COVID-19: A NEW AND WORTHY CHALLENGE THAT ST. BENEDICT’S WORKED ON AS A COMMUNITY
By Reuben Kadushin ’21
Rummaging through small piles of garbage, clothes and books, as my roommates and I were packing our clothes a few months early, one of them said to me, “If Benedict’s is closing down, this virus stuff must be serious; we don’t shut down for nothing!” Usually at 9 p.m. in the Leahy House you could find an odd assortment of kids either studying, cleaning and playing — or failing to do all at once — but all I could find that night were seniors from Brazil to New York and Texas solemnly saying goodbye to each other for what felt like would be the last time. The following morning, during what would be the last “in-house” Convocation of the year, in his stern, all-knowing — yet equally humorous — tone, Fr. Ed told the community, “Yes, we’re going to be learning from home, but I’m only shutting this down because I’m more worried for your grandparents’ health than yours.” He told us that this virus is something bigger than us — very serious and out of our control — and should not be taken as an annoyance, but rather another adversity for the community to overcome: Another thing to not quit.
St. Benedict’s faced the fact that the pandemic was here to stay during its transition to distance learning and then steadfastly worked around that idea as a community. By accepting that COVID-19 has no postpone button, the School decided that its ambitions of connectedness would not have one either. Undeterred by the sudden lack of shared experiences that are integral to its sense of community, St. Benedict’s made every effort to simulate what happened on the Property onto our screens.
For example, to make up for lost time, my calculus and physics office hours became a place for faculty and students to check up on each other. And from online morning group, student-led Virtual Convo, the “Tuesdays with Cass” weekly discussions among faculty, alumni and students about current events and social justice issues, senior and group leadership interviews and student blogging for The Benedict News, any opportunity for student leadership was taken. Even with regard to future plans, the decision to move Summer Phase to early July would not have been made had the students, using the online semester as a precedent, hypothetically disagreed with the faculty. Students also contributed to the planning for the Fall Term. The sense that students still had their voice as the faculty handled the pandemic’s unpleasant logistics gave many students —though not all — a needed sense of connectedness with their community while facing this adversity. By almost forcing itself to run normally and encouraging full student body participation, St. Benedict’s put itself in a situation where it could transition back to in-person learning and leadership almost seamlessly.
Though most students maintained a similar performance between their virtual and in-person semesters according to Math Department Chair Craig White ’04, the attempt at connectedness did fail at times. Students who benefit from the constant encouragement of their peers’ leadership were at risk of suffering academically and personally. A group leader I spoke to noticed a significant decline in morale and focus among members of his group, and because of the distance between their screens, could not bolster them in the ways in which he usually did. However, these issues are not unseen. And instead of accepting them as a downside to Benedict’s virtual experience, in student think tanks many are working with faculty to address these issues directly for next fall, so the community can provide the academic and emotional support its students can’t do without.
What other institutions can learn from St. Benedict’s about online learning is that it should be approached as a collaborative, persistent, possible process between students and adults. Neither the teacher nor the student understands how to simulate the in-person class experience, and the only way around or under that wall is through intensive dialogue. Both sides of the screen cannot be discouraged by an initial decline in academic quality if there is not just compromise, but creativity. The same idea goes for maintaining a sense of a community: It has to be emphasized that the entire School — faculty and students — is undergoing adversity as a collective, and every step that can be taken to alleviate whatever chaos our peers will be going through must be taken, or morale will dwindle. The pandemic must not be seen as a lost cause, but rather, a new, worthy challenge.
Reuben Kadushin ’21 wrote for The Benedict News, was a varsity wrestler, Academic Dean of Leahy House and member of the National Honor Society during the 2019-2020 academic year. He will do a postgraduate year at St. Benedict’s in order to write a novella and serve as Transfer Leader. You can read this story and more in the current Summer Issue of St. Benedict’s Magazine.