October 20, 2020

CUNY Online Learning Scramble Heightens Stress for Students and Faculty

The City University of New York is scrambling to distribute as many as 30,000 computers to students, after delaying online classes designed to keep coursework going after coronavirus-prompted campus shutdowns.

On Friday, CUNY entered a five-day “Recalibration Period for Educational Equity” to distribute laptops to students who lack computers at home — an estimated 10% of the student body in degree programs.

Classes are scheduled to resume Thursday.

CUNY’s announcement surprised and confused many in the sprawling university system, students, faculty and staff told THE CITY.

They said the do-over could have been avoided — if only CUNY’s administration had listened to their concerns in the days before and after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s March 11 announcement that in-person classes would shift to distance learning.

CUNY originally indicated that its online classes would begin on March 19, following a break to set up the technology and adjust lesson plans.

The university system declared a one week “instructional recess” to retool. Students resumed classes, only to have them suspended again.

“That could have been sorted out in the two-week instructional recess that we had prior to the recalibration period,” said Briana Calderón Navarro, an art student and activist at Hunter College in Manhattan.

‘I Was Blindsided’

The recalibration period — days that will be removed from the upcoming spring break — came after professors had already rearranged their courses as they transitioned from in-person to remote classes.

Faculty said that while they supported getting devices to needy students, the abrupt change of plans caused them to reshuffle classes again, adding to their workloads.

“I was really blindsided by it — we all were,” said Carly Smith, who teaches a public speaking class at Baruch College in Manhattan. Smith said she spent a day readjusting her course, noting “it’s not really possible to just shift slides” for her class or others like dance or theater.

Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the union representing faculty, said her members support the intent behind the break, but they did anticipate the problem facing CUNY now.

In a March 6 letter to CUNY Chancellor Félix Matos Rodríguez, Bowen inquired about emergency protocols in place and how the union might work with the university to adjust to coronavirus concerns.

Wrote Bowen: “In the event that distance learning technologies are required for classes normally taught face to face, have provisions been made for the thousands of CUNY students who do not have access to computers at home and for the faculty who have not had experience with online instruction?”

Safely Distanced Handoffs

Before March 11, many of CUNY’s more than two dozen campuses muddled through individual coronavirus responses, say faculty and administrators. Cuomo’s announcement of the shift to online learning — which some learned about via social media — came as a surprise.

CUNY spokesperson Frank Sobrino didn’t address why faculty and their union weren’t consulted. But he noted the university is now “working to maintain academic continuity and ensure students are able to finish the semester and protect their financial aid.”

“Given the urgency to get computers into the hands of the 25,000 to 30,000 students who need them to continue their studies remotely, the University was compelled to move up a portion of the Spring Break period to distribute the devices so that students would not fall behind,” Sobrino said. “At stake for these students is the potential loss of the semester’s studies and vital momentum towards earning a degree.”

Sobrino added that distribution methods vary between different colleges — with some mailing the devices and others providing them in person. “In all instances social distancing standards will be strictly observed,” Sobrino said.

Inspiring Students

CUNY faculty members across the boroughs told THE CITY that the university’s recalibration communications were confusing. The university chancellor wrote to the campus community about the break on March 24, and followed up a day later to offer “further clarity.”

Many CUNY libraries remained open for students up until the Friday before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statewide “pause” on non-essential businesses went into effect on March 22.

Robert Farrell, a librarian, associate professor and faculty union representative at Lehman College in The Bronx, said a coronavirus task force on his campus couldn’t read the writing on the wall of what New York was in for with coronavirus.

“They were sitting around trying to figure out how to keep labs open, instead of coming up with a coordinated plan for circulating the hundreds and hundreds of computers,” Farrell said.

James Davis, a professor of English and PSC chapter chair at Brooklyn College, said he’s been impressed with the resolve of his students, a number of whom are parents, with kids at home.

“They may well have lost a job over the past week, or more than one job,” Davis observed. “They may or may not have easy access to health care.”

Staying the Course

Calderón Navarro, the Hunter College student, said that she’s seen a dip in attendance in her computer programming class.

“There were about 15 students the first time we had our online course, and then the second class went down to two,” she said, adding that many students have posted on social media, describing how challenging of a semester it has been.

Tim Hunter, the student representative on CUNY’s Board of Trustees, noted some students as well as faculty are facing food and housing insecurity due to the pandemic, and need computers.

“We’re making sure that every student gets a fair shot to be successful in this upcoming academic semester,” said Hunter, a senior at the New York City College of Technology.

Losses at CUNY

Meanwhile, CUNY faculty are grappling with the tumultuous shift to online teaching as they mourn some of their own lost to COVID-19 and the accompanying social crisis.

Among the city’s dead are three City College professors, two of them renowned scholars of New York City and urbanism, Michael Sorkin and William Helmreich.

In a message Friday to the City College community, President Vincent Boudreau also announced the death of archivist David Nocera.

“Professor Nocera had not contracted the coronavirus, and his death reminds us that a society struggling to cope with a pandemic is rife with dangers not confined to the disease itself,” Boudreau wrote. “People in isolation are still vulnerable to the usual range of threats to their health, even as our system of care grows daily overburdened.”

Even in grieving, Boudreau acknowledged the vast challenge of moving the college experience online.

“All of us have been deeply occupied with our initial response to this crisis — moving classes online, reducing to a bare minimum the number of people on campus, and distributing computers and tablets to those with connectivity issues. There has, in truth, been little time to do anything beyond coping with the leading edge of the crisis.”

The article was published at CUNY Online Learning Scramble Heightens Stress for Students and Faculty.