In the course of a deeply challenging but remarkable week, the Harvard Graduate School of Education prepared to shift its operations to an entirely online environment, responding to the public-health need to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and safeguard the health of its community members.
With the support of HGSE’s Teaching and Learning Lab and Information Technology department, faculty were equipped with tools, resources, and thorough guidance on teaching with Zoom, the web conferencing and virtual meeting technology that will be the centerpiece of online learning experiences starting on March 23, when classes resume after spring break.
Students — navigating dramatic changes in their living situations and complex questions about their learning, their continued engagement with faculty and cohorts, and their job searches and future planning — reacted with honesty, with constructive and co-created solutions, and with a striking level of grace. They received a range of in-person and online resources, including a checklist to guide their preparation, access to emergency funding assistance, travel and visa assistance, and a range of other support from the Office of Student Affairs.
Harvard President Larry Bacow announced on Tuesday that the University would ask students not to return to campus after spring break and would require undergraduate students to vacate dormitories, in order to lower the density of the campus population and best combat the spread of the virus. HGSE students living in graduate student housing on campus have the option to stay in their housing, with the caveat that the University may ask students to relocate to a different room or unit in effort to slow the spread of COVID19. Regardless of whether HGSE students choose to stay in their graduate housing, remain in their regular housing in the Cambridge area, or leave the area to return to another residence, HGSE will offer ongoing support and resources to address all academic and non-academic concerns.
“Our first priority remains the health and well-being of our community,” said Dean Bridget Long in an email to the community on Tuesday. One key focus, as the week went on, was to ensure academic progress for degree candidates. “We intend to take all steps necessary to ensure the continuity of instruction and support, as well as other important functions at HGSE.”
As the school pivoted rapidly, Long also acknowledged the emotional toll. “I want to recognize that many of us are experiencing difficult emotions and complicated decisions related to these developments,” she said. “That is to be expected, and we must continue to support one another with patience and empathy. I encourage you to reach out to someone who may be struggling. Often, a kind word or offer of assistance can be incredibly meaningful in challenging times. And if you are struggling, know that our commitment to supporting you does not diminish even as we shift our methods of engagement.”
The breadth of the resources assembled and disseminated in such a short period of time defied any precedent. One helpful anchor and key touchpoint was Long’s decision to launch a series of virtual community meetings, addressing key questions from the community in the wake of the outbreak, its disruption of the regular school year at HGSE, and the rapid adjustments (and possible information overload) as new restrictions were announced and new procedures were put in place.
“I’m hoping I can help you process and understand the wealth of information that we’ve shared with you and that I can try to clarify some of the more confusing issues, as well as provide guidance because I know many of you are trying to make decisions in the next several days,” said Long in the first of the three planned sessions.
The virtual sessions join HGSE’s ever-growing repository of resources, direction, and supports for its community as it transitions to an online learning model in the coming days.
Following the recommendations of the University, HGSE is also suspending all schoolwide events and gatherings, including its Centennial events and those events that are sponsored by registered student organizations. At this time, Gutman Library will remain open to HGSE affiliates, and faculty, staff, and doctoral students will continue to have access to their offices, even as many operations shift to remote work. Under the direction of their managers, staff are piloting remote-work operations beginning today, retaining minimal on-campus staffing as needed.
But even as the campus itself becomes quieter, the digital HGSE experience will be blossoming. In the coming weeks, HGSE will be exploring a vast number of ideas — many of which have been generated by students — to ensure that students’ non-academic experiences remain as rich and vibrant as ever. Through live-streaming of faculty talks and prominent guest speakers, Zoom-enabled brown-bag lunches, and virtual professional development events, and HGSE is committed to building new and innovative digital learning experiences that bridge the distance and create memorable points of connection. These connection points will go beyond the academic and focus on sustaining wellness and engagement — a daily standing call with cohorts, a shared daily walk, where each participant describes their physical setting, a daily meditation or poem. The technology will create all-new kinds of opportunities.
And as the community welcomes a newly admitted group of students for the 2020-2021 academic year, and joins its alumni in celebrating its (most unusual) Centennial year, the innovative engagement will expand beyond the ranks of our current students — welcoming all members of the community and tapping their expertise in navigating a situation that remains fluid and uncertain.
“I want to say very clearly, as all of this is going on — and at times it can feel as if the sky is falling — we’re going to be OK. There’s no question at all, we are going to be more than OK,” said Long at the end of her first virtual community meeting. “So, whether we are physically here on Appian Way or we are connecting with each other by distance, please rest assured that this community is strong, and we will get through this together.”