The first email was innocuous enough, considering that faculty on the community college at which I was an assistant professor had been following the news about the first confirmed case in New York. His daughter had been attending school not too far from our campus, and in the days following that discovery, we would ask, “Do you think anyone on our campus…?” The sentence would often go unfinished. We all knew what was meant to be conveyed.
The email, which landed in our inboxes on March 11, a Wednesday, informed us there would be no classes until the 16th, when all instruction would continue through distance learning. My colleagues and I didn’t think much of it. It was more like we were not able to see too far ahead; who could predict the series of events that were to follow? We met the next day, on Thursday, to plan and schedule training workshops all throughout the following week so that faculty (some of them 70+ years old and unfamiliar with online teaching platforms) would be prepared to take on this new method of teaching.
Then the second email on Friday. We were not to return to campus.
Thrust into a new reality, faculty around the country have scrambled to learn and apply a new set of skills while toeing the line between assessing student performance and extending already extended deadlines. Many faculty are already aware that projected low enrollment in the fall will bring unexpected ruptures to their livelihoods, careers, and families. It’s almost like watching a horror movie in slow motion, one where you see the floor opening into a dark abyss, but there’s nothing you can do. Except watch.
And yet, all of this did not prepare me for the next series of emails that continue to fill my inbox. One student emailed me to tell me of a grandfather who passed away only a couple days after testing positive for Covid-19. ‘We didn’t even get to hold a funeral,’ she wrote, her angst apparent. Her grandmother, who was not able to get tested but was presumptive positive, was living alone, scared and depressed. Another informed me that his mother, a nurse, was working overtime and he was constantly worried about her. One night, yet another student sent a message via Whatsapp. ‘My best friend died,’ she wrote. ‘It was the coronavirus.’ I stared at my phone, at 2am, squinting in the dark. How does one respond to something like that? Sending prayers and thoughts never felt so shallow and meaningless.
It has been exactly a month since that first email, the one that didn’t seem so sinister back then. And yet, the amount of heartbreak, loss, and mourning makes it feel like six months. We are far from seeing the end of it – the daily numbers are proof of that. But until then, a part of me can’t help but hope that the next ding of my inbox brings some relief.