What you were doing ten days ago? Hugging a friend? Meeting someone at a talk and shaking their hand? Teaching inside a classroom? Doing research in your lab or at the library? Going for coffee or lunch somewhere?
So much has changed so fast. And we are still living with so much uncertainty. But I want to take you inside the last ten days for me. I can hardly remember what happened and I want to remember.
“The loneliest place in Toronto.” Ross Building, York University, 4.31pm on March 20, 2020. Huge thanks Eve Haque for permission to use this image.
I am an Associate Dean at my university. That means that I make some decisions, but I also am in charge of seeing that the decisions that the people higher up than me in the hierarchy (and there are a lot of them — dean, associate provost, provost, vice presidents, president) are made real. I am not in the highest level rooms where decisions are made, but I am definitely at other tables and rooms where we have a little — or a lot, it depends on who is in charge and what the issue is — of influence on the big decisions.
The Province of Ontario, where my university is located, declared a State of Emergency on March 17, 2020. Let me take in you inside the last ten days of an emerging state of emergency, and its immediate aftermath. A lot of what follows has to do with international students since looking out for them is a big part of my portfolio but also because I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to how especially hard this situation has been for these students.
March 12 — three hour meeting with the dean, two hour meeting with department chairs, two hour meeting with Faculty Council where we (the dean’s office) try to say, we have not yet moved to canceling face-to-face classes but please, please start to prepare for this possibility. One of the other assoc deans and I sit down after that meeting and write out a quick guide for “going digital” for our colleagues. Just in case.
March 13 — dean texts all assoc deans and other key folks at 7.43am to say, I’m sorry but I’m calling an emergency teleconference for 8.30am. We learn that the announcement to move courses online will be coming. We ramp up our planning work. Lots to figure out. For example, we have exactly 12 spare laptops for a Faculty that has 650 faculty members, hundreds of TAs, and three hundred staff members. How to rent laptops for everyone who will need one? We put our “going digital” guide up on a website. At least we got ahead of that. How to help our 21,000 students? What will they need?
We wait and wait for the official announcement to come from the president. It was supposed to come at 11am but doesn’t. It is agonizing to know that this is coming but not be able to do much until the official word drops.
Finally, late in the afternoon, the official word is out. We send out mass email to faculty colleagues to talk about next steps. We send out an email to all our students telling them that we are here for them. In this email, we also ask international students who have questions or issues to email me (my portfolio is global & community engagement and working with international students is a big part of it).
My email is flooded almost immediately by students who are frantically trying to leave the country because they have heard that borders are closing and flights will be grounded.
They knew. The Canadian Minister for Foreign Affairs would not advise Canadians to come home until the next day. But these students already knew that the borders were closing. That if they were going to get home, they needed to get on a flight immediately.
I immediately ask our IT genius to set up a separate email account so that I can at least track the torrent of emails by cc’ing them to that account. It’s a quick hack but proves invaluable later because I can ask others to go into that inbox and start helping me track the needs and respond to them.
Friday night and wee hours of Saturday spent trying to help hundreds of international students. I start to feel that I can’t leave my computer for even a few minutes because the students need to make decisions now.
March 14 — the emails from terrified and anxious international students keep coming. Hundreds of them. Often one every minute. I get so many that my email starts bouncing emails because of the sheer volume.
I start to hear things before they are reported on the news. Ukraine is closing its borders. India is asking its citizens to come home and will soon close the borders to them if they don’t make it. For many students, whether to stay or go is a wrenching decision.
I call the dean on Saturday night and say, we need to send a message to our students to say that we know that they that they are grappling with these decisions and a lot of uncertainty and that if they decide to get on the next flight home to be with their family during this crisis, we will absolutely support them and figure out how to help them finish their courses from wherever they are. He calls the provost for approval. I text our director of communications. We write as fast as we can. We call up a staff person who has to access the student contacts. We call our IT genius. I am ruining everyone’s Saturday night but it is worth it because we get the message out.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs tells Canadians that if they have to come home “while commercial flights are still available.” It’s not reported in Canadian or US news, but other governments are giving their citizens the same message. Come home or you will be stranded.
March 15 — the messages asking for helping are still coming fast. I have been answering them day and night for 36 hours. I have a bleary-eyed Sunday zoom meeting with staff from my team and we figure out a way for them to share the load even though I am now ruining their Sunday and I feel terrible about that. But these students are under so much pressure and they need answers and they can’t wait for the office to open on Monday. We only decided to take courses online a day ago. The profs still don’t know what their courses will look like, whether or not there will be in-person exams etc. I tell the students, if you want to go, we will support you. Be where you feel safe. Don’t worry about the academic pieces. We can sort that out. That seems like the only humane thing to say even though I don’t have the power to make any colleague teach or give exams in any particular way.
March 16 — Canada announces the first border closures. I hear a rumour from students that flights will be grounded by Wednesday. It was only Monday but they knew. They were right.
Please, if you take nothing else from this, listen to your students. They know things.
Emergency meetings with assoc deans across the university. We keep checking texts and email because every ten minutes, things change and we have to decide again the thing we thought we had already decided.
The new normal is to write emails and official memos that begin, “Because this situation is fluid and changing very rapidly…”
March 17 — emergency meeting where we try to think about how to help international students who were supposed to start classes in summer semester now that there is a travel ban that denies them entry into Canada.
Still torrents of email from international students who have to make tough decisions. But now it’s worse because, if they leave, I don’t know when they can come back.
Ontario declares a state of emergency.
March 18 — after hours of agonizing waiting, we move to required-services-only mode which means we can finally allow staff to work from home and close libraries and services. I am happy that this is happening but so sad for the international students who will be even more alone on campus.
At 11.01pm the provost releases a memo telling everyone that university buildings will be closing and that if they want access to campus, they should email the Associate Dean for Research in their Faculty.
That’s me, too.
In addition to being Assoc Dean, Global & Community Engagement, I have also been pinch-hitting as Interim Assoc Dean, Graduate Studies & Research since January.
I suddenly get a surprising number of requests from colleagues who don’t want to stop going to their office, don’t want to shut down their labs, don’t want to lose access to the computer room etc.
March 19 — huge fights about accessing buildings. These go for hours across many platforms — email, zoom meetings, text. Back and forth and back and forth.
I become a little hysterical. Maybe because I am tired. But I also feel an enormous responsibility for helping to break the virus’ chain of transmission [nyt link] and that means urging colleagues to stay home and telling them that accessing buildings after the official closure will jeopardize the health and safety of the person who wants to go into the building, and that of our security staff who will have to escort them in.
Image via New York Times
March 20 — still a lot of back and forth about when and how to close the buildings. I am waiting for decisions from higher up. I tell colleagues, please, just plan on not going to campus, please.
Our IT folks have rented and set up 1500 laptops for staff and students who urgently need them. They did all this while helping hundreds of faculty colleagues put their courses on-line. There are a lot of heroes in this story, and the IT folks are definitely among them.
People across the academy are shutting down labs and research centres and losing millions of dollars of research. They are going to be without their libraries and research equipment. There are costs to the rapid shutdown that we are initiating. I feel it.
March 21 — here I am, with you.
A friend told me that you can’t write about a hurricane when you’re inside it. So what I’m sharing is just a view from a place where everything is whirling too fast.
As Erin Wunker tells us, this is not business as usual. Our lives are changing. This is changing us. We are not going to be the same and we will not go back to business as usual. I don’t know how we will change yet but I can feel it. You feel it too, right?