COVID-19 and equity: A letter to faculty from faculty

On April 22, the following letter was sent to all VCU faculty on behalf of those who have signed below. A second letter, "Faculty and Administrator Considerations for Graduate Students", was also sent to faculty on May 4.

Dear Colleagues:

We know our faculty care deeply about their students and want the best outcomes for them in this very difficult semester. That concern is evidenced by the time and attention we have given to shifting our in-person courses to online, seemingly overnight. However, not all of us have the same experiences and it’s possible that we may be overlooking some of the very real challenges our students face. Many have limited access to the internet as well as the additional stress of families who could be ill, laid off, or working in grueling circumstances. This raises important questions that we want to address together, as VCU’s faculty: How do we best help students and faculty succeed in these new times?

For many students, the rigors of course work are being overshadowed by the rigors of surviving this crisis. Reports from students across the University indicate that many are struggling with :

  • access to reliable technology,
  • housing and food insecurity,
  • newly added work responsibilities and support for their unemployed families,
  • responsibility for siblings, children, or elderly family members,
  • self-isolation and/or quarantine,
  • loss of family to COVID-19, and
  • personal illness and/or depression and anxiety.

Because we have had to reinvent our courses so quickly, we may inadvertently be adding to the hardships our students face. Students have reported the most difficulty with the following areas: time-bound requirements, changed assignment expectations, and fear of voicing personal concerns or private issues to faculty.

In order to support both our students and each other, we offer some specific suggestions for us all to consider as we rapidly adapt to remote learning.

Time-bound Requirements for Students

Problem:
Timed tests and assignments may be nearly impossible for students who have spotty internet service, limited access to computers, or newly inflexible schedules.

Solutions:

  • Expand the window of any assignment/test to span a series of days rather than hours.
  • Set a due date rather than a specific window that prescribes hours when an assignment can be completed.
  • Allow unpenalized absences from online sessions and provide transcripts or recordings students can access later.
  • Create email or phone Q&A sessions for students who cannot attend synchronous meetings.
  • If you must time an exam, create an avenue for students to send you questions or let you know of any items that are potentially problematic.

Changed Assignment Expectations for Students

Problem:
Students may have multiple faculty converting assignments. For instance, courses that were test-based may now be asking for papers. Or, lab courses may now require additional reading or reports. Students are finding themselves overwhelmed with new and unanticipated writing assignments. Without physical access to the library, many students don’t know how to get help with research.

Deadlines keep changing and students are having a hard time tracking due dates and new meetings.

Solutions:

  • When converting to written assignments, keep length requirements to a minimum.
  • Create short, focused writing assignments rather than full-length papers.
  • Remind students our librarians are online and waiting to help guide research.
  • Change deadlines only when absolutely necessary.
  • Create clear notices and multiple reminders for ALL assignments.

Student Fear of Voicing Personal Concerns or Private Issues to Faculty

Problem:
Often the very students who need the most help do not contact professors as many are afraid to self-identify and feel that their concerns are embarrassing.

Solutions:

  • Create a Google form or other venue where students can easily ask for help.
  • Allow students to use the chat function in Zoom or other online platforms to contact you privately.
  • When possible, reach out to students who have missed classes.
  • Have provisions in place for students facing unanticipated pressures that may keep them from fully participating. This may include alternative assignments or leniency with aspects of the course.
  • Use the incomplete option for students who have extenuating circumstances.

We hope these are useful suggestions. The following real student stories are the kind of experiences that motivated our thinking. We wish you all the best.

Student Stories

  • I am a mother of two. One is two years old. The other is three. Before COVID, I had a grandparent and daycare to take care of my children while I was pursuing my degree. Now, I do not.
  • I am in my aunt’s house because my mother is dead and my father is sick. I don’t really know my aunt. She wants me to take care of her four kids while she works at the Wegmans. I have to drive her there every day and pick her up. Sometimes, that happens when I am supposed to be in class. My professor got mad last time I missed class. So, this time, I turned on the computer and pretended to be there. I have no idea what is going on for most of my school stuff because of this.
  • My dad is in the hospital with COVID-19. My mom has been sick, too. We’re waiting on her test results. My little brother has symptoms but he hasn’t been tested yet. I’m driving everyone back and forth to appointments and doing most of the shopping and cooking for my family. I know I’m falling behind in my assignments. I’m hoping I can get extensions on some of my assignments.
  • I can’t always attend synchronous meetings because of my Wifi situation. I live in the country and our Wifi is awful. It’s really hard to take timed tests. If the car situation and the timing work out right, I can drive to a family member’s house and use their Wifi. I’m at my aunt’s house now. I was at a different family member’s house yesterday.
  • ...even thinking of writing a paper makes me anxious and upset. You’d think it was possible to run out of tears but that has been proven false…. I just don’t know how I can pass if I can’t even focus enough to sit down and listen to the recorded lectures. I've been given all of the time in the world to be doing my work but it feels like the last thing I can physically do… (written while quarantined in a basement room because of exposure).
  • Over the last few days, my family has been and continues to go through extremely trying internal times that may include my parents breakup/divorce and a lot of questions over the continuing relationship with my father….I will give the greatest effort to keep up on my work and reading and to attend and be a constructive part of classes. However, if my family life/its needs and schoolwork collide, the former will win out...especially if the worst case scenario of divorce/Dad's self-removal from our family happens.
  • I’m feeling stressed, anxious, and overwhelmed. I’m not adjusting to online classes very well and my dad got laid off yesterday because of how covid-19 has affected the company he worked for.
  • [I am feeling] Scared, hopeless, and lonely… I haven’t seen my family in two months as I am an essential worker who deals with many people every day, and I cannot go home to visit since my entire family falls into the “at risk” category (serious heart problems and older age).

If students have shared stories with you that you would like to include in this archive of student experiences, we are collecting stories via this online form.

Signed:

Michael Abelson
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Nora Alder
Associate Professor
School of Education

Kyungeh An
Associate Professor
Adult Health and Nursing Systems

Andrew T. Arroyo
Associate Professor
School of Education

Terry Austin
Interim Chair
Music

Blythe Alison Bowman Balestrieri
Associate Professor
Wilder School

Jonathan D. Becker
Associate Professor
School of Education

Cara Benedetto
Assistant Professor
Painting and Printmaking

Jason Bennett
Assistant Professor
Communication Arts

Nathan Bickett
Undergraduate Advising and Student Services Coordinator
Political Science

Jill E. Blondin
Executive Director
Global Education

Mary Boyes
Associate Professor
Honors College

Kimberly N. Brown
Associate Professor
Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies

Sarah Jane Brubaker
Professor
Wilder School

Greg Buck
Professor
Microbiology and Immunology, Computer Science

Rudy Burgess
Adjunct Instructor
School of Business

Al Byers
Visiting Scholar and Assistant Professor
School of Education

Ryan Cales
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Elizabeth Canfield
Associate Professor
Associate Chair
Gender, Sexuality & Women's Studies

Jayme Canty
Visiting Scholar, iCubed
Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies

Lane Carasik
Assistant Professor
Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering

Ellen Carpenter
Assistant Professor
Psychology

Everett E. Carpenter
Professor
Chemistry

Erin Carrillo
Instructor
VCU Libraries

Joseph W. Cates
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Frank Cha
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Kathleen Chapman
Associate Professor
Director of Graduate Studies
Art History

Lindsay A. Chudzik
Associate Professor
Focused Inquiry

Donna E. Coghill
Assistant Professor
VCU Libraries

Gretchen Comba
Associate Professor
English

Kimberly S. Compton
Instructor
School of Social Work

Deirdre M. Condit
Associate Professor
Political Science

Abigail Holland Conley
Associate Professor
Counseling and Special Education

Carrie G. Connolly
Associate Dean
Honors College

Daniel Conway
Associate Professor
Biomedical Engineering

Amy Corning
Assistant Professor
School of Education

bee coston
Assistant Professor
Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies

Liz Coston
Assistant Professor
Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies

Lily Cox-Richard
Assistant Professor
Art Foundation

Elizabeth "Liz" Cramer
Professor
School of Social Work

Meriah L. Crawford
Associate Professor
Focused Inquiry

Judith W. Crenshaw
Instructor
Robertson School

Christine Cynn
Associate Professor
Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies

Katherine Dabney
Associate Professor
School of Education

Jody L. Davis
Associate Professor
Psychology

John Dixon
Adjunct Faculty
Art Foundation

Donna Dockery
Associate Professor
Counseling and Special Education

Carolyn Eastman
Associate Professor
Department of History

Nicole Anderson Ellis
Associate Professor
Focused Inquiry

Jennifer Elsner
Adjunct Professor
Art Foundation

Adam Ewing
Assistant Professor
African American Studies

Sarah Faris
Associate Professor
Communication Arts

Afroditi V. Filippas
Professor
College of Engineering

Richard Fine
Professor
English

Laura Ellwein Fix
Associate Professor
Mathematics

Thaddeus Fortney
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Shelli Fowler
Associate Professor
English

Daryl V. Fraser
Associate Professor
School of Social Work

John D. Freyer
Associate Professor
Cross Disciplinary Media

Sasha Waters Freyer
Professor
Art Foundation/Photo & Film

John Froitzheim
Assistant Professor
Political Science

Jamie Fueglein
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Victor Gidarisingh
Academic Advisor
Kinesiology & Health Science

Hope Ginsburg
Associate Professor
Art Foundation

Jesse Goldstein
Assistant Professor
Sociology

David Golumbia
Associate Professor
English and MATX

Ngoc-My Guidarelli
Catalog Librarian
VCU Libraries

Julianne Guillard
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Sonali Gulati
Professor
Photography and Film

Mary Lou Hall
Associate Professor
Focused Inquiry

Ann Marie Gardinier Halstead
Assistant Professor
Honors College

Martha Harper
Academic Advisor
Interdisciplinary Studies

Les Harrison
Associate Professor
English

Clinton Helmes
Adjunct Faculty
Art Foundation

Peter Henry
Associate Professor
University College

Corin Hewitt
Associate Professor
Sculpture + Extended Media

Rachel Hill
Assistant Professor
Biology

Zach Hilpert
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Megan Hodge
Assistant Professor
VCU Libraries

Adria Hoffman
Professor
School of Education

Christian B. Horlick
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Kathy Ingram
Associate Professor and Chair
Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies

Christine Isaacs
Professor
Ob/Gyn

Brianne L. Jackson
Senior Instructional Designer
Online@VCU

Dawn Johnson
Instructor
Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies

Jennifer Johnson
Associate professor
Sociology

Melissa Johnson
Associate Professor
Focused Inquiry

Joan Kalyan
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Meredith Katz
Assistant Professor
Sociology

M.A. Keller
Technology Coordinator
English

Oscar Keyes
Multi-media Teaching & Learning Librarian
VCU Libraries

Andrea Kohashi
Teaching & Learning Librarian
VCU Libraries

Adin Lears
Assistant Professor
English

Julinda D. Lewis
Adjunct Faculty
Dance and Choreography

Nicole Lillian
Assistant Professor
Graphic Design

Katie Logan
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Fantasy T. Lozada
Assistant Professor
Psychology

Francesca Lyn
Assistant Professor
Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies

Parthasarathy Madurantakam
Associate Professor
School of Dentistry

Mark Malkin
Professor
Neurology

Troy A. Martin
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Frankie Mastrangelo
Instructor
Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies

Bernard K. Means
Assistant Professor
Anthropology

Marcus Messner
Professor
Robertson School

Jonathan Moore
Assistant Professor
Biology

madison moore
Assistant Professor
Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies

Matilde Moros
Assistant Professor
Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies

Holly Morrison
Associate Professor
Painting + Printmaking

Sherif Moussa
Assistant Professor
Chemistry

Christine Mowery
Assistant Professor
Sociology

Misti R. Mueller
Assistant Professor
School of Education

Jeffrey W. Murray
Associate Professor
Focused Inquiry

Thomas J. Nelson
Associate Professor
Focused Inquiry

Anthony Nguyen
Designer in Residence
Graphic Design

Heather Nunnally
Assistant Professor
Mathematics

Terry Oggel
Professor
English

Barry O'Keefe
Adjunct Faculty
Art Foundation & Communication Arts

Sharon Ott
Associate Professor
Theatre

Elizabeth Payne
Admissions Counselor
Honors College

Carolyn Porter Phinizy
Assistant Professor
Art History

Ben Plache
Advisor
Honors College

Joseph H. Porter
Professor
Psychology

Faye Prichard
Assistant Professor
Honors College

Debbie Quick
Assistant Professor
Art Foundation

Michael Rackett
Assistant Professor
VCU ASPiRE

Karen Rader
Professor
History

Sarah Raskin
Assistant Professor
Wilder School

Kristin Reed
Associate Professor
Focused Inquiry

Mary Beth Reed
Associate Professor
Photo and Film

Gabriel A. Reich
Associate Professor
School of Education

Joann T. Richardson
Associate Professor
Kinesiology & Health Sciences

Isabelle Kinnard Richman
Assistant Professor
School of World Studies

Fidelma B. Rigby
Associate Professor
OB/GYN

Maria C. Rivera
Associate Professor
Biology

Stephanie Rizzi
Associate Professor
Focused Inquiry

Valerie Robnolt
Associate Professor
School of Education

Edgar B. Rodas
Associate Professor
Department of Surgery

Neno Russell
Associate Professor
Theatre

Kate Sicchio
Assistant Professor
Dance and Media Technologies

Melissa Siebert
Academic Advisor
Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies
African American Studies and Philosophy

Meredith R. Sisson
Assistant Director
National Scholarship Office

R. Dale Smith
Service Assistant Professor
English

Mychal Smith
Assistant Professor
Chemistry

Tricia Hardt Smith
Instructor
Biology

Jeff South
Associate Professor
Robertson School

Michael A. Southam-Gerow
Professor
Psychology

Nancy Murphy Spicer
Adjunct Faculty
Art Foundation

Daniel Stephenson
Assistant Professor
Economics

Kevin S. Sutherland
Professor
Counseling and Special Education

David Toney
Assistant Professor
Theatre

Virginia Wray Totaro
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Heide Trepanier
Adjunct Instructor
Art Foundation

Pamela Taylor Turner
Associate Professor
Kinetic Imaging

Christy Tyndall
Assistant Professor
Honors College

Shawn Utsey
Professor
African American Studies

VCU Chapter of the AAUP

Roberto Ventura
Associate Professor
Interior Design

Lisa Webb
Assistant Vice President, Strategic Initiatives and Health Sciences Education
Office of the Vice President for Health Sciences

Erin White
Head, Digital Engagement
VCU Libraries

Zachary Whitten
Instructor
Computer Science

Emily C. Williams
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Larry Williams
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Jeff Wing
Director
National Scholarship Office

Mimi Winick
Instructor
English

Tobias Wofford
Assistant Professor
Art History

Courtnie N. Wolfgang
Assistant Professor
Graduate Program Director
Art Education

Mark D. Wood
Associate Professor
School of World Studies

Natosha Yingling
Instructor
Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies

Paul Yoon
Assistant Professor
Focused Inquiry

Kim Zicafoose
Instructor
Focused Inquiry