It is an understatement to say that we are living in extraordinary times. When the academic year began, few of us could have imagined that we would be preparing to finish the spring semester teaching our courses online. This is a new reality for all of us, and while we might not have planned on this path, we are taking it and stepping boldly into this new frontier.
At the same time, the outbreak from the coronavirus is intensifying with each day. We continue to monitor developments and respond in a way that protects our community and minimizes widespread exposure.
Sadly, I learned today as did the rest of you that one of our students has tested positive. Our prayers are with that student for a speedy recovery, and we are doing everything we can to provide support and assistance with our partners in the department of health.
We expect more of our community will test positive for COVID-19 in the coming days and weeks. Rather than send out messages every time we learn of a case, I have asked our communications team to add a link to the university’s coronavirus web page, listing the number of cases. This is in line with how our peers at other universities are reporting these cases.
Events cancelled through the end of the semester
The university has decided to extend the cancellation of all events through May 18. We made this decision after considering the Centers for Disease Control’s guidance and recommendations from a working group that included faculty, staff and deans.
We will reevaluate the situation in April and share more details about how this affects future events going forward.
Commencement postponed indefinitely
We have decided to postpone Commencement and our degree celebrations indefinitely. This was among the most difficult decisions we have had to make. These are time-honored traditions that students and their families look forward to, and we did not make this decision lightly. Our hope is to either reschedule at a later date, and/or to find a creative way to celebrate our students online. We will be seeking input from our graduating students on how they would like to be celebrated during these unprecedented times. We’ll be in touch soon on this, as well.
Study abroad cancelled for summer session
Because of the U.S. Department of State Travel advisory elevation to level 4, it is not possible to run our summer abroad faculty-led programs this year. Many of our peer institutions have also cancelled their summer programs. I know this is a disappointment to our dedicated faculty and staff and to the nearly 500 students who participate in these programs each summer, but it is the right thing to do for the health and safety of our community.
Resuming classes on Monday, March 23
I know many of you are eager to resume your studies and coursework. Our hard-working faculty, with the excellent support of the Provost’s office and the Stearns Center and others across the university, are standing up about 5,500 classes in a virtual alternative format to ensure that we can maintain our instructional continuity. That’s a remarkable accomplishment. I am proud of the collaborative spirit I have seen within and among our departments, schools and colleges.
I also want to thank our faculty and staff for their flexibility and creativity. Whether you’ve found new ways to do your job remotely or you’ve taken on entirely new responsibilities, we appreciate your adaptability during this time.
Please know that it is reasonable to expect some bumps along the way, particularly this first week. Patience and persistence will be key, as will collaboration and kindness. We will get through this together. Some students and faculty are new to the online environment, and we will all be learning as we go. Our technology leaders are in frequent contact with Cisco, Blackboard and Microsoft to ensure increased capacity. However, because many schools and businesses are looking to these same vendors for support, there may be technology glitches. Faculty are encouraged to make back up plans for course instruction or consider asynchronous class structures.
Please contact the ITS Support Center in the event of a technology problem so it can be monitored and shared, and monitor the ITS Alert page. If you have not already registered for the ITS Alert listserv, please take a moment to subscribe so you can be made aware of issues as they arise.
Students are advised to visit https://learningservices.gmu.edu/keeplearning/ for resources, tips and helpful advice. I also encourage you to watch this video with five tips for online learning success from Associate Professor Melissa Broeckelman-Post.
The Stearns Center’s Instructional Continuity page has valuable resources for faculty, as does as does ITS’s Working Remotely: A Guide to Maintaining Continuity.
We know this transition is not seamless, nor is it easy, but it is the path forward to completing our educational goals this semester, and I have the full confidence in our university community that we will succeed.
I know many of you, students and faculty alike, have questions regarding grading structures in light of the instructional transition. This is a faculty governance question. Once the Faculty Senate has the opportunity to review options, we will communicate more details to you about this. We are committed to a successful semester in this new environment.
Financial resources for students
We know that the alternative instruction format and other potentially challenges may cause additional financial burdens. Both the Stay Mason Student Support Fund and the Student Emergency Assistance Fund are taking applications from students to provide emergency relief related to this new environment. University Life also has other resources for health and well-being during this time.
Refunds for housing, dining and parking
As many of you know, we are closing our residence halls to all but those students with extraordinary circumstances. This is an important step to prevent the spread of the virus.
Many of you have asked about refunds. The university is committed to refunding money to students for housing, dining and parking. We are working out the details and will get more information to you soon.
Taking care of yourself
All of this can be overwhelming, and I know we are all doing our best to stay positive and focused on what matters most. Your studies can be a wonderful distraction from the headlines, and I urge everyone to take care of themselves and each other. Rest. Eat healthful meals. Get outside. Find time for family and friends – whether it be in small groups practicing social distancing, or using online tools that help keep us together.
I appreciate everyone’s flexibility and creativity to make the best of this changing situation. I am proud to be a part of Mason Nation, and I know you are too.