Days of Remote Possibility

March 20, 2020 @ 7:40 pm
By Melissa Begg, Dean and Professor

Over the past two weeks, the novel coronavirus has reshaped life as we know it at Columbia University. I hope this note finds you well and safe. I am writing to highlight even more changes that are impacting life here at the School of Social Work for students, staff, and faculty. These include:

  • The establishment of a working group, a common set of resources, and a series of supportive spaces, announced by Dean Karma Lowe on March 13th, for addressing the rise of anti-Asian bias and ethnic discrimination that has, sadly, accompanied the pandemic.
  • The suspension of practicum placement activities through Friday, May 8th, the last day of the spring semester, announced by Dean Kathryne Leak on March 16th.
  • The move of the vast majority of our faculty and staff to working remotely, with a small handful of stalwarts still reporting to campus for essential duties, announced for March 16th (and which will be amplified for our NY-based colleagues starting Sunday, based on the latest orders from Governor Cuomo).
  • The University’s mandatory ramp-down of research activities that require face-to-face interactions, except for those projects focused specifically on COVID-19 and those that hold promise of direct benefit to patients, effective on March 19th.
  • Finally, as per President Bollinger’s message of March 20th, viewable on the University coronavirus website, there are a number of updates regarding course instruction and the postponement of University commencement.

These changes were reflected on the front page of The New York Times yesterday, which featured an image of Columbia’s own Alma Mater and Low Library, with steps almost bare (a rarity on a beautiful day), except for three students wearing graduation gowns.

Strange times indeed. By this point, we have all gained experience in working, teaching, learning, and meeting remotely. We’ve used phones and the internet to replace face-to-face interactions. It’s a new world and it will take some getting used to (and may well lead to workstyle changes well into the future). There’s opportunity for innovation, but there are risks associated with these changes. The public health imperative to maintain “social distancing” to minimize viral spread threatens to increase social isolation. Students are understandably worried about their continued learning. Faculty are concerned about their effectiveness in teaching and in pursuing critical research on key issues such as opioid use, anti-racism efforts, economic mobility, and so many other essential areas. Staff are challenged to continue to provide a high level of service while working off-site. Our alums are challenged in their work as well. We all face new obstacles in our personal lives. How will we fare?

I think it’s at moments like these that we need to take a step back, re-think, and re-group. When times are tough, it helps enormously to think about what is going well, and what we must be grateful for. Speaking for myself, I am grateful for the following, all of which give me hope:

  • For front-line social workers and health care providers, first responders to the pandemic, who are risking personal safety for the good of their patients, clients, and communities
  • For the exceptional team of experts at Columbia who are tracking the pandemic and its modeling to give us the most current, well-substantiated advice on how we should manage the pandemic in our communities
  • For scientists around the globe who are actively studying COVID-19 and have launched literally scores of studies of new treatments, diagnostics, and potential vaccines; I especially admire the Chinese scientists who identified the disease, isolated the virus, and sequenced its DNA – all within just two weeks of the first patients spotted
  • For more than 100 faculty who took on the Herculean task of moving their courses to the online environment, with the extraordinary support of CSSW’s outstanding IT and Online Campus teams
  • For the hundreds of residential program students who joined their online program peers in learning in the online environment, and even provided suggestions to their instructors for greater engagement and effectiveness
  • For our online program students who have been providing support and outreach to their residential colleagues, to assist them with the transition to e-learning
  • For our practicum placement partners, who have demonstrated real courage in the face of curtailing their activities, and for those that have moved to remote work and supported our students in contributing to it
  • For our team of deans who have met daily and maintained constant contact for weeks in response to the pandemic and its consequences.

I am very grateful as well to one of our students, who advised me earlier this week to substitute the term “physical distancing” for “social distancing.” It’s not semantics; it’s an important distinction. Being more geographically remote from one another does not mean we have to be socially isolated—but it does mean we need to be more mindful of social isolation and how to overcome it, while protecting our friends, neighbors, and loved ones.

What is possible when we work remotely and maintain physical distance? What do we lose and what do we gain? It can be a difficult adjustment, especially for those of us with caregiving responsibilities—even extending to acting as teacher to children who are home with us, overseeing lesson plans and general activities when play-dates are off the table; or providing care to loved ones who are fragile or sick.

I think we all need to be more flexible and more forgiving—especially to ourselves. Let’s think of these as days of remote possibility. Let’s try to use this time to read more, think more, write more, and listen more. Let’s utilize technology to bridge the physical distance and increase social interaction where possible. Let’s try to remember our acquaintances who may be lonely and reach out to them by phone or video conferencing—or even by handwritten note. Even remotely, so much is possible. Let’s make it clear that in our community, it’s not about looking out for number one, but looking out for each other—particularly the most vulnerable among us. That’s the heart of social work.

To conclude, let me say, again, thank you. I thank you for your forbearance, your kindness, your creativity, and your strength. While challenges abound, there is hope.

This brings me to the banner at the top of this page, a photo that I took in mid-November of 2016, of a sight I happened across while out jogging. “Never give up”: let this be our mantra—and add to that, let’s be there for each other. We are one community. Together, we will overcome our challenges and emerge stronger than we thought was even remotely possible.

Remember to visit the University and CSSW COVID-19 websites for resources and updates: