Photo Credit: Mackenzie Gerry
On March 13, 2020 Brock University Communications sent out a mass email.
“Brock University is suspending face-to-face classes and exams for the rest of this academic term and is working on a plan to move to alternative forms of class and exam delivery, including online. The academic term is not at risk. In-person classes will be suspended at the end of classes Friday, March 13.”
In early March 2020, it became clear that COVID-19 was going to have some sort of impact on all of us, but March 13 marked the one-year anniversary of the day that many of us realized just how serious that impact would be.
Many were on campus when the email from Brock University Communications hit their inbox. Some were in classes at the St. Catharines campus, others at the Hamilton campus, some downtown at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts (MIWSFPA). Students were in residence buildings, the library, the gym. The women’s volleyball team was being sent home from Calgary after receiving the news that U Sports had cancelled the national championship that they had qualified for, for the first time in program history. The email was sent just before 1:00 p.m. so no doubt there were people waiting in line during the lunch rush when they received the news.
“It was a little bit eerie, walking out into the hallways and seeing everybody looking at our digital displays and then looking at their phones and seeing that email and realizing what this was going to mean,” said Dan Dakin, Manager of Communications and Media Relations.
Senior leadership at Brock had been having conversations about the potential impact of COVID-19 on the university since late January of 2020. By February, the university had put protocols into place that had been developed to help deal with SARS in the early 2000s.
“One could see from the replication rates that this was definitely going to be a serious matter,” said Dr. Gervan Fearon, President of Brock University. “Looking at the numbers it translated very quickly to me that this should be on the radar.”
On Thursday March 12, 2020, Premier Doug Ford announced that all publicly funded elementary and high schools across the province would close for two weeks following March Break. Shortly after, it was recommended that only essential services stay open and only essential travel take place. Dr. Fearon said it was then that they realized that in-person activities at Brock would not be able to continue.
On Thursday, there was a major planning session to discuss the university’s plan and what the COVID-19 response would be. By Friday morning, the decision was made to suspend in-person activities.
Emily Allan, the Interim Director for Brock Sports was at Nationals with the Brock women’s basketball team on March 8. Then, she says, was when she realized that COVID-19 was going to impact us in a serious way.
“If anybody started feeling unwell we were worried ‘are you rundown? Is it a cold? Is it the flu? Or is it COVID-19?’ Obviously it was on our radar before that, but I can’t recall if I thought, ‘oh gosh this is something very serious that we’re going to have to deal with’ much earlier than that,” said Allan.
The basketball team achieved their best-ever finish when they won a silver medal on March 8. It turned out to be the last time a Brock Sports team would compete in over a year.
Allan returned to St. Catharines with the team following Nationals and was immediately dealing with the pandemic.
“It was hectic. Right now we’re used to updates changing weekly or monthly, but back then the updates were coming day by day, sometimes hour by hour,” said Allan. “We were trying to keep the student athletes informed, trying to keep the coaches informed, trying to make sure that the athletes were okay and making sure that they had the resources they needed to do school online as well as keeping them engaged and active because everything shut down. When you go from an athlete training six or seven days a week, doubles each day, to then going to zero is really impactful.”
David Vivian, Director of the MIWSFPA was downtown when he realized the gravity of the situation.
“I remember vividly the night of March 12, a large group of us, mostly visual arts students and faculty were at a restaurant on James Street and we had just finished a presentation and the messages just started rolling into our phones,” said Vivian.
“I remember the DART 4F56 cohort, which is sort of our capstone theatre performance project and I remember a meeting in Room 227 here at the school and they were being told by their faculty that we had to pull the plug on this and the tears, they were feeling this really really passionately. I am certain that the same things were happening across music and visual arts and studies in arts and culture,” said Vivian.
Dr. Lynn Wells, the Provost and Vice-President Academic had flown to Ontario from Alberta where she had been working at MacEwan University to interview for the job of Provost at Brock. Dr. Wells’s interview was on March 11.
“When I got back to the airport my flight was cancelled, they put me on a later flight and it was just jammed full of people,” said Wells.
“I went in [to MacEwan] on Friday [March] 13 and by noon we were shut down and all of our staff were gone,” said Wells.
The early days of the pandemic felt hectic and the future felt uncertain. For many, though, there was hope that the province’s two-week shutdown would be just that, two weeks of staying at home so that we could get back to business as usual and return to normalcy by the summer. We know now, that this would not be the case.
It was important that Brock University keep students informed as things continued to move rapidly.
“We had to respect that we had to communicate to our students as quickly as possible. We wanted our students to be able to make choices, whether to stay in the region, stay at the university or if they had permanent homes that were reachable. For some students that was possible, for some it was not,” said Dr. Fearon.
Dr. Fearon also added that it was a priority to make sure that students who could not make it home had a place to stay and were well taken care of in the early days of the pandemic.
“The goal has been to get things out as quickly as possibly as there are things to communicate. In the very early days when things were changing so quickly, we were putting out almost a daily update and it really was changing that fast that that was necessary. We kept that up for probably almost a couple of months,” said Dakin.
Faculty had 10 days from the time in-person activities were suspended to adapt their course material into an online format. Online learning was scheduled to begin on March 23, 2020. Some opted to change the way that assignments were weighed to give students a mark based on work that had already been completed, others began posting audio and video lectures and accepting assignments online.
Exams had to be restructured so that students could write them online. The university introduced an option for alternative grading. Students could request that their final grades not be shown on their transcript and instead they would be designated, “credit obtained during disruption,” “no credit obtained during disruption” or “withdrawn during disruption.”
The winter semester concluded and spring and summer semesters were also conducted online with alternative grading continuing. Many students reported that the sudden jump to online learning was difficult and for some it has impacted their track to graduation, though according to Dr. Fearon, most of the students who were on track to graduate in March of 2020 were able to do so.
“We know that for many students this has been a year where they haven’t progressed at the same rate as they thought they might, have had to step away from courses or perhaps they were in a program that during the course of the pandemic that they couldn’t engage with and felt they had to make a change,” said Dr. Wells. “Academic advisors have been critical in helping students make new choices if they want to, things like the alternative grading options, but really just helping students continue on a path when things are really confusing.”
Some had hope that we would be able to return to campus by fall.
“The challenge for all of us is that the goalpost is moving, I think many of us were feeling very optimistic at the end of the spring and summer months. In downtown St. Catharines we had pubs and restaurants with sidewalk cafes. I think we were feeling buoyant about the possibility that we could be back in class,” said Vivian.
In the summer of 2020, Brock developed the “Stages of Response and Recovery Plan.” The plan is a five stage document, with Stage One representing a near complete lockdown of the campus with nearly all services being delivered online. Stage Five represents a full re-opening of the campus that includes safety protocols.
The second wave of the pandemic was anticipated for late fall and early winter of 2020 and in-person activities at Brock remained suspended. At that point, it had been nearly six months since the original March 13 shutdown. Globally, work was being done in developing a vaccine.
“What was clear looking at the historical cases of pandemics, the fact that this was a novel virus, meaning that humanity had not been exposed to it, meant that it would require substantial action on the development of pharmaceuticals and indeed a vaccine. At the time vaccine developments had been measured in years, not months,” said Dr. Fearon.
The fall semester was also delivered online.
Classes that normally take place down the hill at the MIWSFPA presented a particular challenge. Music, Dramatic Arts, Visual Arts and to a lesser extent Studies in Arts and Culture, struggled to find ways to overcome the distance between students and instructors. Many classes take place over Zoom now. The department had to get special permission to use Zoom over Teams because it best allows instructors to see all of their students.
The DART department is currently producing a MainStage that sees performers logging on from their own homes. Props have been shipped all over the province as they begin to record their scenes before the finished product debuts on YouTube and runs April 7-11.
It has also been a challenge for the student athletes at Brock Sports. The OUA made it clear that there would be no fall or winter sports in the 2020-21 season. Teams were still permitted to train together, but how exactly that training took place depended on guidelines passed down from the province.
As Ontario moved between stages of reopening, many teams found themselves able to practice together wearing masks in small groups one week and back in their own homes doing workouts using backpacks filled with textbooks and canned goods the next.
“The fall semester was a balancing act of bringing as many sports teams back to training as possible without endangering the health and safety of anybody,” said Allan.
Brock Sports has incredibly stringent measures that involve COVID-19 tests and only interacting with what Allan calls their “Brock Bubbles,” made up of their teammates and coaches.
Online learning continued into the winter semester.
“In the fall I would have told you ‘okay we have this figured out, next spring, next March 13 onwards will be ‘easier’ but I don’t know that it will be,” said Allan, “Starting in January there were question marks. Not so much about online classes anymore because we know what those will be like, but how many classes will be online? How many will be in-person? Can we have a season? When can that season start? That all hinges on how many people will be vaccinated and that’s a question that nobody can answer.”
As students prepare for the final weeks of the winter semester, vaccines seem to be on everybody’s mind. So many things hinge on the speed and accessibility of the vaccine rollout, including the planned return to campus for fall 2021.
“What would be, let’s call it a reasonable case scenario, would be that all the students who would like to be on campus can be on campus,” said Dr. Fearon.
“Obviously we’re buoyed by the news of the vaccine rollout, the pace that will be happening. If all goes according to plan, most Canadians will be vaccinated by the end of the summer,” said Dr. Wells.
Brock University plans to be a large part of getting Canadians vaccinated. It is currently planned that Brock will be one of the Niagara Region’s mass vaccination sites when the vaccines start rolling out to the general public.
“We have facilities and traffic flowthrough capacity, that means that we are an asset to the region and ensuring that our capacity is available to the region is absolutely the right thing to do. We are proud that we can do this,” said Dr. Fearon.
Part of Brock’s Strategic Plan is to contribute to the development and vitality of the region and helping out with vaccination clinics absolutely falls within those guidelines, according to Dr. Fearon.
“We were established by the goodwill of the people from across Niagara. In that sense, that means that we also have an obligation to be available and supportive of the community. What better time to be available than in a time of need by humanity?” said Dr. Fearon.
If all goes according to plan, the majority of Canadians, including Brock students will be fully vaccinated in time for Brock to re-open in the fall.
The planned reopening would see the majority of academic offerings returning to in-person classrooms on campus as well as student services like health, dining, recreation, etc. In relation to the “Stages of Response and Recovery Plan,” Dr. Wells said that she hopes the University will be in Stage Five by the fall.
Vivian said he and the other instructors at the MIWSFPA are “courageously optimistic,” for an in-person fall semester.
That being said, there will still be significant offerings online.
“There will be students who want to or need to do some classes online,” said Dr. Fearon.
The exact breakdown of what courses will be offered online and what courses will be offered in-person will vary by faculty.
“What we’ve asked people to look at is some kind of mix, particularly for core courses so there will be choice for students,” said Dr. Wells.
Additionally, Dr. Wells hopes that the university and faculty will be able to take what they have learned from this time and apply it to strengthening Brock’s relatively sparse options for online learning. She hopes that this allows all students flexibility, but also that it will be a step towards creating a more accessible way of delivering classes and services, particularly for students with disabilities.
“Back when I was at MacEwan, the Accessibility Office was part of my job there and a student called me and said, ‘it’s so great that you’re finally offering services in the way that the students with disabilities have been asking for for years.’ So I think there are some good things that we can keep doing, that we have learned about accessibility of services and supports, things like mental health supports that people can access without having to go to campus physically.”
After a year of so much loss, it might be hard to look forward with optimism. What started as a two-week suspension of non-essential activities has quickly turned into an entire year spent separated from the people, places and activities that we love. The pandemic has come in waves, each one leaving us just a little bit more exhausted than the last. Undoubtedly, we have all experienced a great deal of grief.
Dr. Wells draws on her experience as the mother of two university-aged children to understand the way that Brock students are feeling during these trying times.
“My son is a varsity athlete, he’s a basketball player and he lives and breathes basketball and all of a sudden it came to a halt in one day,” said Dr. Wells. “He actually called me last night and said he was allowed back into the gym for the first time in a year. I haven’t heard him that happy in a long time, so I absolutely appreciate the sense of loss that students are feeling because a year of their lives has gone by where they have had to forgo things.”
What has really shone through in this time is the incredible resilience of students.
“We’re all in the process of beginning our recruitment,” said Vivian. “We’re doing interviews now over Zoom and wow, our students are fierce, we have so many fantastic applicants.”
“This has been an incredible and extraordinary period in human history, not just for us here at Brock or in Canada but globally,” said Dr. Fearon. “[Students’] ability to have been resilient to this time period, to have worked through this time period will be defining to them in the future.”
“Acknowledge the loss, it’s okay to feel sad about that, to feel that you’ve lost something and to give that the emotional attention that it needs. But also to really look forward with a sense of optimism. In some ways we’re very fortunate that we live in a time where science could come up with a solution to this thing in a year, which is astonishing compared to previous serious outbreaks of disease,” said Dr. Wells.
While things may not go back to “normal” any time soon, there is still hope that we will be able to get back to doing more of the things we enjoyed before the pandemic, albeit slightly differently than we’re used to.
“I believe there will be sport in some capacity,” said Allan. “What that capacity is, when it starts? Again, everything hinges on vaccinations, vaccination sites. We’ll go from there.”
Allan expects that the announcement about fall sports could come from the OUA as late as September and that a potential season would likely occur without the presence of fans in the buildings.
Vivian expects that students will be at the MIWSFPA in whatever capacity that public health regulations and recommendations allow. Like Allan, though, he doesn’t expect that they’ll have an audience any time soon.
“It may be that our main channel of engagement with our audience will still be online,” said Vivian, “It may be possible that we can bring a choral ensemble into the recital hall and perhaps it will be that we are transmitting from that space.”
“We’re going to be really busy over the spring and summer, checking in with the public health protocols, looking at the best practices. We are so keen to offer our students the best learning opportunity we possibly can, also to our faculty with teaching and research opportunities. Know that we are planning for a really successful year next year. If we end up doing some teaching online, then we’re going to do it so well, because we’ve got a whole year of experience behind us now,” said Vivian.
“The thing I’m most looking forward to is the day when I can be on campus and the hallways will be filled with students again,” said Dr Wells, “I just love being on campuses when they’re full of students, just doing what they do.”
Vaccines are rolling out across the country, the weather is getting warmer and there is reason to be hopeful. We may never return to business as usual, but we can be safely optimistic that March 13, 2022 will be better than March 13, 2021. Finally, for the first time in what feels like forever, there are things to look forward to again.