Gerry Turcotte: Class virtually in session

By 
  • September 19, 2020

Every year, as my children got older, the return-to-school routine got less exciting.

Gone were the days where an afternoon spent at a stationary store was exciting; where an afternoon buying the autumn wardrobe was exhilarating. With age came a certain cynicism about the reality of the classroom. They understood all too well that new pencils and backpacks, blouses and jeans didn’t compensate for the months of hard work that were soon to replace the summer break. Despite this, I could always generate a bit of buzz talking about the return-to-school social activities and the importance of catching up with friends not seen since June.

A similar excitement usually follows the return to university classes. As president, I have always looked forward to our large new student orientations where I re-use all of my age-old jokes and witticisms, but mostly get to enjoy meeting the new group of recruits, eager for the new adventure.

Orientation is always a loud, exciting event, where seniors descend like wizened guides to lead newcomers around campus and impart advice about navigating their new reality. The signup sheets for the different clubs are long and messy. The BBQs overflow with chatter, and professors and staff weave among the returned with excitement and good humour.

All of this has disappeared with COVID-19. Where faculty normally spend the summer working on research, the majority dedicated their time this year to re-designing their courses for online learning. Our staff focused on germ-proofing our campus, with teams developing 100-page COVID safety plans for the health authorities and building Plexiglas barriers and signage for spaces that will be in limited use this year.

For St. Mary’s here in Calgary, one of the biggest impacts of the pandemic has been to shut down or severely limit the charitable work that the President’s Volunteer Team (PVT) typically undertakes. Our monthly outings to support soup kitchens and shelters, building projects and seniors’ residence visits have all been put on hold as we work with our community partners to identify safe ways for us to participate.

Gone are the days of a hundred students joining me out in the field to support a worthy cause. Well, for now at least. Instead we are arranging small-scale events, in isolated groups, wherever we can. Still important, but somehow not the same.

Another challenge Catholic colleges and universities face is how to deliver our regular on-campus Masses. Many switched to online celebrations — ourselves included — but with even the limited return to campus comes the possibility of reconstituting in-person, though socially-distanced, celebrations.

As we’ve seen in our parishes, it can be done. Here too, however, the experience will be different. At St. Mary’s, in Fr. Michael J. McGivney Hall, parishioners will find Plexiglas dividers between them. The offering of the sign of peace will still have special meaning, even though it will be expressed so very differently.

If you were to canvass university presidents about the greatest challenges, I’m sure most would say ensuring the safety of all our communities is key. And chief among our responsibilities will be ensuring we look out for the mental health of students, staff and faculty.

At a recent online training workshop, our convener noted that in the virtual world, introverts become even more introverted and extroverts … become introverts. This means that many of our stakeholders will experience some strain, with those most in need potentially least likely to seek out assistance. Universities and colleges will need to be vigilant and attentive, clear in their messaging to their community and alert and available to assist at all times.

We know we can only get through this challenge safely by being supportive of and staying connected to each other. If we cherish and build strong communities, our chances of emerging from this pandemic stronger than before is assured. It’s virtually guaranteed.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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