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From a Distance

The novel coronavirus pandemic changed everything — including academic life at Saint Louis University.

Joseph Reznikov works from his off-campus apartment in May.

Joseph Reznikov works from his off-campus apartment in May.

The first week of March, the students of Saint Louis University had a lot on their minds. Midterm tests, papers and projects. Travel plans for spring break the following week. Maybe even anticipation for the home stretch of the semester, commencement, summer.

They were busy wrapping up and heading separate ways before their week away.

They didn’t anticipate that their accounting midterm would be the last time they’d sit with those classmates in that particular classroom. Or that they had swiped their student ID for the last time to get into Pius XII Memorial Library. Or that they’d pulled an all-nighter with their sophomore roommate in Grand Hall for the last time.

They were busy students at this point in the semester. Most of them heard that a novel coronavirus was making its way around the world, ending many of their friends’ study abroad programs. But few could have anticipated the impact it would have for them at Saint Louis University.

A Community in Dispersion

On Tuesday, March 10, University President Dr. Fred P. Pestello notified the community that SLU was suspending in-person courses temporarily. As spring break continued, Pestello reached out, over and over, with the latest news from campus as plans quickly changed.

First, spring break was extended a week, to March 23. Then, the plan was to teach remotely until at least April 30. Then, remotely through the end of the spring semester. By Friday, March 13 — the Friday of SLU’s original spring break — Missouri’s governor had declared a state of emergency, as had the president of the United States.

As information spread around the globe about the new coronavirus and the disease it causes — COVID-19 — SLU’s administration acted swiftly to keep students, faculty and staff safe.

“We pivoted very quickly when we realized how serious this condition was,” Interim Provost Dr. Chester Gillis said. “Fortunately, our decision coincided with spring break initially, so that gave us a little time. And then we extended that another week after spring break, to make sure that the faculty were fully equipped for this, and so that students could move out of the residence halls at the same time.”

Students made plans to be on campus for one last time during the spring semester to collect their things. And professors quickly adapted to new technologies and pedagogies, rethinking courses, lessons and requirements.

“They responded exceptionally well. Faculty who were already in a good position stepped up and mentored other faculty, which was wonderful,” Gillis said. “And the Reinert Center was instrumental in helping.”

Reinert Center Readies the Faculty

The Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning had been preparing for the pandemic for some time, said Dr. Gina Merys (Grad A&S ’06), the center’s acting director.

“When we started the semester in January, there was already talk about COVID-19. By February, we started talking about the possibility of gathering materials, just in case. Maybe two weeks later, a few deans contacted us, saying, ‘This seems to be something we need to prepare for,’” Merys said. “It unfurled quickly after that.”

She said this kind of work — anticipating the needs of the faculty, and planning for how best to support them — is what the Reinert Center does as a matter of course.

“As our mission for the center, we feel beholden to the faculty, to look ahead and see trends,” Merys said. “Not that we ever thought a virus would be a trend.”

By the beginning of March, the center had added to their website a section for instructional continuity, a compilation of resources for faculty members who had little experience with teaching online. It touched on everything, from how to move an in-progress course online, to how to write an open exam. It even linked to a handout professors could share with students about setting up their remote learning workspaces.

The center also added sections of its “Introduction to Online Teaching” course, a digital seminar that formally prepares faculty in online pedagogy. The center will offer more of those going forward — both the typical four-week course as well as a new, intensive two-week option that includes all the same content.

Merys acknowledged that even with the Reinert Center’s help, moving a course from in-person to online is a big challenge.

“We have faculty who are top experts in their field, most of whom are already outstanding, award-winning teachers. But many of the things that we rely on face-to-face have to be done differently online,” she said. “But we have an extremely dedicated group of educators who did their best in a very, very short time frame to completely rethink the way that they think and teach.”

How did they do it?

Faculty Call Upon Jesuit Principles During Crisis 

“Unquestionably, the Jesuit tradition shaped how we’ve done this,” Gillis said. “President Pestello articulated across the board, down to the students, that because we are a Jesuit, Catholic institution, our priority is to support individuals. We are about your success. This is cura personalis in action.”

Dr. Simone Bregni, associate professor of Italian, took this idea to heart. He started by assessing the new normal for his students.

“When my students crossed the threshold of class on the first day, each of them also became my responsibility. It’s a commitment I feel is necessary in this country of great opportunities, but also of profound economic, social and cultural gaps — which, I imagined, this virus would make even more marked,” Bregni explained. “Only after I got confirmation that everyone was fine and that everyone had adequate access to the internet, could I focus on how to modify my teaching to respond to this crisis.”

It was a common sentiment across the University.

“I had multiple professors send a survey to better understand each student’s situation and the barriers they may be facing during this time, from a lack of WiFi, to a lack of food, to a complicated home life, to everything in between,” said Joseph Reznikov, a rising senior and president of the Student Government Association. “I’ve found my professors to be extremely accommodating of each student’s individual situation.”

After assessing their students’ basic needs, the faculty got to work transforming their courses. Some had little-to-no experience with online teaching and worked to not only understand the technologies available to them, but also how best to use them.

Marcia McCormick is a professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the School of Law. She described the process of transitioning her upper-level employment discrimination law course.

“I’ve taught this course for about 10 years, and it’s an area that I specialize in. So I had a really good idea of how everything fit together and what my goals were for each class — and that actually helped a lot,” McCormick said. “But trying to figure out how to create the kind of community where students engage in active learning is really challenging when you’re not face-to-face.”

McCormick decided to offer “a smorgasbord” of options for interaction, such as voiceover PowerPoint presentations summarizing each unit, opportunities for discussion online, and quizzes that weren’t graded but provided immediate feedback. Then she got a bit creative.

“I did something I call ‘treasure hunts,’ where the treasure is new knowledge — so I don’t know that students felt like what they got was treasure,” she laughed. “I had students find memes or news articles or cases that related to the topic we were looking at, and did a collection of blog posts on those and had the students contribute.”

Dr. David Letscher, a professor of computer science, also got creative to foster community among his dispersed class.

Letscher teaches artificial intelligence (AI). During the spring semester, he had a mixed class of about 32 undergraduate and graduate students. Before the pandemic hit, he relied on short lectures and small-group activities during class. In the wake of the coronavirus, he shifted that model to Zoom, an online platform that allows video and audio conferencing, chatting and more.

He created videos to teach skills and techniques, and then he polled his students to determine where they were “stuck” in their learning. Next, he’d separate the class into breakout rooms online based on who was stuck at a similar point.

That helped, as did Letscher’s online game nights, which took community-building to another level. He invited the whole computer science department to join his students in playing games the AI class was working on. For their participation, his students earned a few bonus points; about 40% of the class showed up.

“We watched each other play, and there was a little bit of trash-talking,” he said. “It was a chance to learn and interact in a less formal way, which felt good.”

Law and computer science are subjects that obviously can be taught from a distance, though. What about courses that typically require hands-on work?

Dr. Kim Levenhagen (DCHS ’88, Grad DCHS ’07), an associate professor of physical therapy, described a modified approach to a hands-on assignment, which had students submit videos of themselves teaching someone a home exercise program.

“It was an assignment long before our move to online teaching. Before, students used their classmates out of convenience, but this year they used family members who were unaware of the assignment or physical therapy terms,” Levenhagen said. “It was the first time the assignment ended with a hug. There are a lot of proud parents out there.”

Proud professors, too. McCormick and others said despite its awful impetus, this experience is bound to result in lasting lessons that could serve students well. 

“Law school is notorious for being demanding, throwing students in the deep end to quickly teach them critical thinking and how to figure things out on their own,” she said. “Lawyers need to figure out how to move forward in situations that are unpredictable and challenging, and this was definitely a challenging, unpredictable situation.”

Whatever the eventual outcome, the upheaval of the semester brought a sense of goodwill to the community.

“I think both sides are giving a lot of grace to each other, knowing that we’re all doing our best,” Merys said.

Students Learn in Limbo

For their part, students described the tough transition of leaving campus while continuing the semester.

 Jensen Vayalil studies at the dining room table in his family’s suburban Chicago home.
Jensen Vayalil studies at the dining room table in his family’s suburban Chicago home.

“At the beginning, it was very difficult. I’m someone who likes to be in class, interacting with professors, walking down West Pine, grabbing lunch with friends. So this was hard at first,” said Jensen Vayalil, a biology major and member of the Medical Scholars program who will be a senior this fall.

Zahva Naeem, a rising sophomore studying psychology and health care ethics, agreed. “I am so grateful for the privilege and ability to still attend class virtually, but it has not been an easy transition in any way.”

Both Vayalil and Naeem did seem to appreciate the effort their professors put into making their classes harken back to the pre-pandemic academic experience.

Naeem said, “My biology professor did an incredible job maintaining a similar format to our past exams, so it felt familiar and comfortable. Of course, the exam was not easy, but I felt at ease knowing that the expectations had not changed. My biology class was still just that: a biology class.”

Vayalil liked that his pharmacology class continued to meet at their previously established time, albeit via Zoom. It felt like a touchstone in a new era of learning asynchronously out of necessity. And he said he definitely could tell his professors were doing all they could to make the best of a hard situation.

“I can tell that they’re prioritizing our mental health,” Vayalil said.

Zoom Class

Zoom provides a way to attend class synchronously. Here, Vayalil participates in his biochemical pharmacology class, taught by Dr. Yuqi Wang via Zoom in April.

When campus closed, Vayalil moved back to his parents’ house in a suburb of Chicago. He considered himself lucky.

“I’m so blessed to live in a household where everyone is in college or working,” he said. “For some students, it’s not a level playing field now. Maybe they have a tense relationship with their parents, or noisy neighbors, or any number of other distractions.”

Evaluation and Expectations

Acknowledging this unequal playing field, some professors reevaluated their class requirements.

“Many people, including me, revamped policies on late work,” Letscher said. “I told my students, ‘Of course you can have a few more days. Just get it to me.’”

Similarly, the administration determined widespread changes were necessary to address grading during this highly unusual time. Most courses ended up allowing for a pass/low pass/no pass grading option, should a student choose that path. Interim Provost Gillis explained the complicated decision.

“On the one hand, we understood that students may not perform as well as they normally would in this environment. With compassion, we wanted to extend to students possibilities to put less pressure on them to perform without having to worry about the GPA,” Gillis said. “On the other hand, there are some programs that require grades for accreditation or other reasons. We didn’t want to disadvantage any students by ill-advising them because pass/low pass/no pass grading might not serve them well going forward. They needed to make a well-informed decision about what that would mean for their future.”

The law school moved to a mandatory pass/no pass system, as most law schools did, McCormick said. 

“We wouldn’t know what we were grading, whether it was privilege and luck versus work and understanding,” she said. “It was just the humane thing to do.”

Although, as Gillis noted, “It’s true that anybody who looks at a transcript going forward and sees spring of 2020, well, that’s when the world stopped.”

Into the Unknown

As the semester rapidly approached its end, the administration turned to the future — commencement, summer classes and so on — while the coronavirus ravaged on. None of the decisions were easy.

A survey of seniors showed that the strong preference was to postpone, not cancel, commencement ceremonies. The University considered the safest way to do that.

“We want to do something in-person for these students. They deserve it,” Gillis said. In May, Gillis announced that SLU’s 2020 graduates would be honored in May 2021. Though many scenarios were considered, it was clear that a fall commencement ceremony likely would include masks, social distancing among graduates (likely leading to more than one ceremony), limited audience capacity, and no handshakes or celebratory hugs.

“A commencement without these critical, traditional components is not the commencement you deserve,” Gillis said in an email to graduates. “Granted, we cannot guarantee a May 2021 commencement won’t include some of those public health safeguards, too. Only time will tell. But we have hope in our hearts that an event in May 2021 will give us the time we need to make this joyous occasion one that our graduates deserve.”

SLU’s summer classes are being delivered online. Though some summer camps went online, most were canceled. The University plans to hold fall semester classes on campus with a modified schedule. Classes will begin on Aug. 17, nine days earlier than originally planned.

“Starting early will allow more in-person instruction before a potential resurgence in the number of COVID-19 cases,” Pestello said.

In addition, fall break has been condensed to a single day in October, and in-person classes will be completed by Thanksgiving. At press time, a final exam schedule was still being determined. 

“Following the advice of the experts we are consulting, we want to avoid sending our students home to cities across the country and beyond, and then have them return back to campus,” Pestello said.

Although it’s clear that life at SLU will be different going forward, Gillis, for one, tried to look optimistically at the future.

“The improved competency of faculty to deliver education in this manner and the experience of students appropriating this will serve the academy and us well going forward,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be a residential campus. But we’ll definitely be more resilient going forward. We’ll be more adept, which is good.”

— By Amy Garland

Saint Louis University is a Catholic, Jesuit institution that values academic excellence, life-changing research, compassionate health care, and a strong commitment to faith and service. Founded in 1818, the University fosters the intellectual and character development of more than 13,000 students on campuses in St. Louis and Madrid, Spain. Building on a legacy of now more than 200 years, Saint Louis University continues to move forward with an unwavering commitment to a higher purpose, a greater good.