On March 12, 2020, Baylor students attended classes as usual with the continuous buzz of suspicion and rumors circulating within the student body and faculty.
At the same time, the CDC had reported 1,678 total cases of COVID-19 in the United States, with the death tally totaling 41. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee had officially declared a State of Emergency, which would provide the state with additional federal funding to combat the virus. Everyone was aware of the impending illness, and the question became more about "when" rather than "if" the administration would begin virtual classes. Some thought maybe the school would add on an extra week to the upcoming spring break. Perhaps a long weekend? Maybe nothing at all? No one had thought the forthcoming months of quarantine would ever occur, especially not as quickly as they did.
With the faculty meeting that morning answering questions of how Baylor would handle the situation, many were confident that there would be time: time to spend with the peers whom we cherish seeing every day, time to be with the graduating seniors before they went off to college, time to take exams and celebrate the last day of academics for the year. However, by the end of March 12, students were stripped of their plans, and their hopes began to fade and a timeline began to take shape.
The meeting in the chapel in which it was announced that Baylor would shift online until it was safe to return to campus occurred. Then came the announcement that athletic competitions and practices were canceled until further notice. Next, the administration sent out an email announcing that boarding students had 24 hours to pack as if they were not coming back to the dorms.
When Melissa Pojasek, a freshman English teacher and Riverfront Hall dorm parent, was asked about her memories of that day, she recalled the initial joy from students due to the news. “I remember being in the faculty meeting immediately after school when the news was shared with us. During the meeting, we heard a huge cheer— students had gotten the email, and we heard their reaction through the walls of the Old Chapel!”
However, many were oblivious to the severity of the situation until the next day. “The next morning sticks out in my memory more," added Pojasek, "just because lots of my students seemed nervous and scared, and it was hard not to show that myself. I remember talking with students about why we were canceling school and the need for community action to keep us all safe."
Friday, March 13t, 2020 was the day everything became a bit more real for the members of the Baylor community, with each day afterward becoming more surreal than the previous. Since that notorious day, Baylor has been a whirlwind of shifting plans, rules, and expectations. At that time, no one had ever heard of Zoom, and no one had ever thought of wearing masks out in public with the possibility of being fined or arrested as a result of failure to follow the new mandates. Students and faculty alike have encountered new obstacles and finding new ways to conquer them.
“It has been a huge challenge to teach during the pandemic," said Pojasek. "I have tried to ensure that my Zoom students get as much out of class as my in-person students, but learning how to best use technology to do so has been tough. I have learned more about Zoom, breakout rooms, Zoom settings, and types of microphones than I ever thought I would know. It is also tough to keep students engaged online— online learning requires so much more self-motivation!”
As a community, we must recognize that teachers and faculty are human. These challenges are no easy feat to overcome, especially for those who have difficulty accepting change and adapting in their lives. “I still struggle with those challenges," admits Pojasek. "I have not found the best way to approach hybrid teaching, but I continue to try and try as best I can! That’s all I can do, and it’s also a reminder that trying is all I can ask of my students, too.”
On a brighter note, the virus has changed Baylor’s community as a whole. Students have had to learn to adapt to social distancing requirements and learn how to get to know one another with the extra barrier the mask creates. Even though it has been more difficult for everyone to get to know one another, everyone has made the leap in broadening their social circles and made an effort to recognize and best these difficulties that everyone has faced. This issue has led to communities banding together to create smaller communities within the larger Baylor community. Pojasek notes that “dorm life feels more tight-knit. There is a sense that boarders (at least in Riverfront!) know that it’s up to them as a community to keep school and the dorms open. It’s been great to see the Riverfront girls band together and encourage each other to do what will keep us all safe.”
Currently, the U.S. has had more than 29 million cases and over 524,000 deaths. It is safe to say that no one would have expected that what we now know to be normal would have ever been a possibility at Baylor. As more and more individuals are vaccinated, we will begin to see a shift in the lives of each student and faculty member at Baylor. With Zoom, mask-wearing, and social distancing—all things which seemed so surreal one year ago—becoming a part of our everyday lives, it is encouraging to know that life will only get better as we reach this one-year mark.