Two months. Eleven weeks. Seventy-seven days. One thousand four hundred sixty hours.
Two months was the amount of time promised to Lehigh students and their families between Lehigh’s official announcement regarding their reopening decision for the fall 2020 semester and the first day of classes for the 2020-2021 school year.
Two months for administrative offices to plan for in-person instruction. Two months for Residence Life to restructure housing plans. Two months for families to make decisions about their students’ return to school, travel plans and housing options to ensure a comfortable academic experience.
Three weeks. Twenty-one days. Five hundred four hours.
Three weeks to scramble. Three weeks to redesign educational, habitual and logistical on-campus routines. Three weeks to uproot any preconceived ideas for what fall 2020 would look like.
On July 23, Provost Nathan Urban sent out an email at 5:01 p.m.— exactly one minute after the first virtual Community Conversation Zoom meeting was supposed to start about returning to campus — stating that given the recent surge of coronavirus across the United States, Lehigh will be reconsidering their plans to reopen campus for the upcoming fall with the promise of notifying families by Aug. 3.
This statement arrived shortly after Lafayette College’s announcement to change its plans for the fall, turning to completely remote instruction and no on-campus activity less than a month before their first day of class.
With cases rising across the country, it has been more difficult for institutions to secure an ample amount of tests in order to monitor the safety of the campus. Additionally, the notion of moving students from all over the country from areas varying in cases into a somewhat small communal living environment brought valid concerns.
Finally, on July 31, the school made the statement that all first-years who felt comfortable were invited to live in a single dorm on campus, while most other students intending to live on campus lost their housing.
During the week between the warning and the official announcement, students who had intended to live on campus quickly scrambled to find an off-campus lease with the hope of finding somewhere to live. After spending a majority of their summer looking forward to residing on school grounds, they had a mere 28 days to reconfigure what their fall semester would look like.
Amid Instagram posts displaying social distancing practices at work in the library, community conversations via Zoom led by university officials and labels on course schedules on Banner semi-promising students some form of in-person opportunities, Lehigh did a pretty good job convincing students that the fall semester would be in person to some capacity.
What is upsetting about this is not the final call that was made, but rather the sense of false hope and poor planning on the administration’s end. After spending two months of re-doing the housing lottery, creating these social distancing practices on a campus meant for four class years of students and crafting hybrid courses, the student body can’t help but feel that resources were squandered and in a sense were misled.
It is no secret Lehigh is not well-versed in online education. While we commend their efforts for adapting to the new format of learning at the initial phase of COVID-19 in the United States, it is still an institution built on 150-plus years of excellent in-person instruction. There needs to be extra steps taken in order to emulate this high-level of learning in a virtual environment.
We know faculty members and staff in Library and Technology Services have put in extra time and effort to learn new skills not necessarily part of their original job responsibilities. We know food and sanitation staff are doing the very best they can under increased safety demands and new financial burdens.
But with many students still waiting to hear from their professors about whether or not they have a chance of an in-person course, and with major transportation costs on the line as students from far away decide whether or not they could or should return to campus — with the 14-day quarantine throwing an extra wrench for students from “hot spot” states — the delays in decision-making are frustrating to say the least.
While Lehigh is not to blame for all the uncertainty in our world right now surrounding this pandemic, whether it came to timing for decision-making, claiming to be “open” in June despite telling faculty separately that every course would be at least partially online or offering a confusing and poorly communicated tuition “discount” for those students who opt to study fully remote, Lehigh exasperated an already impossible situation.
The confusion and upheaval of what seemed to be a somewhat decent path to reopening caused an insane amount of disorder and quite honestly, heartbreak. After all the uncertainty brought about by the last six months, after believing for two months that they’d be returning to campus in some form, Lehigh’s final call ripped the metaphorical safety blanket right out from under its students.
Two months of planning for a reopening will now lead to three weeks of reverse work and backtracking.
Now, we are all staring forward at what the next five months of Lehigh — whether you are there or not — will bring as the university tries to thread this delicate needle.
Stay safe and take care of yourselves. We mean it.