Almost two weeks have passed since Westmont decided to move to remote instruction in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. With the latest information and governmental decisions emerging daily, often hourly, the college has been forced to rapidly adapt. These decisions have affected the day-to-day life of nearly everyone, from students to professors to the Executive Team. I talked to numerous members of the Westmont community in an effort to understand the challenges and feelings associated with this abrupt shift from normalcy.
At noon on Thursday, March 12, the Executive Team sent an email announcing the transition to remote instruction. Effective the following Monday through April 13, classes were to be held online and students were asked to leave campus housing, with the exception of those lacking another option. At the time, seniors Lizzy Green and Jenna Skiff were co-leading Urban Initiative’s spring break immersion in Los Angeles. The news arrived as the team was preparing to leave the city and return to Westmont. “It was taxing to be flooded with that kind of traumatic news, especially as a graduating senior, and trying to figure out what I was going to do while also caring for and supporting all the other students on the trip,” recalled Skiff. Green echoed similar sentiments, saying, “I wanted to finish our experience there before facing the reality that I was coming back to, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about all of my Westmont ‘lasts’ that got canceled.”
Over the weekend, students who remained on campus began to leave. Monday saw the beginning of remote instruction and an optional “mini chapel” via Instagram Live. On Tuesday evening, March 17, the Executive Team announced on a conference call that the remainder of the semester was to be held remotely, commencement would be postponed, and the majority of May term and Emmaus Road trips would be canceled or altered. This news did not come easily to many. First-year Theo Patterson expressed feeling “distraught, depressed, and disturbed.” “It is extremely frustrating to be out of routine and be so far away from my good friends,” he continued. “I’m angry, and sad, and heartbroken, maybe I even feel a little robbed, but I’m also grateful to be with my family, still able to go outside for a bit, rest somewhat, and try to stay present with all that’s changing,” reflected Skiff.
Green lamented the abrupt end to her senior year. “There were so many goodbyes left unsaid, or at least not in the way I had wished … If anything, this is just reminding me that you never know what is going to happen in life, so you can’t wait around to do the things you want to do or say the things you want to say.”
On Thursday night, March 19, California governor Gavin Newson issued an order for all residents to “shelter-in-place” to prevent the further spread of the virus. This meant that students could no longer travel to campus to collect their belongings, and the college was asking faculty to remain in their homes.
The shift to remote learning and instruction has been a challenge for everyone, especially given these newest parameters. “Attempting to learn with the mental health challenges of isolation and staring at computer screens for easily upwards of five hours a day is not what I expected or paid for when I chose Westmont for its residential and communal focus,” remarked Patterson.
Some departments have faced a substantial challenge in switching to an online setting, due to the nature of their discipline. Dr. Grey Brothers, professor of music, reflected on the challenges of musical rehearsals in a digital setting. “While I’ve discovered how to share audio and video examples, it’s strange not to have the full-body responses to the music I’m accustomed to.”
As a performance-based discipline, music is one of several departments that are required to make major changes for the remainder of the semester. “Faculty are finding ways to hold virtual private instrument and vocal lessons, [but] ensemble directors haven’t found a virtual platform that works well for ensemble rehearsals. So we’ve devised a culminating experience for our large ensembles that will result in virtual performances,” said Brothers. Virtual instruction comes with its own learning curves. “I admit, it was a bit strange making a video of myself conducting no one.”
The anxieties of this season are lost on nobody. As Green put it, “Moving forward right now feels like jumping off a cliff not knowing how deep the water below is.” At the same time, COVID-19 is not the biggest struggle that our world, or even Westmont, has had to face. “But no, this is not the end,” said Skiff. “I’m so thankful I get to still complete my degree, that I even had the privilege of going to a four-year institution at all!”
Skiff hopes that the model of communal action to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and ‘flatten the curve’ might be applied to other systemic health problems after the end of the pandemic: “What if we treated healing people from mental illness and the myriad of traumas we all go through the way we attacked and are enforcing measures against COVID-19? We’ve got a ways to go.”