking in the hallway.

She hurriedly checked her email, then sent a quick text. “We’re not having school anymore,” she told her mother, who was at home in Shenzhen, China.

What should I do? she asked herself. Where should I live? Where can I store my belongings? How are classes going to continue?

Rongbing remains in Amherst, a choice she made in consultation with her family in China. Concerns about personal health and border-crossing policies, in both the United States and China, weighed heavily in the decision.

“Given such uncertainty in the future, we decided it was safest to stay where I am,” she said.

Rongbing’s history class, heavy on lectures, has continued online, mostly unaffected. Other performance-oriented classes have not made the transition. They are on hold until students can return to campus. Until that unknown time, these classes will appear as incompletes on her transcript.

Schoolwork occupies most of her days. But in the evenings, after other residents in her dorm retire for  the night, Rongbing turns  the common room on the ground floor into her makeshift practice studio. There, she strums her ukulele and sings to her heart’s content, before picking up her clarinet to perfect her 16-note runs.

The diver


Bennett Fagan, a senior political science major at Amherst College, was on his way to grab dinner after diving practice when he learned his college experience was not going to end as he had planned.

He would not compete at what he thought would be his final NCAA Division III Swimming and Diving Championship. He would no longer live in his college dorm. He would not get the graduation ceremony he had anticipated.

On Monday, March 9, Amherst College sent an email to students, faculty, staff and families announcing its campus would close and classes would move online beginning Monday, March 23, after spring break. Most students would need to leave campus by Wednesday, March 18.

“I was walking into Val and everyone was on their phones. I swiped my card and saw everyone just looking at their phones in disbelief,” Bennett said. “I’ve never seen it so silent. It’s all anyone was talking about.” Val is an abbreviation for Valentine Dining Hall, one of the main dining areas at Amherst College.

Bennett was devastated. “I went to see friends immediately back in the dorms and called my parents briefly while I was there, pretty much just to say what had happened,” he said. “Nobody could believe it.”

Bennett and his friends decided to make the best of a dark time and to head up to Maine indefinitely.

They are now living in a vacation home with the whole place to themselves. The house sits on an icy lake, quiet and secluded. “We figured this is the last time to take it easy like this before the real world,” Bennett said.

He did not have enough time to visit his family in Virginia before heading north. “My buddies and I are living half unpacked, with a lot still in our cars.”

While Bennett and his friends are unsure what comes next, for now they are dealing with the loss of their final semester at Amherst College. Bennett is taking classes online while also binge-watching all of Martin Scorsese’s movies, in chronological order, playing board games and having guitar and piano jam sessions with friends to pass the time.

“We are quarantining together right now. A few of my other buddies are supposed to come up by the end of the week, but who knows if that’ll happen,” Bennett continued. “We’re just trying to stay positive and make the best of this situation together.”

The dancer


Claire Lane was in the middle of a busy day. A senior at Smith College, she had just finished meeting in Tyler Dining Hall with her lighting designer to discuss her senior dance performance, part of the thesis project required of all dance majors.

She stepped outside to head to her internship in the dance office, but something was happening. Students were crying and hugging each other and looking at their phones.

She opened her phone, checked her email and felt an immediate weight settle on her shoulders. The news felt ironic coming on such a sunny spring day.

“Even before we were going to close, there was a speculation that Smith might do what Amherst College did,” Claire said.

It was Tuesday, March 10, the day after Amherst College had announced it would close campus and move to remote learning after spring break.

Claire walked slowly to her internship, questions racing through her mind: Would classes go online but students could stay on campus? What was going to happen to the dance performance she had been working so hard to perfect?

She entered the dance office with a sense of foreboding. Her supervisor hugged her, bringing tears, and, just as she let go, one of Claire’s professors hugged her, too. Her shift passed in a blur.

The dance and theater departments moved quickly to hold the senior dance performance at week’s end. Claire’s rehearsals continued, giving her a sense of purpose. Her professors even canceled all upcoming assignments.

“They knew it was a time where we needed to support each other, and that mattered more than classwork,” Claire said. Students organized a senior banquet along with an impromptu graduation ceremony.

Moving out day was hard. “I was dragging my feet,” Claire said. “I didn’t want to leave.”

When she finally arrived at her childhood home in Greenfield, Claire struggled to adjust to her new normal. She reminded herself she still had classes and that she hadn’t graduated yet, although it felt like she had.

As she settled in, the dance community moved instruction online. “There were a lot of people right away giving options for dance classes and pilates and exercise, but I wasn’t motivated yet to do any of it. It felt too fresh,” she said.

Classes began during her second week home, and by then Claire was glad for it. She created a makeshift studio in her bedroom. Although some dance moves can’t be done in the small space, she is making it work.

The physicist


The new Science Center at Amherst College is an impressive building with an expansive glass face meant to represent a “window into science,” according to its architects.

On Friday, March 6, passersby would not see labs and classes in progress. They would see, instead, 30 or so faculty and administrators gathered in a classroom in deep discussion. One of the attendees was Kannan “Jagu” Jagannathan, the Lucy Wilson Benson Professor of Physics and Chair of Physics and Astronomy.

The group was considering potential campus-wide measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Jagu, most of the measures discussed involved only a partial move to online classes, so few students, faculty and staff were prepared for President Martin’s announcement on Monday, March 9.

When he learned he had only a week to figure out how to shift his in-person classes to a completely remote platform, Jagu was nervous. “I’m 65 years old, and I still teach using a blackboard and a piece of chalk,” he said. “But it has gone much better than expected.”

To take Introductory Physics with 50-plus students online, Jagu has used his iPad as a stand-in blackboard and prerecorded labs performed by his co-instructor Dr. Jarrett Moyer. Amherst College offered Zoom training sessions to faculty over spring break, but Jagu has decided to figure it out as he goes.

While he can’t replicate some of the hands-on work involved in lab-oriented classes, with his first few virtual class sessions under his belt, Jagu is making the transition to remote instruction.

The chemist


Smith College announced its transition from in-person to online classes on Tuesday, March 10.

“We found out at the same time as students,” said Kate Queeney, professor of chemistry and chair of the chemistry department at Smith. “Students were sort of curious if we knew before. We didn’t.” But given Amherst College’s announcement the day before, Kate had suspected Smith would follow suit.

She was leaving her office that Tuesday when she noticed a student walking down the hall, crying and looking at her phone. She then saw students leaving classrooms and labs, phones in hand, hunting for reception.

“I saw right away how upset students were about it, so my colleagues and I got really focused, really quickly, on how do we make this OK for students? How do we reassure them that we’ll figure it out, and that it’ll be OK?’” she said.

Kate is now teaching her classes online, meeting with her students on Zoom during regular class time and using an iPad app to replace her usual chalkboard for demonstrating chemistry problems. They have Q&As, and students use Zoom breakout rooms to work problems in small groups. Kate records the Zoom class lectures so students who can’t attend the class meeting, including those in different time zones, can engage when it suits their schedules.

“I’m really glad this happened after we’d gotten a chance to know each other in class,” Kate added. “I just think it would be so much harder to do this kind of interaction online without having a relationship already, so I’m really grateful for that.”