Abrupt change of plans: Physical isolation does not have to mean social isolation

A virtual classroom, led by Professor Michelle Baum at MSU Denver, 2020.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, my days started at 6 a.m. Like many people I would wake up my kid, make our meals and prepare for the day ahead . I’m an MSU Denver senior, a student employee and a single mom.

On Wednesday March 11 everything changed. Auraria leadership assured us the campus would not likely shut down. I had my doubts when I received an email from my daughter’s school that they would be closing. I went to work on campus one last day before packing up my things and going home, possibly for good. Walking out the building with all my things in my hands made me feel like I had been fired. When I got in my car, I felt a bit of relief to not be around the collective population of 43,000 students, faculty and staff that co-exist with me five days a week on Auraria campus.

I learned a plethora of foreign concepts and heard terms like, “unprecedented,” “new normal,” “social distancing,” “remote learning,” and “virtual workplace” constantly. But what did these words really mean?

The first day working from home was just about catching up on old emails, cancelling events on the university calendar, reaching out to co-workers to coordinate projects and trying to find my footing. Learning what exactly is the “new normal?”

Then logging in to a virtual class conducted on Zoom with 25 other people. The discord was jarring- people talking at once, feedback from the audio whenever the professor spoke, people interrupting her to ask questions she had already answered. It was clear that it wasn’t going to be easy. Her kids popped in to say hello, cat faces popped in to rub against computer screens. I had to mute my own end to hide the noise of my house.

It’s harder when you are a single parent, working from home with a 5-year-old in tow. It’s overwhelming. The school district abruptly ended in person teaching on Friday and my daughter didn’t get to say goodbye to her teachers and friends. The district sent a large packet of schoolwork for her to do in the mail, and we check-in online with her teacher every day. She is given activities like reading and math, and takes a quiz to illustrate she has done them. Suddenly I’m a kindergarten teacher, a college student, and an employee working from home. All in the same number of hours a day that I had before.

Abrupt is the most accurate word that I can think of to describe this experience. When we are home normally, she is used to a routine but not a vigorous one that involves me doing mid-terms, writing emails and talking on video conferences with my professors and bosses.

Being at home triggers the desire for comfort- to wear jammies all day, watch bad television shows, bake random goodies, play outside and catch up on social media bingeing. It doesn’t evoke a rigorous schedule in which all things must adhere to.

Some of my classes were already online and so the switch to online learning was easier for me than some of my classmates. I have heard from each of my professors and am grateful that spring break starts tomorrow. I need a break to get used to the transition.

A classmate of mine, Chaunsae Dyson, junior in public relations, is struggling with the added stress. “I have more to do now online, but I have more distractions at home. I’m communicating with my professors through a box, and it’s not as interactive as I need my learning to be,” Dyson said. He worries that his education won’t be able to recover after this over.

One positive side effect of this is that I have talked on the phone with almost every one of my friends and family this week. I can’t remember the last time I did that. My community has been working overtime to check in on each other and send cheerful gifs and memes to remind us to hold on. Especially after graduation was postponed. That caused a new wave of depression.

There have been grim days and the overwhelming feelings are building. I sent a video conference request to my friend Laura and we talked about our feelings and the transition. We are both seniors, and neither of us has ever walked the stage to receive a diploma before. We commiserated about the grief of losing our last semester in college and the chance to partake in a commencement ceremony. We reminded each other it’s okay to feel bad right now. This is something we only shared with each other, because what is important is public health and we know that. But it doesn’t make the loss easier to accept.

“I choose to show up for myself,” said Laura Kramer, senior in English. “In the morning, I get dressed, comb my hair and make lists for what my day will entail. School, work, home; all the things I need to do. I give myself an hour in the morning to get organized for the day.”

My friend’s advice is solid, and I take it to heart. I try to follow her lead. We decided to start a weekly virtual happy hour, to check in with our community. I arranged one for my fellow student workers as well. It’s empowering and uplifting how everyone is reaching out to check in on each other this week to see if we are all still there.

This has been an abrupt and sudden change for everyone, to the new normal. I’m fortunate to have a community to hold me to the ground while the ground is shifting. Reaching out to other people to see how they are coping and managing the new normal has also been helpful.

“It’s definitely a juggling act. Like all other parents, we’re doing the best we can to keep our kids on track while juggling work, life, pets and the TP shortage,” said Michelle Baum, professor of journalism and media production. “I’ve been really impressed by my students’ resilience and commitment to keep moving forward. I know some students are concerned they won’t be able to stay on-task in an online learning environment. My hope is they’ll see class as an opportunity to stay connected with their peers and maintain a sense of normalcy, and maybe even laugh a bit.”

Baum is taking the change in stride and is giving me a great example of what it’s like to be a good role model for others in my community. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and anxiety stricken right now. Physical isolation does not have to mean social isolation. Leaning on fellow students, co-workers, friends and family is what we all need to be doing right now. We need each other.

One thing is for certain, this situation is making us learn new technologies, new collaboration methods and testing out our adaptability and coping skills! This won’t last forever, but we are certain to be better off for it when it is over.

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