Early Distance Learning Impacts Staff

Elizabeth Clark, Reporter

Without a doubt, the coronavirus has been impacting campus policies since last spring.  Despite classes proceeding to return to a somewhat normal status this semester, at least one professor has transitioned to distance learning earlier than outlined.

Dr. James Schaffer is a featured professor in the English Department at NWU. One of his classes, junior-level News Reporting, was transitioned to exclusively remote learning via Zoom meetings at his own accord in early November.

According to Schaffer, this move was completely in response to the mayor of Lincoln designating the city as high risk for COVID-19 infection. He said that he’s personally in high-risk groups that he preferred not to disclose, but News Reporting is the only class that he has switched completely to Zoom before NWU’s official remote learning period.

This move has not come without its challenges. The main one Schaffer has encountered involves whether students are giving their full attention to his lesson plans or are responding appropriately. “It’s hard to tell if they’re engaged or not,” he said. “Most of them don’t have a camera on.” Schaffer also has had students report occasionally having connection troubles with their devices, mostly in accessing Zoom.

Schaffer has his own opinions on how NWU may handle the fluctuating risk status of the city. While it was extremely unlikely that the risk level would lower before the combined Thanksgiving and Winter Break (and, indeed, this scenario did not happen), he was prepared to have a contingency plan. “In that case, I may resume in-person classes,” he said. Schaffer also considered that an exact repeat of last spring might happen, but he is not very worried about the hypothetical situation. “I think this time, our staff will be likely to be better prepared,” he stated.  Now that adjustments are already familiar to campus, they may be easier to handle.

Dr. Schaffer is not the only professor at NWU to have taken the remote-only step prematurely. Due to her husband’s clinical status, Mary Hickman (a prominent professor in the English Department) canceled all of her in-person classes before the semester started and has been teaching exclusively through Zoom since the school year began. “Her husband has unrelated health issues, so I don’t believe that she ever held an in-person class this semester,” Schaffer said on the matter. David Whitt (of the Communications Department) and Yuko Yamada (Japanese professor) also moved to Zoom-only in at least one class long before the in-person semester ended, while Rick Cypert (also of the English Department) started with a blend of in-person and remote classes and kept them that way. Most professors, however, have stayed with in-person classes until Thanksgiving.

Of course, since everybody went remote for finals this semester, all staff members are on the same page now. It was a matter of principle and of personal challenges which ones would have to sustain their own classes first.