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Community shares lessons they carry from the peak of the pandemic

Looking ahead to the University’s plan for the fall semester, students and staff draw upon personal realizations

While varying in degree of impact, every single student has changed in the way they act with peers and learn on a daily basis as a result of the abnormal year.
While varying in degree of impact, every single student has changed in the way they act with peers and learn on a daily basis as a result of the abnormal year.

The possibility of a return to normal has helped many students remain hopeful throughout the 2020-2021 school year. Now, with a University-wide plan in place to resume in-person classes with strict vaccine and mask requirements this fall, excitement is racing across Grounds once more as the new semester approaches.

Although many may feel that the COVID-19 pandemic is becoming a distant memory, the past year and a half will have a lasting effect on all students and staff. Over the course of the pandemic, students and staff alike have learned lessons on treating people with kindness and realized the possibilities of online learning formats. Even as the University inches back towards “normal,” there is still a much-needed place on Grounds for newfound knowledge about individual learning experiences and support systems.

For fourth-year Nursing student Raniyah Majied, one of the biggest concerns surrounding a full in-person return to Grounds is that students and staff will try to race towards a lifestyle that many of them haven’t experienced since the beginning of 2020. Majied worries about this lack of caution amid the emergence of new variants and the potential toll this charge towards normality might have on students’ mental health.

“There was a lot of people giving each other grace,” Majied said. “I'm scared we're going to try to rush back into things and expect each other to still be performing at the same levels academically and socially as we were before the start of the pandemic.”

Similarly to Majied, Drama Prof. Tovah Close recognizes the pandemic will continue to have on students even as we transition back to in-person events. In ranging degrees of impact, every single student has changed in the way they act with peers and learn on a daily basis — something Close believes we should keep in the forefront of our minds.

“It is important to remember that each of us went through this pandemic, but we each had our own individual experience,” Close said. “I hope that eventually we will be able to acclimate our comfort levels to what they were before, but I recognize that it will definitely be an adjustment — for me too.”

Close also emphasizes her sincere wish that the positive and more sentimental moments of the past year and a half will not be taken for granted either as we return to Grounds. She remembers how rewarding it was for her students to finally meet in person after weeks or months of separation and is optimistic that we can remember to never take these connections for granted, even when we see each other every day.

“We are a community,” Close said. “I hope that as we go back to being in person … we don't forget how special it was when we did get to connect and see each other and how enriching it is to learn in a community.”

Returning to an in-person learning community is something that both students and staff are excited for. Dorothy Wong, art history professor and director of the East Asian Center, has spent the past year and a half committed to an entirely online format in both the classroom and for speaker events at the center. She believes that being able to directly interact and connect with peers will be nothing short of thrilling for everyone involved.

“I think the isolation is not very helpful to both the professors and students,” Wong said. “I think we are meant to connect with people, and I think that even with social distance it's good to meet people face to face and interact.”

Even though Wong is more than ready to teach in a lecture hall filled with students once again, she notes that the past year and a half has taught her a lot about her own profession. She finds that the adaptability she developed during the pandemic is what has kept her afloat and passionate about her teaching, even as drastic changes plagued the University in March 2020.

“I've been teaching here for more than 20 years, but I'm willing to adapt to new technology and I think that there are so many good things about online teaching,” Wong said. “It made me a better teacher in the sense that I have to think ahead on what kind of questions guide students' discussions.”

Wong believes that there are elements of online formatting that she will continue to utilize as both a professor at the University and the director of the East Asian Center, despite in-person events returning. Her plans include requesting an interactive classroom for her fall classes in order to mimic Zoom breakout rooms — which she found very effective — as well as generating hybrid events within the East Asian Center to increase outreach to people all over the world.

For rising first-year College student Sasha Porter, online high school classes were an opportunity for her to prepare for her first year at the University. Porter found that online learning and the cancellation of extracurriculars gave her increased freedom within her normally rigid schedule as a high school senior.

“Since virtual school was a little bit more independent than in-person high school, it did teach me more about how to make my own schedule,” Porter said. “I think that independence that we've kind of grown into this year will help us a lot at U.Va.”

In addition to learning from online classes and the new technology that the pandemic has generated, isolation — while extremely taxing — also provided many with a chance to step back and reevaluate their own personal circumstances.

For Majied, who was a second-year at the start of the pandemic, the troubling 2020 spring semester did just that.

Majied used her time at home to reflect on her mental health, as well as her relationships with both family and school. She realized that, strangely enough, a year of turmoil is what helped her understand what she needed in order to thrive at the University going forward. Especially in regards to her levels of involvement on Grounds, the pandemic convinced her to ignore the University’s competitive culture and put herself first.

“Coming in third-year I was involved in five or six organizations and my mental health got [bad],” Majied said. “I chose me, so I quit everything except for MRSC, which was a very good decision. That was another thing — my worth is not determined by my level of involvement or productivity.”

The pandemic might not be fully over, but the return to in-person classes this fall has evoked a lot of reflection among students and staff as the summer winds down. Ultimately, the lessons that we have learned during the peak of the pandemic — whether they were related to technology or our own mental health — will remain important for far longer than a year and a half.

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