It’s a Wednesday in early March 2020 at 2:45 p.m. I take off my combination headset/microphone and, after almost two hours, end the class. No one is here with me in this brand-new classroom.
I am alone, not using the camera and speaking into a Microsoft Team interface as 39 students listen with their cameras and microphones turned off. Thus ends the first week of classes at the oldest university in Europe, the University of Bologna. According to the academic calendar, this is actually the second week. However, we missed the actual first week, as the university -- like many in northern Italy -- was completely closed to everyone except necessary administrative staff. The coronavirus, or COVID-19, had arrived.
Online teaching is not novel and has existed for some time now. As a means to deliver classes, online teaching can accommodate various distances and different student schedules. What made my current online teaching delivery a bit different was, first, that these students are not online ones but rather members of the active, on-campus student body sitting in their own apartments, separated from one another. And second, that the university systems in the Italian regions of Lombardia, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto changed students’ brick-and-mortar experience to this online experience in less than two weeks -- an impressive feat by any measure.
I don a surgical mask and rub my hand in increasingly valuable hand sanitizer before I leave the classroom. I cross the courtyard at 45 Strada Maggiore, Palazzo Hercolani, the official home of the university’s department of social and political sciences. Unlike the previous semester, my first here, it is not buzzing with students and faculty members alike, clumped in discussions of politics, soccer, lectures and sex, while cigarette smoke fills the air. (Italy reminds me of Mad Men sometimes.)
I return to my office. The hallway is largely empty, as it often is, since most faculty members commute from other cities close by: Milano, Verona, Florence. But it is emptier than usual. Commuting is not quite popularly verboten, but traveling from one region to another is increasingly frowned upon -- not for the health of the commuter but for one’s own.
For the most part, being a political scientist is remarkably unchanged; much of what we do these days simply requires sufficient internet access. I prepare my classes, chase reviewers, wade through admin and steal away a few minutes of research. But colleges and universities have historically thrived on the interaction between faculty members, faculty and students, and students themselves. Now, no. All interactions -- and not just at the university -- are strictly limited to “have-to” activities like grocery shopping and going to the hospital. Public events are all canceled, including concerts and, almost unbelievably in Italy, soccer matches. Academic conferences in Italy -- such as the Summer Institute for Computational Social Science in Milan in June/July, which I co-organize -- and throughout Europe are starting to consider postponing, rescheduling or canceling altogether.
I had prepared three new courses for my first year at my new university. I was excited to do so, as they were classes I have wanted to teach for some time. But the coronavirus has introduced a wide array of challenges. After having spent some months carefully creating those courses (some of which I was able to fashion from bits and pieces of previous courses I’d taught), I have had to substantially change the way I had designed them -- less interactive, more teacher-led -- to accommodate online delivery. Not knowing how long we will be doing that is forcing me to make modifications week by week rather than institute a sweeping change to all of the lectures and activities. Time-consuming, a bit aggravating. I almost welcome the news that the universities will be closed for a block of time rather than the piecemeal approach of wait-and-see. That would make it easier to prepare.
While such professional challenges continue, it is clear that these may be the smallest part of the challenge. Primary, middle and secondary schools are closed and have been for nearly three weeks now and are scheduled to be closed for longer. That has created the biggest adjustment to my job. I have two daughters of elementary-school age that have been at home for all that time -- without seeing friends, unable to gather with others, limited to riding their bikes in the park under strict supervision for the largest and most abrupt school stoppage in the provision of education in Italy since World War II. To manage that, my wife -- fortunately also an academic -- and I have had to build into our schedule full-time childcare. (Babysitters are out of the question, and the children’s only grandmother lives squarely in the middle of the red zone and is quarantined.) The teachers have started Whatsapping daily assignments, which is both great (something to do!) and difficult (now I have to be fully engaged). My wife’s and my flexible work schedules help, but no matter who you are, having to negotiate every minute outside the classroom adds some tension to an already tense situation right beyond your door.
While I try to maintain as much normalcy as I can, we are effectively homeschooling our kids. We are also keeping them away from other people, watching our own interactions with others and limiting forced ones as much as possible, and trying to balance the anxiety of knowing “it’s out there” with trying to just get through the day meeting the demands of being a professor and parent. As a particularly clear example of this, one of our daughters has a birthday in two weeks. While it is decidedly easier not to plan a birthday party, you are welcome to tell that to a soon-to-be 7-year-old.
We are particularly fortunate, as several years ago, we bought an old church on a hill in the Apennine Mountains and converted it into a small house. It sits above a small village and gives us some personal space, a coveted possession in a crowded country in normal times and specifically useful for the predicament in which we currently find ourselves. We have retreated to this house twice already and have stayed longer each time. It has the major benefit of not being close to anyone and offers an opportunity for the children to play outside and just run around uninhibited. We agreed that I would go to town once, alone, with gloves, for groceries the whole time we are here. The fundamental drawback is that we have limited internet, so, we are forced back to our apartment in crowded, urban Bologna for at least half the week.
Although the data on the coronavirus change daily, thus far, Bologna has done quite well -- which is remarkable for such a large city so close to the epicenter of the viral outbreak. And given the near impossibility of asking Italians to stay at home and not meet people, it is even more impressive. But, we’ll see. The coming week will be a bellwether for the direction this virus will take in Italy and potentially the European continent. We hope to see a flattening of the curve, a decrease in active cases and a concomitant rise in recovering cases.
For now, don’t feel sorry for me. I feel fortunate compared to a co-author of mine who lives in Hong Kong. He (and his university) had just recovered from months of student unrest before the coronavirus outbreak, and he has now been effectively self-quarantined to avoid catching this virus. He’s been teaching classes online for several months now and has shared some tips that have saved me the time and effort of learning them through my own trial and error, e.g.: inserting more content in presentation slides, focusing on a reduced speaking speed, maintaining a clear narrative.
At the same time, the coronavirus has highlighted two startling observations and should be a starting-off point for future conversations. The first is that smart working should be more widely implemented, and not just in Italy. The unplanned and spontaneous need to depopulate crowded urban areas has shown little sign of having real damaging effects and is boosted by a higher individual payoff. It is clearly possible for us to exploit technology to the advantage of giving some jobs greater flexibility, autonomy and unstructured time. Shorter workweeks, more flexible work schedules and reduced commuting have all been shown to have positive impacts on individual workers. Anecdotally, I have not heard a single person say they miss going to the office.
One might argue that this might slow down the economy, which brings me to my second observation: what seems to me to be the dramatic and precipitous decline in pollution in response to “slowing down” just a little bit in a few places in both China and Italy. In the case of Italy, the movement of people and nonessential activities have been increasingly restricted. While not sustainable at such levels, I must point out that Milan -- consistently ranked as one of the most polluted cities in Europe by the European Environmental Agency -- had near Alpine weather for two or three days this past week, which Italian meteorologists remarked hadn’t been seen in decades. Similarly, Bologna, also in the heavily polluted plains between the Alps and the Apennines, registered some of its lowest pollution levels over the past two weeks. Those drops in pollution appear to be related to some extent by fewer people moving around.
Again, while I certainly realize that the stringent limitation of movement needed to combat a contagion is unsustainable, the correlation with a cleaner environment is notable in our search for ways to combat climate change. I propose to use the unexpected shock of the coronavirus as a teachable moment -- a call to set aside the single-minded obsession with continual growth and to open a conversation about broader and more meaningful prosperity in both wealth and health. The current crisis might, in fact, stimulate us to start identifying obvious ways to attain long-term sustainability and a higher quality of life for us and our children.