Zoom University: professors and COVID-19

Sam Landstra— Staff Writer 

Howard Schaap needed to feed his two teenage boys. They were quarantined in the basement of their home in Minnesota; he had isolated upstairs. Their mom was at work. It was harder to play the role of parent in the middle of a pandemic. 

“Are we going to throw them a loaf of bread and some bologna and say: ‘you guys are on your own today?’” Schaap said.

Other demands fought for his attention an hour south at Dordt University, where Schaap teaches in the English Department. His students needed him to provide lectures and instruction. 

It was a tale of two cities: professional obligations in one state, and parental duties in another. Schaap delivered two lessons for his students and then served lunch to his two boys.

Had it been any other day, Schaap would have called in sick and given students the morning off. However, the element of online learning prompted by COVID-19 brought the classroom right to his front door. 

Since Dordt University sent their students home last spring and welcomed them back in the fall, professors like Schaap have adapted to all things unforeseeable. As they navigate new mediums of virtual instruction, isolations and quarantines for students and teachers have made for a tumultuous semester. 

Schaap conducts Zoom meetings from his kitchen table. He wears a gaming headset discarded by his kids to improve his audio quality. It makes him look like one of his students, when paired with the Adidas sweatshirt he dons (minus the goatee). He usually dresses up for class, though, even when some students join online meetings shirtless and still in bed. 

“I find it so strange to sort of be beamed into students’ living rooms.” Schaap said. “It feels much more uncomfortably personal… in this way that’s kind of strange and human.’”

His stint in quarantine comes as the result of his eldest son developing symptoms in line with COVID-19. It is not his first brush with the virus either. A few weeks earlier, he entered quarantine after sharing a queso bowl at a restaurant with his sister-in-law, who showed symptoms the next day. Schaap has avoided signs of infection both times.

Other professors have not been as fortunate.   

Mary Beth Pollema, an education professor, isolated at home with her family after she contracted COVID-19 in September.

She had gone to bed tired, the norm for a semester full of increased responsibilities, but woke up the next day with a fever of 100.4 degrees. Pollema notified HR and received a rapid test the next day that confirmed her suspicions: COVID-19 positive. 

Still, Pollema did not miss any class time, teaching through the fever, aches, and congestion. They lasted only a few days, though. She waited out most of her ten day quarantine with no symptoms at all. Her family followed in the same manner.

“Teaching and learning in the COVID world is really exhausting.” Pollema said. “That for me has been the most mentally taxing part of all of this.” 

Although professors received a crash course in online instruction at the onset of the pandemic last year, nothing quite matches the human element of face-to-face instruction.

“It’s kind of hard to get up for the computer.” Schaap said. “I think I’ve delivered good class periods but I’m always wondering about that added distance and what it means.”

Over the summer, Schaap, Pollema, and the rest of Dordt faculty worked to create a module-based online learning system for students in quarantine or isolation. They also had to familiarize themselves with new educational platforms and technologies. Pollema made acquaintances with the Meeting Owl, a swivel camera useful for virtual meetings.

“The trick is trying to imagine two and a half months away what you’ll be teaching. But two and a half months away is sort of dependent on every day before that.” Schaap said. “If you get off track, how will you know?”

Schaap straddled this line until the start of the fall semester. Then Dordt announced a 24-student limit on all classrooms the day before the start of class. He and other professors had to scramble to accommodate. 

“That was a revelation.” Schaap said. “We were kind of told, ‘Look you need to be ready to switch streams, for either students or you, but it was not clear how and when that would happen.’”

“It’s shown a lot about our institutions. How do you manage something like this? It’s really a nightmare.”

– Howard Schaap

As the quarantines of Schaap and the positive test of Pollema illustrate, professors fall into a unique category of risk for exposure to COVID-19. With interaction with the student body in the classroom and contact with the local community in their home life, they frequent numerous populations. 

On behalf of their own health and safety, some professors have urged Dordt administration to communicate faculty COVID-19 case and quarantine/isolation numbers to the public. They would appear alongside the student statistics on the COVID-19 dashboard. As of November 2, none of these asks have been addressed. 

Sarah Moss, the communication chair for the COVID-19 task force, said a difficult chain of communication has kept the numbers off the website. Because faculty and staff are not tested on campus, Dordt is not immediately notified of a positive test from a professor in the same way they are for a student. Instead, Moss claimed, a professor would have to message the proper people themselves, which they are already doing.

For Moss and the COVID-19 task force, this potential time lag in communication outweighed the importance of sharing the data with the public and campus community.

Dordt professors have put together a Canvas page through word of mouth in its absence. Here, faculty can keep members of their departments up to date on quarantine and isolation situations. 

Schaap emerged from his virtual house arrest of sorts on October 26. Although he now leads his classes in person, he works from his car and always wears a mask, aware of the risk he may still pose to others.

“We’re all kind of in this limbo of feeling like, ‘Well we can’t put life off indefinitely.’ And yet how important is it that I’m in person with my class?” Schaap said. “Can I sacrifice being present for the sake of one person? Yes.”

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