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An update from my home office

Published: 3/18/2020 10:04:04 AM

Like many of my friends and colleagues, I started working from home this week in response to the governor’s request for social distancing as we try to contain the spread of COVID-19.

My home office, such as it is, is a wooden chair and table in my dining room. It’s in easy reach of both kitchen and laundry room so I have plenty of distractions. My cats enjoy having me and my laptop nearby for quick cuddles. They jockey for position on adjacent chairs and often on my keyboard. My dog sits at my feet for much of the day wondering when we are going to go for a walk. My kids are still in the “it’s like vacation!” phase of our forced isolation. My husband, who is self-employed, is more accustomed to working like this.

I have to admit that the first workday went by more quickly than I thought it would. “Zoom” meetings with colleagues, phone calls with students who are trying to work through academic issues for next semester, and lots of email, took up my time.

Tomorrow I will have to focus on my plans to deliver the two classes I’m teaching via our online system. Both of these classes are based on the presumption that building relationships is a foundation for learning. Face-to-face classes are more intuitive for me but I’m going to work hard to make sure I continue to build those important connections with my students.

It may take me a bit of time to get used to working from home, but I know in the end my family and I will be OK. I am still working and thus getting paid. We have food in our house and enough toilet paper for at least a week (I hope). We’ll figure it out.

I am concerned about my students, many of whom set off for spring break before they knew that the university was not going to be back in regular session for the rest of the semester. Some of these students are now home where they can get online to participate in their classes.

However, I know at least a few who may not have a safe home to go to. For them it won’t be possible to keep up with their schoolwork. Some international students returned home despite cautions that they might not be able to return to school when they’d like to. Other students are likely home now taking care of younger siblings who are not in school, making it hard for them to stay on track with their work.

We can’t assume that most of our students will keep up with the demands of “remote” learning when they’ve never taken an online class before. It’s also hard to imagine that our instructors, who may have taught the same in-person classes for years, will be able to deliver their classes virtually and with ease. The learning curve is steep for both students and faculty. We will get through it but it will require patience, compassion, and flexibility on all fronts.

I’m not blaming university officials for this situation. News, policies and projections were all changing so quickly last week that it was all anyone could do to keep up with what was happening. I believe that campus leaders are doing the best they can to make the right decisions for the entire UMass community. I do not envy them their jobs right now.

For us to get through this well, we will need to support each other. It’s wonderful to see the ways that people and organizations are offering to help each other out. Museums are posting virtual tours. U-Haul is offering college students a month of free storage for their stuff. The Easthampton Community Center has started their Kids’ Bag program early to make sure that kids who qualify for free or reduced lunch can get healthy food during the week.

One of my favorite ways to keep younger kids occupied was dreamed up by local children’s book author, Mo Willems, who is offering a daily series called “Lunch Doodles” on YouTube. The awesome gym I belong to is providing online workouts for members (Fitness Fusion, represent!).

A few of my neighbors are launching a “Neighborhood Mutual Aid” project in conjunction with larger western Massachusetts network. People are connecting on Facebook to share puzzles and books now that the libraries are closed.

Most everyone I know will get through this OK. As always, I am concerned about the most vulnerable in our communities who were already struggling before this virus temporarily changed how we interact. Please be kind, be generous and check on your neighbors.

Jackie Brousseau-Pereira of Easthampton is the academic dean and director of first-year seminars in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also the current president of the board of Community Action Pioneer Valley.

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