New York, NY—Hunter College faced the daunting task back in March after receiving a phone call from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office that it had to transition to all remote learning to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The abrupt transition would place a strain on faculty, who now were expected to teach via Zoom meetings, and students, who may not have access to the necessary technology to participate.

Hunter College’s President, Jennifer Raab, participated in an online discussion with Community Board 8 yesterday to discuss the college’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said that the transition has not been without its challenges, but that the school is proud of what it has been able to accomplish

“So, March 11, really with no warning we get a phone call where the governor announces that all classes within one week will be online. We had a challenge of taking three thousand individual classes and moving them onto to remote,” said Raab.

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“A few days after that challenge would be implemented, the entire state went on pause. So, we first really looked and said how can we take this commuting school, this school of 24,000 students and make them the best remote learners they could be.”

The immediate impact of the transition to all remote laid bare the digital divide. For example, Hunter had conducted surveys of its students and found that 25 percent said they didn’t have their own computer. The other 75 percent had a computer, but there were shortcomings associated with its use. For example, maybe their computer’s camera or Wi-Fi weren’t reliable, or maybe they had to share their computer with a younger sibling who also requires a computer for school work.

“So, what became a challenge was soon approaching a crisis,” said Raab. 

She noted that thanks to the school’s efforts, Hunter College was able to raise $300,000 in both cash and in-kind donations to immediately get new laptops out to its students.

Almost everyone who is a student at Hunter College has at least one job, some have two or three jobs. According to Raab, their parents worked in industries that were deeply affected by the economic shutdown, so there was serious economic pressure on the students.

“We began to raise money and gave out about $1 million in different level grants to students just to help them pay rent, stay above board and move forward,” Raab said.

Then the school moved all student advising online, which Raab said that the students are eagerly participating in by tending to show up on time and show up more often. The school expanded that to group counseling and mental health sessions.

“While nothing really replaces one-to-one advising, we feel like this is going to be a way to expand this student support that we’re going to be able to give when we get past this real challenge,” said Raab.

Raab then said that the second piece of the equation when the school went remote was to support the faculty. Most faculty members are used to the chalk and talk method—they’re in front of a room, they’re walking around, and they have a big personality to be a great lecturer. But then the transition happened and all of a sudden, they’re talking to a Zoom screen.

“Now these heroic individuals overnight are told you need to deliver your content online. So, we have really tried to meet them and support them, and we’ve really invested to support their being the best remote teachers they can be,” said Raab.

Then the school started to think about what could be taught and should be taught in person when the safest thing to do was to stay remote. Raab pointed to the opening of the historic Hunter College Campus Schools, which was the center of controversy at the beginning of the school year because the union representing the staff, the Professional Staff Congress, demanded that there be an independent inspection of the building at East 94th Street and Park Avenue before classes resumed.

Hunter’s administration was criticized at the time for not being transparent about how it was going to provide proper ventilation to prevent the spread of the coronavirus

During the question and answer part of the online forum, a parent, Lindsay Cormack, whose daughter attends Hunter’s elementary school, said that she decided to keep her child home for the school year because she felt there wasn’t transparency on some decision-making surrounding the reopening of the school.

“What do you think will be different this coming spring, or does it seem like it will stay the same in terms of the decision-making that happened in the fall?” asked Cormack.

Raab said it will continue to seek the input of parents.

“Are things perfect, no, but we like to continue to learn and hear from parents about how we can improve, but our goal is to try to stay open as we can and to continue to educate our students and hope that you and your family will return and consider returning.”

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