History Repeating Itself: Outdoor Classes Mirror 1918 Pandemic

Hannah Kuperus– Staff Writer

While Dordt has tried to make the 2020 fall semester as normal as possible, it is impossible to deny the changes students, staff, and faculty have experienced as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic. With masks required in buildings at all times, professors lecturing beneath face shields, and office hours conducted via Zoom, students were in for an interesting semester. Yet one professor added another element to the mix: outdoor classes.

“I was really excited because I enjoy being outside, and I don’t like being stuck in a classroom for a long time,” said freshman history major Nathanial Runia. “I was sad because [Professor Fessler] made us buy a lawn chair to sit on, and I didn’t want to spend any more money.”

Dordt Professor of History Paul Fessler decided to host classes outside after his father’s experience during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic.

“My father had just started [German language school] in Harlem, NY, and he wound up having nearly all of his classes outside for almost a year—including during the winter,” said Fessler. “Even when they went inside when it snowed or rained, they had the windows all open. He walked home from school, [and] he went past coffins stacked upon coffins in the street.”

Because Dordt’s classroom windows cannot be opened, Fessler decided to take advantage of the good weather to teach outside.

“I really didn’t want to teach inside if we were going to teach,” said Fessler. “I have an autoimmune condition as well as heart issues remaining from heart attack two years ago— so I am a high risk candidate for problems if I get COVID-19.”

Professor Fessler, who has been a professor since 1994 and has been at Dordt for the last nineteen years, now holds two of his small classes outdoors: Survey of American History and American Civil War and Reconstruction.

“I had to think about where to teach, and, especially early in the semester when it was hot, I needed shade,” said Fessler. “I got permission from the powers-that-be to teach [in the Hoekstra’s backyard].”

Fessler hopes to stay out of doors for as long into the semester as possible.

“If you look at New York Times or other papers from the time period [during the 1918 flu epidemic], you’ll see young children taking notes in the cold. That’s my plan… I was working with registrar to try to see if we could get tents to have class outside all year (students could wear coats) but that didn’t work out—contact me if [you] have a tent or money for a tent!”

Class members have so far reacted favorably to being outside for class.

“I think the class has gone well,” said Ellie Rynders, a junior history education major. “The reason he wants us spread out outside makes sense. The only downsides are that it can get chilly and the traffic can make it hard to hear other people sometimes. I enjoy being outside though.”

Professor Fessler agrees that noise—from wind, to cars, to airplanes—can be a challenge. “In the Civil War class, we are playing a reacting to the past game for three weeks that requires students to be the ones talking—so some students do not have a loud enough voice (or have to work at it) but that’s a good life skill anyways,” said Fessler.

For overall reviews on the class, there seems to be a mutual enjoyment for Professor Fessler and his students alike.

“The thing I like the absolute best about [outdoor class] is that since we are all so far apart AND outside… we aren’t wearing masks, so I can see students’ faces,” said Fessler. “It ‘s surprising to me how hard it is to ‘read’ a room as a teacher without being able to see their whole face. You can’t tell easily whether a student is confused, or indifferent, or whatever only by their eyes, surprisingly.”

“It’s nice because we don’t have to wear masks since we are outside and we are sitting farther apart,” said Runia. “The class has gone very well. I was worried we wouldn’t be able to hear [Professor] Fessler, but we can. It feels like a normal class, but outside.”

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