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Looking back: The collegiate transition to remote learning

Payne Horning
WRVO News File Photo

About one year ago, the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, and life around the world and in central New York came to a screeching halt.

March 9 was the first warm day in central New York last year and students at Syracuse University couldn’t resist the sunshine. Senior Josh Shub-Seltzer skipped class and spent the entire day on the lawn outside Psi Upsilon’s fraternity house and even watched the sunset from its steps at the day’s end.

“I spent the entire day on my front lawn hanging out with friends… and part of me was like, I should make the most of this just in case,” he said. “I'm very glad I did.”

He was not the only one who remembers that day so fondly. Sophomores Hannah Cotel-Altman and Helen Cohen vividly remembered it too.

“That day was like magical on campus,” said Cohen.

“Everyone was on the quad, everyone was like in Walnut Park,” said Cotel-Altman.

“It was beautiful,” Shub-Seltzer said.

Just as clearly as they remember that summer-like day, they also remember the email that followed on March 10. The subject line read: “Residential Instruction Suspended Effective End of Day Friday, March 13; University to Transition to Online Learning.”

As they packed their bags for what most assumed would be an extended-spring-break, college presidents everywhere, including in upstate New York, were now faced with the challenge of protecting their students from a virus they knew nothing about, while preserving their education.

“It felt like you were drinking from a firehose, and there was no margin of error because we were talking about the health of our community,” said Linda LeMura, president of Le Moyne College.

She can recall the exact meeting she was in when she realized the severity of this pandemic.

“They brought in some of our scientists from the college and they explain the seriousness of COVID-19,” she said.

LeMura is not the only president who so distinctly remembers that exact moment. Casey Crabill, president of Onondaga Community College, has it down to the exact time.

“March 16, about 9:40 a.m., we were having a meeting and at that point, it was clear that we would have to make radical changes in everything we were doing,” said Crabill.

Ty Stone, the president of Jefferson Community College, was watching Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s briefing in the waiting room of her doctor’s office.

“I remember him saying that the colleges will be closing, I believe, at the end of the week or something,” said Stone. “I'm like, oh my gosh.”

For Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud, there were two moments. The first came as the pandemic ran rampant through Italy in February while he had some students studying there, giving him a little bit of a head start.

“Because of our experience with our study abroad programs, we were preparing for that in February and early March,” he said.

The next was just before Syracuse's men's basketball team was scheduled to play in the ACC conference tournament.

“I was with all the ACC presidents, the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the commissioner,” he remembered.

He told them he didn’t think it was a good idea to go ahead with the tournament, but he was met with tilted heads and confused looks.

“More than a few of the people in the room looked at me like I was totally out of my mind, and that moment, for me, was the realization that we really were not prepared as a country for how fast things were going to change,” said Syverud.

The tournament went on, but was canceled during the quarterfinals.

The next year would be an uphill climb with administrators, professors, and students all flying by the seat of their pants. With all of the challenges administrators faced, they all agreed that students struggled the most. Stone said she was worried about her students’ mental health.

“I think one of the biggest challenges is just the isolation,” she said.

Le Moyne’s LeMura couldn’t agree more.

“They felt isolated,” she said about her students at Le Moyne. “Many indicated they felt depressed, being away from the community and their peers.”

Crabill had the same concern for her students at Onondaga Community College.

”Students were not only dealing with having their entire education disrupted,” she said. “For many of them, their livelihoods were disrupted.”

Even when many students came back to campus in the fall and now in the spring, they were cooped up in their dorms and sometimes even in quarantine. At Syracuse, sophomore Helen Cohen said that while she and Hannah Cotel-Altman were in quarantine, there were days when they didn’t even get to go outside.

“They said yard time is from four to six,” Cotel-Altman said.

“And like if you miss your time, you were screwed,” Cohen added.

Josh Shub-Seltzer, who lives in a fraternity house with about 25 other students, was often scared to go home.

“I think last semester was a net-negative experience for people involved,” he said.

Despite the many challenges they’ve endured, some local college presidents have said there have been some bright spots throughout this past year. Crabill said Onondaga Community College has had the time and resources to develop more academic programs.

“We have a whole bunch of new programs that we built during the pandemic,” she said. “We'll have more learning opportunities for students than we've had in the past.”

Stone was able to use Jefferson Community College’s empty campus to partner with nearby healthcare providers to set up a vaccine clinic in the gym.

“It didn't feel right, that our community would have to drive to go through a vaccination center an hour and a half away during the winter,” she said.

Both community college leaders agree that if anything good has come out of the past year, it’s the flexibility they can now offer students.

“I think we'll never again be able to say to a student, ‘I'm sorry, you have to come to campus to do that,’ because clearly, we've proven you don't,” said Crabill.

“So they don't have to make a decision whether or not they go to class, but maybe they can make a decision as to how they go to class,” said Stone.

Now, as vaccine rollouts continue Stone, LeMura, Crabill, and Syverud are all beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“For the future, I'm hopeful that we can get back to some level of normalcy,” said Stone, who can’t wait to give lots of handshakes and hugs again.

LeMura is looking forward to her students at Le Moyne getting the whole college experience.

“We like our chances to somewhat return to normal, whatever that will look like as you're coming out of a pandemic,” she said.

For Crabill, she can’t wait to see her student-athletes get back out on the field.

“Our Lasers have sat on the sidelines for a year and a half,” she said. “They're great teams with great heart, I can't wait to see them in their uniforms out on the field again.”

For Syverud, he’s looking forward to seeing the hustle and bustle of a lively SU campus.

“I think we should see for the fall semester, including at the beginning of the fall semester, a return to robust in-person campus life activities, competitions, worship, and all the things that make an exciting campus,” he said.

The students truthfully aren’t as optimistic as administrators.

Shub-Seltzer is graduating in May and is just thankful he had a normal first couple of years at college. Cohen and Cotel-Altman are hoping to eventually be able to have the college experience they’ve been so desperately craving for the past year.

“I feel like I haven't been able to experience anything normal at this school besides like, my first couple weeks at Syracuse University,” said Cotel-Altman.

Madison Ruffo received a Master’s Degree from the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in audio and health/science reporting. Madison has extensively covered the environment, local politics, public health, and business. When she’s not reporting, you can find Madison reading, hiking, and spending time with her family and friends.