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Distance Teaching and Learning at SBU, Siena Concluding with Virtual Commencements

In early to mid-March, colleges and universities across the nation, especially regions that were beginning to experience large numbers of COVID-19 cases, began moving to online and remote teaching to stop the spread and flatten the curve of the coronavirus.

Although suspending classroom teaching was thought to be temporary at the time, less than two weeks later, faculty and students in higher education around the country and throughout New York State learned that campuses would be shut down indefinitely and that the balance of the semester would be completed by remote teaching and learning.

St. Bonaventure University in the Western New York town of Allegany, and Siena College in Loudonville, just outside Albany, New York – both Holy Name Province-sponsored – took swift action to transition from classrooms and campus life to a virtual learning environment on platforms called Zoom and Canvas.

Getting to the finish line of the spring semester had a few bumps along the way, but overall the administrations, faculty, staff, and students at both schools responded to the challenges. Now, SBU and Siena are planning for the future – including upcoming virtual graduation celebrations and, later this year, in-person commencements for 2020 graduates.

Admissions and enrollments are proceeding – albeit with the new normal of virtual and drive-through campus tours. A poignant video series of reflections titled “You Are Not Alone” was born – and even the pandemic couldn’t shut down some traditions, like the blessing of the brains before final exams week.


Siena College

Response to the Outbreak
Like all higher education institutions, Siena College took swift and significant steps to safeguard the community and continue educating its students during the pandemic. By March, the administration had been keeping a close watch on the then-fast-developing health crisis and had already engaged in contingency plan discussions if and when ordered by government directive to suspend on-campus activities.

Spring break was extended by one week, primarily to give Siena’s information technology services department adequate time to provide a faculty-wide tutorial to help professors transition their course content from classroom to remote teaching. Instead of returning to campus on March 23, the college went into full remote learning – which remained in effect through the last day of the semester, May 4.

The transition was challenging because classroom courses are not designed to be taught online, according to Lisa Witkowski, Siena’s associate director of communications.

“Online courses are baked into a model and meant to be taught online. Switching to remote learning was an emergency situation, but with the help of our ITS department, the faculty did an amazing job pulling this together so quickly,” said Witkowski.

Some faced greater tasks than others – the science department, for example, meeting the challenge of teaching hands-on labs remotely. A physics professor quickly assembled and mailed lab kits to students, enabling them to follow online.

Professors posted lectures and other information on the communications platforms being used by the college, and many held live virtual classes at their regularly scheduled times. Faculty members solicited input from their students before implementing what they thought would work best.

“They realized that some students had family responsibilities, maybe with younger siblings, or grocery shopping for grandparents. They recognized these unprecedented circumstances and helped students learn and digest the material in ways that worked for everyone,” said Witkowski, noting that even some final exams, which ended last Saturday, were adjusted from conventional tests to essays and other writing assignments and projects.

“With this type of emergency transition, professors wanted to be sure that they were keeping learning at a high level and providing all the materials necessary to put students in the best possible position,” Witkowski said. “The faculty rose to the challenge, and students equally rose to the task – especially members of the graduating class, considering the disappointment and upheaval they had to deal with.”

The creativity exhibited by faculty and students was impressive. Even the choral professor got into the act, holding rehearsals of “Romeo and Juliet” via the Zoom platform, with plans for the stage performance slated for some time in the future.

All offices continued to operate remotely. Student Life was in constant communication with the Siena population, and services such as tutoring, the writing center, career preparation, library, and all other resources and support services were available online. A special “working remotely” webpage was established to provide students with the resources and technical assistance needed to succeed.

“We never stopped serving our students. We just changed to remote delivery and communication,” said Witkowski, noting that all summer courses will be given online.

‘Not Alone’ Video Series
With stay-at-home orders causing people to feel isolated and anxious, the Mission Office has hosted a series of more than two dozen video reflections called “You Are Not Alone.”

A recorded reflection by a different friar, administrator, faculty member, or student is distributed daily to the Siena community (the reflections are also posted on the college’s website). Each offers a message of support, hope, and kindness.

“It’s a way of maintaining our spiritual connection with students,” said Witkowski, who noted that Siena friars are also live-streaming Sunday Mass on their Facebook page.

Blessing of Brains and New Style of Commencement
Anyone who attends Siena – or St. Bonaventure – knows that the final exam season brings with it the annual rite of the blessing of the brains. Although the pandemic sent them back to their homes for the last two months of the semester, students at both campuses received a virtual blessing. The blessing at Siena was organized by the campus chaplain, Larry Anderson, OFM, before exam week, May 6 to 9. Eleven other friars participated in the blessing, whose words repeated year after year – “May God bless you and open your mind with wisdom and understanding” – are meant to offer spiritual guidance. With the blessing of the brains, students were able to enter finals week with a sense of confidence and certainty that even the pandemic could not deter.

Although it won’t be the pomp-and-circumstance that traditionally takes place at the Times Union Center, Siena College will acknowledge the class of 2020 and their academic achievements in a virtual ceremony on May 17, the same day the students and their families were supposed to assemble at the massive arena in downtown Albany for the college’s 80th Commencement. Instead, each of the 800 graduates will gather virtually around their electronic devices from their own homes on Sunday morning. For those who have satisfied graduation requirements, it will make official their bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

The virtual live-streamed event will include a special acknowledgment by Margaret Madden, Siena’s interim president and vice president for academic affairs. During the ceremony, the bells atop the gold dome of Siena Hall will ring in tribute to the Class of 2020 – a familiar sound that these graduates, as those who came before them, will always remember. For four years, the students could tell the time of day from the toll of these bells, which helped them arrive at class just in the nick of time. But this virtual ceremony is not replacing an eventual Commencement gathering.

Academic Affairs and Student Life are working closely with the Class of 2020 to plan an alternative Commencement tentatively for Aug. 15, along with corresponding social gatherings and festivities.

“The commitment was made by Siena’s ‘cabinet’ – in consultation with everyone involved, including the Class of 2020 – to celebrate the graduates in person. We understand how disappointed our graduates are, and we are disappointed for them, so we absolutely did not want to outright cancel the in-person ceremony and celebrations,” said Witkowski, noting that a venue has yet to be determined.

“Much will depend on how the pandemic tracks – and all plans, obviously, will be based around federal, state, and local regulations and guidelines in place at the time,” she said. “We want to provide some emotional closure to our students for all of their hard work of the past four years. They need to see their professors, celebrate with their friends, hear the music [of the graduation march], and have their families see them graduate. If it means adding a facemask to the traditional cap and gown, we will celebrate in person as long as it’s safe.”

The Future
Witkowski reports that admissions and enrollment are strong, although adjustments have been made to the process to adapt to the environment, including the commitment deadline extended to June 1 and a number of non-contact opportunities for prospective students – such as virtual campus experiences, a first-time-ever drive-through campus tour, and online chats and video calls to connect remotely with admissions counselors, faculty and current students.

In an interview with News10 ABC in Albany, Siena admission director Katie Szalda said all colleges and prospective students are in the same boat during what would normally be a busy time for campus tours.

“For seniors right now, a big part is getting on campus to visit … [but] this normal experience that they were looking forward to has been taken away from them. We’ve always done a very personal style of recruitment – one-on-one, hand-to-hand reaching out to the students, some more so than ever right now. It’s about the students and what their needs are,” Szalda said.

Siena is on target with recruitment for its freshman class due to the work and dedication of the admissions team, which has been personally reaching out to accepted students.

A Siena coronavirus recovery task force – chaired by Chris Gibson, the former U.S. Congressman and decorated military veteran who will become the college’s 12th president in July – has already begun the daunting task of exploring various options and scenarios of re-opening by examining all aspects of the operation, including academic affairs, programming, student life, enrollment, finance, administration, athletics, and mission.

Divided into divisional and departmental working groups, the task force consists of administrators, friars, faculty, and staff – and, like all colleges, is placing health and safety as its foremost priorities, with decisions ultimately driven by testing, tracing, and government and health department protocols.


St. Bonaventure University

Student Services Step Up During Remote Learning
On March 16, SBU began online classes for what was supposed to be two weeks. But as the spread of the pandemic worsened – and after New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order that effectively instructed a shelter-in-place directive and shut down of all non-essential businesses and education institutions, St. Bonaventure converted to online instruction on March 23 for the balance of the semester.

Although the entire campus was closed, administrative offices and services continued to operate remotely – including Friedsam Library, the bookstore, health and counseling services, university ministries, and several others.

The Student Success Center made all of its academic support services available online – among them the writing lab, course tutoring, and supplemental instruction, and academic counseling to help students with study skills, time management, and adjustment to online coursework. Recorded workshops on succeeding in online courses were also posted on the SBU website.

One of the most important services for both students and faculty has been the information technology staff, which provided assistance on navigating the university’s applications that helped transition classes online – Moodle, a learning management system already used by most faculty members to supplement their in-class instruction with discussion boards, assignments and quizzes, and Zoom, a video conferencing software used to view and chat with professors, record videos, and provide instruction.

“This has been a chaotic, almost surreal time in all of our lives. It felt like seven weeks were crammed into seven days [during the transition from on-campus to remote learning]. But our staffs in IT, Student Affairs, Student Success Center, Communications, and Facilities went above and beyond to get us to the point we reached and success we experienced,” said Dennis DePerro, president of St. Bonaventure.

Although most faculty members and students were familiar with these applications – which made for a fairly seamless transition from in-person to remote teaching – there were some who needed a little extra time and assistance to adapt.

“Getting faculty members who were not comfortable with online education up to speed in just a few days was probably the greatest challenge during the transition phase,” said Thomas Missel, SBU’s chief information officer. “Our IT staff did a remarkable job, conducting multiple workshops when we had no choice but to send our students home because of the 100 percent workforce reduction mandate from the governor.

“Everyone met the task – from students and faculty transitioning quickly to an online-only environment, to our staff, most of whom went home to work and continued to operate as efficiently as possible,” Missel added.

Celebrating the Class of 2020
St. Bonaventure is inviting all members of the SBU family to “A Celebration of Graduation,” a special broadcast this Sunday at 2 p.m. on the university’s YouTube channel to recognize and celebrate this year’s graduating seniors and graduate students. Broadcast highlights will include a touching slide show of the graduates and inspiring and encouraging messages from the faculty and staff.

It will also include an announcement by DePerro, who will make good on a pledge he made in March to this year’s graduates. The university president will announce dates for a special Commencement Weekend on campus for the 475-member Class of 2020 later this year.

Missel said with May 17 the day that all graduates had marked on their calendars, St. Bonaventure felt an obligation to acknowledge the day in a meaningful way.

“The celebration is going to be a YouTube Premiere event, meaning it can’t be accessed until 2 p.m. that day – although it is pre-recorded and produced,” Missel explained. “It’s not meant to replicate Bonaventure’s 160th Commencement in any sense. But the president will officially confer their degrees at the end of the event.”

In a March 25 letter to the members of the class of 2020, DePerro wrote, “The global pandemic that’s consuming our attention right now is so much bigger than any one of us or any single event in our lives. But that reality doesn’t minimize the pain of sacrificing one of the significant milestones in anyone’s life: college graduation.”

DePerro went on to say, “I promise you this: I will do everything in my power to celebrate graduation with you, on this campus, in a manner you deserve sometime later this year. We will do all we can to plan a Commencement Weekend far enough in advance to give you ample opportunity to plan for a celebration of your time at Bonaventure.”

He added, “Once a Bonnie, always a Bonnie, so your journey with us will never end.”

Missel said that an in-person ceremony is important because 90 percent of graduates surveyed validated what St. Bonaventure believed – “that they really want the opportunity to graduate with their friends and campus community in person.”

On the same day of the virtual graduation celebration, the series of virtual Masses that are broadcast from the campus chapel by University Ministries will conclude with an 11 a.m. Mass concelebrated by Russel Murray, OFM, and Ross Chamberland, OFM, that will be broadcast on UMin’s YouTube channel. In addition, at 10 a.m. on May 16, seven ROTC students will be commissioned as second lieutenants in the United States Army – a ceremony that will live-stream on the Seneca Battalion’s Facebook page.

Planning for the Future
Although visits by prospective students have been suspended since the campus shut down in March, the admissions team is still operating remotely and is offering virtual visits and online communication that includes live webinars and group information sessions for students, and their parents, who are beginning the college search.

Virtual appointments with an admissions representative for a one-on-one discussion and personalized campus tour, and a virtual self-guided or recorded virtual tour of the campus are among the opportunities available to prospective students.

“Relatively speaking, we are doing quite well with admissions and enrollment, running close to last year, which was the second-biggest class in the last 11 years (the year prior was the biggest),” Missel said. “Given the situation, far more students than normal – more than 100 in our case – have asked for an extension to the traditional May 1 deadline to make their decision – and we, of course, granted them all.”

Missel said the college has been working on contingency plans for the fall semester, although at this point, St. Bonaventure is committed to beginning the academic year on Aug. 31 with every intention of resuming residential campus life based on the current trajectory of the reopening of New York State.

“Of course, we recognize there will likely be health and safety protocols that we will need to adhere to,” he added, noting that all upcoming summer courses will be offered online only.

Adapting to Change
Some friars admitted that, at first, they didn’t take to the new normal of remote teaching.

“The learning curve for using Zoom was a bit challenging. But after getting a fairly competent grasp on it, I was able to use a few features that allowed me to teach in similar ways as if I were still in the classroom,” said Kyle Haden, OFM, who was teaching two sections each of “The Way of Francis and Clare” and “The History of Christianity” at SBU when the pandemic struck.

Although he somewhat mastered the delivery platform, he still hasn’t gotten used to being unable to interact with his students face-to-face.

“One class was more conducive to in-person interaction. I like to see their reactions, which gives me a clue on how well they understand the material,” explained Kyle, who has been teaching at St. Bonaventure since 2012.

“I have to admit that there wasn’t much I enjoyed teaching remotely. I suppose if I had more time to devise a method, that would have made a class meant for in-person instruction more conducive to online teaching, I would have felt more positive about it,” he added.

Even most of his students missed being in the classroom, according to Kyle.

“In one session, I asked the students how they were doing and what they were learning about themselves during this experience. There seemed to be a consensus that most of them missed being on campus with their friends and peers,” said Kyle.

David Blake, OFM, an assistant professor of sociology, said the workload for most friars at St. Bonaventure increased when the university ceased all classes and activities on campus. “It only made things busier when we switched to an online platform – probably because some of us were technologically challenged and without the skills to easily make the transition. But we had to adapt quickly.”

It’s not the best time to be taking control of a new position in any job, but especially at an educational institution. Or maybe it’s a perfect time, in the middle of this pandemic, for Greg Jakubowicz, OFM, to step into his new role as SBU’s campus chaplain. A 1987 graduate of St. Bonaventure, Greg will direct the activities of University Ministries when he takes the position on Aug. 1. “To return to SBU now in the reality presented to us in this pandemic we all face together, I believe our shared mission remains to do what we can to be who we say we are as Bonnies, and for all of us to seek to be an instrument of God’s love in our world in the place we find ourselves,” Greg said in a recent SBU announcement.

— Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.

Editor’s note: A variety of friars who teach on college campuses – including Siena and Bonaventure – provided comments for another HNP Today article about what this unusual semester was like for them.

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