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Education During a Global Pandemic

by |April 6, 2020

On the frontline of the coronavirus catastrophe, we see first responders and health care professionals courageously doing their duty and too often falling victim to this pandemic. The sounds of sirens are a constant presence here in New York City. Many people have lost their jobs and many small businesses will fail due to the bumbling incompetence of our federal government. We are learning the hard way that a crash program to rapidly pump $2 trillion into the American economy requires seasoned professionals not the inexperienced amateurs now in charge. Thankfully, while all other organizational capacities have atrophied under this hostile takeover of the federal government, the military remains intact, and our state and local government are fully mobilized. New Yorkers are grateful for the emergency medical capacity the military has quickly constructed at the urgent request of our governor and mayor.

While many organizations like retail outlets, gyms and restaurants require physical presence to function, some of us are fortunate and are able to work from home. I work at a university that has thousands of students who have worked hard much of their lives to earn the opportunity to study here, and those of us on the faculty have a responsibility to ensure that the education we offer is not interrupted during this crisis.

Less than a month ago, Columbia University faculty learned on a Sunday night that face-to-face classes were suspended and on Wednesday we were to resume teaching remotely. We all received our Zoom Pro accounts, took an online training course and entered the world of digital education. It’s a good thing I had some younger people there to help me, because when 50 students logged on to my course in Sustainability Management that Wednesday, everything seemed to work. It wasn’t what any of us signed up for, but like millions of teachers and students all over America and the world, we did our best to adjust to this new and unsettled world.

As an educator, I am a little relieved that I can continue to teach, a little grateful for this miraculous technology I’m learning to use, and more than a little scared of failing as a teacher in this new media. I’m confident most faculty feel the same way. I try to put those feelings aside and focus on the concepts and ideas I am trying to teach. I try to imagine that my students are in a room in front of me rather than appearing as little tiles in a Zoom “gallery.” Like most everyone, I continue to think this is just a bad dream and eventually, I’ll awaken to the world we left behind.

But while the situation is horrible, this is no dream. It’s a reality we must deal with, work in and overcome. We are fortunate that technology provides us with the tools to continue our work from the safety of our homes. At Columbia, I work as an educator, a practice-focused researcher and an administrator. My administrative job involves directing two master’s programs, one of which is a year-long program that starts the day after Memorial Day, the other involves helping to manage the school that offers 17 master’s degrees along with Columbia’s Summer Session and High School programs. When the university moved online and ended face-to-face instruction for the remainder of the semester, it became clear that we needed to get ready to move the summer programs as well. This involves changing course designs, training faculty, purchasing hardware and software and dropping some offerings like lab classes that would be difficult to teach virtually. We also needed to see if students were interested in taking courses this summer that could not be held on our wonderful New York City campus but instead would be taught somewhere in cyberspace. Moving our classes online also requires an incredible number of administrative changes and even regulatory relief from the State of New York. Incredibly enough, all the pieces of the puzzle seem to be falling into place and we will be offering hundreds of great courses and programs online this summer.

In this difficult and scary time, I keep seeing people stepping up and showing the best of themselves. Students seem eager to learn, teachers want to teach, and bureaucrats are showing each other how to cut red tape. I wonder why this is happening and I believe part of the answer here in New York is the leadership of our governor, Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo has led the way with his honesty, humor, humanity and sense of strategy, but also with his ability to communicate and teach. His daily briefings are seen by millions and even though most of the news he’s offered so far has been bad news, he has encouraged all of us to persevere. The message in New York is that we are all in this together. We are in great peril, but together we can overcome this crisis.

I need Cuomo’s message and the grounded inspiration of his daily briefing. As a teacher and manager, I hear his voice in my head as I engage with my students and with my colleagues. At 7 PM each evening, I hear people out my apartment window cheering health care workers and first responders for their courage and perseverance.

This human excellence is both a lesson for educators to teach about and provides motivation to continue to teach. To take a leap of faith outside of what we know to learn new teaching methods for the world we are now living in. Our world has become very small during this pandemic. For my wife and me, it includes spending most of the time in our very beautiful New York City apartment.  My gym routine has been replaced by two walks in two parks a day and 40 minutes on a stationary bike. Clearly, some of us are not suffering. Still, a major outing is a socially distant trip to the food market. Everyone has their own story of this limited life. No in-person social interaction, restaurants or travel, events, religious assembly, or rites of passage. How do we continue to move forward in this environment? One answer is teaching and learning online. Our brains and imagination continue to function and can allow our worlds to continue to expand. I’m constantly reminded that many people have it much harder than I do, and I am fortunate to be able to continue to practice my profession.

A few days ago, I held a “virtual town hall” with about 40 of the students who plan to enter the Master of Public Administration program in Environmental Science and Policy next month. Normally the science part of our summer curriculum involves field trips for our ecology, hydrology, environmental chemistry, toxics and climate courses. Not this summer. Instead, our faculty is designing a curriculum that will be delivered online. This work is undertaken with both sadness and resolve. It is better pedagogy to visit and “experience” a toxic waste site or a sewage treatment plant than to “see” them on a video, but we’ll defer those trips until it is safe to move around again. The basic concepts can still be taught, and if we are to continue building the profession of sustainability management, we need to adjust to our surroundings. I am confident that educators all over the world are doing the same things we are doing here in New York.

This is a time when educators must continue to teach the world’s knowledge but must also search for lessons from this current catastrophe. Many of us have experienced downtime from weather, war or illness before, but no one has ever experienced the type of global disaster we are now enduring. Someday there will be a cure to this virus, although we need to understand that our modern world brings multiple threats that we need to understand and take seriously.  This can and will happen again. Disease, toxics, climate change and pollution are byproducts of the global economy that we all benefit from. Skeptics of science must now face the reality of the deaths from this pandemic. Elected leaders are learning the hard way about the importance of expertise in our complex world. As educators, we are responsible for ensuring that the expertise needed to maintain this complex world continues to be regenerated. We need to do that face-to-face when we can and online when we must.

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