A year ago today: the decision that shaped Morgan State’s new reality

Jordan D. Brown, Features Editor

As the Morgan State community reflects on one year into the coronavirus pandemic, one date, in particular, comes to mind—March 17, 2020. It was the day Morgan State President David Wilson announced the university would continue remote instruction for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester. That very decision has altered the lives of many people in the Morgan community including students, professors, and administrators.

Through the eyes of now Morgan alumn Deja Jones, Kevin Banks, the vice president of student affairs, and Kim Sydnor, the dean of the School of Community Health and Policy, March 17 goes down in history as a day that shaped where Morgan stands today and how the university is adjusting one year later.

Graduating senior lost final semester of college

Like many students, when Jones heard the university canceled classes for the remainder of midterms week and two weeks following Spring Break, she was excited. The class of 2020 graduate booked a flight back home to Pittsburgh and planned to spend a few weeks with her family without realizing she just finished her last week of in-person classes.

It wasn’t until the 2019-2020 Miss Senior received President Wilson’s email stating the remainder of the spring semester would be remote that Jones realized how serious things had become. As a graduating senior, she not only lost her last semester of college, but she lost her chance to close her final chapter at Morgan.

“I transitioned a lot throughout high school,” Jones said. “I went to five different high schools, four different middle schools, three different elementary schools, and I never had stability. So, at Morgan State, that was the first time I began and ended a chapter somewhere. So, I guess getting that email was kind of just darkness over me because I was like ‘Wow I worked so hard to walk across that stage.’”

In a matter of days, Jones went from celebrating the possibility of an extended spring break to mourning the loss of her senior year and reevaluating the next steps of her life. Robbed of lifelong memories and the beginning of her adulthood, Jones described the past year as one of the hardest challenges she’s ever faced.

“It’s by far the hardest thing I think I’ve ever been through in my life. To change the entire trajectory of what I was going to do and where I thought I was going to be within the year, and where I am now it’s just a weird feeling,” Jones said.

One of the most difficult obstacles Jones dealt with was being isolated from herself and questioning where she would like to be in life. As someone who mapped out everything she wanted to happen, it was a hard transition adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic that changed all of her plans.

“There’s always going to be a circumstance that changes,” she said. “Now I went from planning every single second of my life to kind of just allowing things to be free. I’m taking things week by week at this point.”

Jones, a recent college graduate, will soon enter her new profession as a capture technician for Facebook Reality Lab. The decision to end in-person classes last spring may have ended her college experience, but it opened the door to new self-reflection and the beginning of a new chapter in her life.

Dean of the School of Community Health and Policy expected the unexpected

Although the COVID-19 pandemic and closures of schools across the nation caught millions of people by surprise, it was not much of a shock to health professionals. Sydnor anticipated the end of in-person instruction before it was officially announced.

On her last day in the office, she recalled telling her colleagues to pack as many items as they could, unsure how long the closure would last, but her initial gut feeling told her they would not be returning.

“Surreal is the only word I can come up with even though I knew it was coming,” Sydnor said.

Sydnor remembered being the last one to leave the building as walked through the halls for the final time before shifting to full remote instruction. Saying goodbye was a tough door to close, but another battle she faced was adjusting to teleworking.

“The telework environment is not my favorite space,” Sydnor said. “I think for me I didn’t realize how much I rely on interpersonal communication to sort of help operate the school and the ability to quickly kind of engage and touch people and move through.”

Over the past year in the pandemic, Sydnor endured a significant amount of change including altering class instruction for Morgan State’s School of Community Health and Policy, teleworking from home, and living in society as a whole. As Wilson plans to fully reopen the campus for the summer, Sydnor expects the transition will be mildly different but is confident the university will be prepared.

“The way we educate is going to look different,” Sydnor said. “We’re going to need to hear from students in line basically which is why President Wilson’s got this resocialization committee that he is putting together now to ask some of these questions and to make sure we’re prepared.”

Administration faced with difficult decision to close

Banks said the days following up to Wilson’s decision to end in-person instruction was a time of uncertainty and tough decision making.

Before the decision, Banks was on a retreat with Wilson, Provost Lesia Crumpton-Young, and several members of administration planning the early stages of the initiative to close campus in case of COVID-19.

The group of administrators planned to pause classes for a few weeks as an opportunity to get the university together in case they would have to move to remote learning. But as neighboring universities began to shut down and the spread of COVID-19 intensified, they were left with no choice.

“We thought it was going to be several weeks and then we could get back to bringing everyone back,” Banks said. “We never thought we would have to look at staying away for over a year now pretty much.”

While the decision was ultimately up to Wilson and Crumpton-Young, Banks said that everyone was involved in the call to move to remote learning.

The decision has lasted far longer than expected, but there has been a lot of shifts and unusualities in the past year that are now the new normal. One change that hit Banks the hardest was not being able to physically interact with the student body.

“For me personally, I’m the vice president of student affairs, I can’t telework,” Banks said. “I’m [usually] on campus, I’m stopping by the student center, I’m going to the dining hall, and I’m going to events in the evening. That’s part of my DNA so for me personally, it’s been tough.”

Although being away from students has been difficult for Banks, the biggest challenge for him was living in the ongoing sense of uncertainty not knowing what’s to come next and being unable to answer questions from his students.

“It was just a lot of things we didn’t know, a lot of uncertainties and that makes it a lot more stressful when you can’t answer questions,” Banks said. “I felt helpless in some respect, but I was feeling hopeful as well. There was a lot of anxiety because I’m used to ‘I can figure this out.’ I’m always in the place where I can figure something out, but this was just uncharted territory.”