My pandemic experience begins with disrupted plans to present at the ABC Southwest conference in San Antonio, March 11-14. In the days leading up to the conference, I watched as other professional organizations around the country canceled gatherings. Meanwhile, Youngstown State University was on spring break, and administrators grappled with how to respond as the coronavirus crisis began to take shape. I questioned whether the conference would take place and debated whether it was safe for me to attend. On March 10, Ohio prohibited state-funded travel outside of the state, effectively halting my trip.
Also on March 10, YSU announced plans to extend spring break for a week to allow faculty members to prepare alternate instructional delivery methods on a temporary basis. By Friday, March 13, YSU announced classes would be offered online for the rest of the semester. Given all that was changing on my home campus, I was thankful to be there to support students in this sudden transition to online learning.
While my own research efforts were put on pause, the YSU Honors College quickly mobilized and adapted to support students in this digital space. Our staff of four, consisting of the dean, two coordinators, and administrative assistant, spent Saturday, March 14 on campus strategizing a variety of ways to connect with our students to help prepare them for the transition to online learning. The Honors College scheduled two virtual town halls via Webex for the following week to provide information and answer their questions in an interactive forum. We developed a “buddy system,” pairing up interested students who wanted someone to check-in with them each week to ensure academic progress.
Realizing we would be moving towards working from home, we established new systems to allow students to schedule time with staff members by phone or video chat and established a plan to offer weekend office hours as students adjusted to online learning. We created plans for Connecting Online, an email digest with advice on how to be an online learner, which would come out daily for the first week, then weekly as students became more acclimated to online space. We also reached out to our alumni for messages of support. One alumna acknowledged the disappointment students must be feeling about the disruption to their lives yet reminded us how fortunate we are that physical distance does not have to mean disconnection. Another graduate, who is now a faculty member at a different institution, directed her message primarily to the seniors who missed out on the final weeks of their college experience. She indicated that she stays in touch with her friends from 20 years ago and hopes they do the same.
The Honors College staff continued its commitment to place students at our center as the COVID-19 crisis evolved. In the following weeks, it became clear that students appreciated the college’s efforts, particularly during our annual honors formal and awards ceremony, which we transformed into a virtual event. Student honorees gave brief acceptance speeches, and a common theme emerged that the Honors College is a family and recent efforts to make the most of the current situation were deeply appreciated. The Honors College brand is rooted in opportunity, community, and family, and in a crisis, family rose to the top. Determined to give our graduates a proper sendoff, we planned a social media campaign to celebrate our seniors and hosted an interactive virtual medallion ceremony on the eve of the university’s virtual graduation.
For me personally, being able to support students in the time of COVID-19 gave me purpose and to some extent control over a surreal situation. Our professional team’s use of video chat for daily check-ins has been helpful and oddly comforting to see and support each other. It has made me feel far less alone, particularly in the early days when decisions regarding COVID-19 on the state level were also happening quickly and impacting our lives.
As a mother
On March 12, the state of Ohio announced that K-12 schools would be closed for a period of three weeks. This decision illuminated the magnitude of the situation and impacted our family directly, since we have one child in preschool and another in kindergarten. While preschools didn’t close at first, we decided to temporarily stop sending our son in the spirit of “flattening the curve” and protecting my parents who also help with child care.
In addition to working from home, I now had to not only care for but also educate my 4- and 6-year-old sons. I recognize that this challenge comes from a position of privilege, and I am deeply grateful that my spouse and I remain employed. However, I mention the challenge, because it is part of our pandemic experience, and educating my children at home is not as rigorous nor as effective as what teachers can do at school. However, we are all doing our best in this unprecedented situation. Having the kids at home means professional video chats have had their share of funny moments. Surprise visits by my children have ranged in purpose from requesting a snack to doling out a sneak attack that ended in me getting hit in the head with a Nerf dart and subsequently erupting in laughter. Holding class meetings with optional video gives students glimpses into our home lives that I believe helps them connect to us as people. Other humorous moments have occurred after the conclusion of a meeting upon discovery of what transpired while I was engaged. For example, I have learned that in less than 30 minutes, two creative kids can concoct and execute a plan to transform the staircase into a “pillow slide” with cushions from the couch. I found myself shocked, impressed, and entertained by this revelation, and I even took a video and a subsequent trip down the slide!
As a mother and an educator, I try to be honest with my children about why we are staying home. My boys understand we can’t go anywhere because of the virus, and we don’t know for how long. The uncertainty can be challenging, but I am seeing life lessons being learned. My four-year-old son said the other day that he can’t wait to get a shot, so he can have donuts with grandpa again. My six-year-old misses his friends at school and took it hard when we learned in-person school is now cancelled for the year. Yet he has grown to appreciate weekly video chats with his classmates, because it is the best available option right now.
There are moments that cause a surprising and intense mix of bittersweet feelings which challenge me as a mother to stay strong in front of my children. Early in the pandemic, I recall my younger son waking up and sweetly asking, “Mommy, is it another stay home day because of the virus?” I gently replied yes and excused myself for a brief moment, overcome and amazed by the extent to which a four-year old quickly understood and adapted to our suddenly altered routine. I also remember my older son excitedly clipping a new hand sanitizer on his backpack for when he goes back to school. At that time, I had no expectation of them returning this year, even though an official decision had not been announced by the state. Thoughtful attempts to retain some normalcy for the children, such as both of my children’s teachers dropping off Easter gifts for the kids on our porch, prompted the same swirl of mixed emotions. Yet the early childhood educators pressed on recording videos wearing silly green accessories for St. Patrick’s Day and circulating virtual cards for classmates’ birthdays. Throughout this experience, I have been touched by the vast ways people go out of their way to connect with one another. Yet, with every kind or generous gesture came a reminder of the magnitude of the current reality. Even as an adult, I am growing in resilience, learning to be kind to myself, and recognizing that perfection isn’t always possible.
As an optimist
It is my nature to find the positive in everything, so though the timeline for a return to normalcy is unknown, I have to believe those who live through this pandemic will appreciate the little things and value our relationships even more. My hope is that our children will look back on the pandemic with a fondness of the time we all got to slow down and be home together and watch more movies and enjoy more time outdoors. I now find myself consciously feeling appreciation and having fewer “moments.” Perhaps this forced interruption is exactly what we needed to give us the space to pause and reflect on the simple things we take for granted, such as spending time with family or friends in the same physical space or the basic act of breathing unobstructed by a mask without fear of sharing germs with another person. I have gained a deepened appreciation for aspects of our everyday routine, such as walking across campus or exchanging friendly greetings and short conversations with teachers during pickup at the preschool. One night, while admiring a larger than usual moon, I realized how much I missed watching that same spot for the school bus to peek through the trees, signaling its descent upon our home to pick up my son. In this quiet moment, I discovered how keenly I felt fondness for seemingly simple acts.
I have also realized there are some things I do not miss and quite possibly never enjoyed very much pre-pandemic. For me personally, they include recreational shopping, haircuts, and wearing makeup. (I’ll be cutting my own hair or asking a family member for help until I can get a trim without a mask.) I do wear a mask in public settings, but there is much I hate about the experience. I long for the day that we can all safely reveal ourselves to the outside world again. Whenever we emerge from underneath our masks, my hope is that we do so better and stronger as individuals and as a society than we were before the pandemic interrupted our lives.
Mollie Hartup, MBA, is Instructor and Coordinator of Student Development and Retention in the Honors College at Youngstown State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Communication and Information at Kent State University. Her research explores communicative practices in organizations that foster and inhibit knowledge exchange.
Recommended Citation: Mollie Hartup. (2020). Life Interrupted: Finding the Good, Despite the Challenges, in the Pandemic As a professional. the Western ABC Bulletin, 2.1.