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'Somber and uncertain' on WNY's mostly empty college campuses

'Somber and uncertain' on WNY's mostly empty college campuses

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College campuses are among the communities most radically affected in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis in Western New York. As universities and community colleges embrace an online learning platform in full, a state of flux has ensued for the community of college employees, many of whom still find themselves on campus, in some cases attempting to maintain a “business as usual” learning environment in a radically altered educational universe.

“I left March 6 for spring break, feeling happy to have some time to do some grading and catch up on some work,” recalled Julie Jackson-Coe, Genesee Community College associate professor of transitional studies. "There had been rumblings at our teacher area meeting March 3 that SUNY was suggesting we have an idea of what we would do if we had to go totally online.

“It became real when they canceled the NBA season – that’s when I knew we were going to go online. ... My job has suddenly become me learning to Zoom (conference calling service) with my students and trying to keep the momentum and energy that comes from a face-to-face class going with just technology and computers.”

Julie’s husband, Jonathan Coe, coordinator of public services at Niagara University library, noted this about the vibe there.

“Things feel somber and uncertain right now. Normally during a spring break, it’s a relaxed and casual atmosphere. But knowing that the students will not be returning anytime soon has changed that.”

Concurrent with that uncertainty is a change in the learning environment Coe has grown accustomed to over several decades at Niagara.

“I will miss the students and the energy they bring to the library and campus as a whole,” he said. “A part of my job has always involved working online, but a larger portion involves working with students directly. I still think that working personally, one on one or with a group, is far more effective than being online.”

Ryan Nogle, in his capacity as technical support specialist for Erie County Community College's North Campus, is used to interacting with large groups of students during the assemblies and events he provides the audio-visual component for. All of that changed without much notice last week.

“I’m still working in a ‘business as usual’ scenario, in some ways,” Nogle said.

“The majority of our student body is gone. Most of our instructors have had to adapt to an online learning model. ... The general mood is cautious and curious. Everyone is waiting to see what will happen next.”

A major casualty of these enforced changes is the sense of community that is, in many cases, as important a part of the college experience as is the degree awarded at the end of the journey.

“It is what it is,” Jackson-Coe said. “The situation we find ourselves in forces us to concentrate on the immediate problem at hand – getting the students through without too much disruption and completing those learning goals we all have for our courses.

“I think students will greatly miss the community of college. The activities and the spring functions – canceled art shows, theater productions, dances and concerts – they’re all gone now. Probably graduation, too. I am hopeful that life will reset back to normal, but I’m skeptical.”

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