Masks Come Off and Pitt’s Verdict Is In

The news of Pitt’s mask mandate being lifted on March 28 marked the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

But since being lifted, mixed feelings have been stirring among Pitt’s population as it undoubtedly changed the course of the college experience for many students across the country. For the first time in almost two years, students are seeing the full faces of their peers and professors, and this radical change has produced for many a feeling of uncertainty for what the final weeks of the semester may hold. 

As for one of the biggest culprits for this uncertainty? Peer acceptance. The fear of being associated with anti-maskers is real, especially for Pitt students attending a notoriously liberal institution. Are you an anti-masker if you decide to no longer wear a mask? Just because Pitt has lifted the mask mandate does not mean it is immediately socially acceptable to trash all of your masks.

Universities and businesses can still enforce their own mask policies that have forced students and employees to follow the rules. And now that the number of COVID-19 cases has significantly dropped in the United States, universities and businesses have reevaluated their policies and made the mask mandate more of a flexible option.

Most people would assume this reevaluation to be a positive sign, signaling that the end of the pandemic is nearing. The problem is that while masks may be going away, the stigma remains.

Student Sami Semiatin said she was excited for the end of the mask mandate, but explained her hesitancy to not wear one in the first week of this trial period. In her eyes, she wanted to first observe the actions of her fellow classmates before making her final decision.

She explained that many of her classrooms were brimming with students, and that even with masks, she felt way too close to her classmates. If the classrooms were bigger and the students were more spread out, she would have less of an issue not wearing a mask.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any students who were in full support of ending the mask mandate. I can only deduce that a minority of Pitt students accept lifting the mask mandate without traces of concern clouding their minds. The mask mandate has now been officially lifted for two weeks, and many students are enjoying the option to wear or not wear a mask. 

If the classrooms were bigger and the students were more spread out, she would have less of an issue not wearing a mask.

The prospect of no longer fogging up your classes while breathing or being shamefully out of breath while racing to class is difficult to pass up. Yet it is my understanding that the fear of judgment is stronger. 

I learned multiple approaches for dealing with this unprecedented situation after talking to a handful of students. One of my peers, Julia Koehl, suggested following the professors’ lead. For instance, if a professor wears a mask to class, then she will continue to wear hers as well. If a professor comes to class without wearing a mask, she will feel more comfortable leaving her mask in her backpack.

Her approach to this situation is commendable and she explained that her reasoning behind her logic is based on the age difference between students and professors. The age difference, sometimes small and other times large, between professors and students is something to note.

Older professors are more at risk if they are to catch COVID-19. Further, students who go to social outings frequently and then choose to not wear a mask in the classroom, put older professors in a potentially dangerous situation.

But a question keeps running through a majority of students’ minds is how to act under this new policy. In other words, what does it mean to not wear a mask? Many Pitt students I spoke with said they will base their decision on what their peers and professors decide to do.

From the beginning of the pandemic, wearing a mask was a highly politicized decision. COVID-19 temporarily changed the lives of many people living in the United States as strict measures were enforced to protect the lives of American citizens.

The debate over this precautionary measure eventually came to the forefront of COVID-19 politics. So, a stigma surrounding wearing a mask was formed.

Initially, wearing a mask was seen as a necessary requirement to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Although, there was significant pushback against mask mandates as many citizens believed this requirement infringed upon their freedoms.

Moving forward, I plan to use a combination of the strategies discussed above. My desire to not wear a mask anymore is just as strong as my desire to respect my professors and not be viewed as an anti-masker.

The end of the mask mandate at Pitt is a positive sign that the world is slowly reverting back to its normal self, but I will continue to approach this policy change just as I have approached the pandemic — with caution and care.

Featured photo by DS stories on

Photo of graduates throwing their caps by Pixabay on

Thanks to COVID-19, I Do (or Don’t) Have a Job

University graduates, how is the job market looking for you in this seemingly end-emic era? That’s the question I proposed to seniors in various majors at the University of Pittsburgh, and the responses I received are just as varied as their majors.

Soon-to-be Pitt graduates are entering a job market that’s recuperating after what has hopefully been the worst of the COVID-19 outbreaks.

During the height of the pandemic, clearly some industries were thriving while others were merely surviving. Workers were either deemed essential or furloughed. Since essential workers were risking their lives on the front lines and, eventually, less people were working overall, hourly pay across industries soared well above minimum wage.

What’s more, COVID-19 created a tremendous opportunity for some of those in the workforce: remote work. The opportunity to work remotely has expanded job opportunities, but this expansion exists within limited parameters. Remote options for many positions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are near impossible due to the hands-on nature of the work.

Rebekah Colacot is a 21-year-old Pitt senior looking for work as a research neuroscientist. She tried to search for remote work in her field, but was unsuccessful in her endeavors.

“Especially with neuroscience and research, the few [remote options] that were and are available are so competitive that I would need at least a Master of Science in order to beat the competition,” she said about remote opportunities in her field.

Colacot disclosed that this competition was partly because of the expensive training that employers would require for their remote employees. However, other industries—like the corporate business world—don’t bat an eye at remote work, even welcoming a work from home lifestyle as it has its own advantages for both employees and employers.

According to a study conducted by Stanford, employee productivity can increase up to 13 percent by working from home. This increase in performance is attributed to a quieter, more convenient working environment as well as fewer breaks and sick days. This study also observed that employees reported improved work satisfaction, and attrition rates were cut by 50%.

As a graduating Pitt senior and marketing major in the College of Business Administration, I can personally attest that navigating the job market right now is akin to being on a rollercoaster.

On one hand, there seems to have been an excessive amount of remote work opportunities. In the heat of the pandemic, I was blessed to have two remote internships that were not designed to be virtual opportunities had the pandemic not occurred.

It’s crazy to think that I started to work with a team in July 2020 and I never met the team members in person until September 2022. But I know more than a handful of other business students who were in similar situations at some point in the past two years.

Many business students were offered once-in-a-lifetime remote work opportunities, including accounting internships with one of the Big Four and marketing internships abroad. Such opportunities may not have otherwise been realistic due to unreasonable commutes or limited office space.

While competition still existed for these positions, the virtual nature of work at home allowed for more interns to be welcomed at some of the most desirable companies.

Although the office is making a comeback, virtual work is still available and many Pitt Business seniors are hoping to ride that wave for as long as they can. Along with being convenient, remote work gives employees the freedom to work wherever as well as whenever.

The ability to travel and have a flexible schedule are two concepts that can make employees swoon. Having these benefits seem to be a privilege for only those working in industries that do not require hands-on in-person work.

On the other hand, an interesting phenomenon is occurring in which companies—even those that allowed remote work during the pandemic—are backing away from offering virtual opportunities. Now that many restrictions like social distancing, face masking, and quarantining are being lifted, companies are encouraging in-person work over remote work.

Some of these companies are even limiting—or going as far as prohibiting—remote work as offices reopen their doors. In comparison to a year ago, the job market for my industry feels as if it is slowly contracting to its pre-pandemic state before it was inflated by remote work. While I am not scared to step into the job market at this current moment due to the overwhelming amount of marketing positions available, I am aware that remote work opportunities are seemingly being revoked.

If this trend were to continue, myself and many others currently working remotely would be placed between a rock and a hard space. If my current employer were to revoke the remote aspect of my position, then I would need to relocate closer to the office. Because relocating would be an onus, I am cautious to say yes to remote work after graduation.

All that to say, nothing is clear about the current job market, evidenced by the struggles—or lack thereof—that university graduates are experiencing as they enter the workforce.

Depending on their major and the specific subset of the job market in which they are entering, students are encountering newfound difficulty or ease of finding a postgraduate job. In each industry, there are a variety of forces at play, and only time will tell how the job markets for specific industries were impacted by this pandemic.

Until then, congrats to all graduates—here’s hoping that thanks to COVID-19, you do have a job.

The Pandemic in Our Living Rooms

Is it possible to escape when COVID-19 invades our TV?

Featured image via “Coronavirus school closures: What do they mean for student equity and inclusion?” from OECD Education and Skills Today

The common stress of college that students have faced for years has recently combined with the “novel” and “unprecedented times” brought on by COVID-19. So now more than ever, students are scrambling for ways to escape from thoughts of stressors such as school and the pandemic.

Escapism is a common phenomenon that many activate through video games, movies, and TV among other things. The concept itself is simple: people engage with materials that distract them from the issues plaguing their lives, thereby getting a reprieve from their stress and responsibility. And while the health of the habit is under debate, its effectiveness is easily seen when we get lost in a movie for a few hours or find ourselves miraculously halfway through a new television series. 

But the question remains of where the tools of escapism—TV shows, for example—should intersect with reality. If shows are too close to reality, does their value as tools of escapism fall? This is especially relevant for Covid, which is still plaguing our lives. We are much too close to the times of quarantines to be able to make a ruling on this question when it comes to the pandemic.

Nonetheless, shows that have continued to run through the pandemic have had to make a decision: avoid the topic of the pandemic completely, face it head-on, or place their characters somewhere between Covid and “normal” times.

Faced with these options, several shows have made their decision and received mixed reviews for them. Shows like “Superstore,” “South Park,” and “Shameless” have not only broached the topic of the pandemic, but put their characters in masks and set them off to deal with Covid-related plotlines and issues. 

Covid as seen in “Superstore,” “South Park,” and “Shameless.” Photo credits: NBC via The New York Times, Comedy Central via Entertainment Weekly, and Showtime via Hollywood Reporter.

“South Park” made two special episodes for the pandemic, not committing to the inclusion of Covid to nearly the same level as “Superstore” and “Shameless,” which both discussed the pandemic as part of their last seasons. The difference is both of these shows aim to represent the lives of working-class people, “Shameless” from a drama perspective and “Superstore” from that of a workplace sitcom. Both shows were also working with live actors, compared to the animation and voice actors working on “South Park”—a fact which contributed to Covid being included.

“Superstore” worked to make the pandemic a long-term issue, reflecting the lived experience of its viewers. It included plotlines and mentions of Covid over multiple episodes about the pandemic, its impact on customers’ behaviors, and masks. But, according to a Vulture article which quotes a few of the show’s creators, producers, and writers, the decisions about who should wear masks and when were incredibly complicated. One of the writers, Owen Ellickson, is quoted discussing the team’s desire to include masks balanced with the “brutal” viewing experience of having the actors wear masks in more scenes than not. 

The reception for the integration of Covid in “Superstore” was relatively positive, with articles citing the show’s ability to laugh about a difficult situation and maintain Covid in the background without making the jokes and storylines the whole focus. 

But “Superstore” had a distinct advantage when approaching Covid: it took place in a big-box store, where unique customer behavior and employee awareness of proximity to Covid had its home throughout the pandemic. Because of this, it was somewhat equipped to integrate Covid into its plot. Other shows didn’t have this obligation to tie in the pandemic, and so their efforts to include the pandemic mostly consisted of a flippant joke or two. 

With brief remarks, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and “Mr. Mayor” establish post-pandemic worlds. Photo credits: HBO via USA Today and NBC via The Hollywood Reporter.

Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Mr. Mayor,” in particular, set their seasons in a post-pandemic world with one or two jokes establishing Covid as an event firmly in the past. The reasons for this are many, but Larry David, the creator of the former, specifically commented on his belief that he doesn’t think the addition of Covid things—like masks and social distancing—would have been funny. 

This, of course, is a central concern of whether a TV show that discusses the pandemic can effectively satiate the viewer’s desire to escape from real-world problems. But where is the line of including real-world issues and producing a show that viewers can escape into—what do viewers want? Unfortunately, many aspects of this question are incredibly subjective; what types of shows a person normally watches, why they seek out one show over another, and what they want to get out of watching a show all can impact their opinion on Covid representation on TV.

With the proliferation of streaming services and non-weekly TV show structures, as well as the sheer amount of TV shows in recent years, many people don’t keep up with shows the way they used to. Even if a majority of the nation isn’t tuning in on a specific night anymore, though, TV is still a widely known and discussed topic that many still have an opinion on. 

Brady, who chose not to disclose their last name, is a political science major at Pitt who voiced their opinion on Covid on TV. They haven’t watched much TV since the start of the pandemic, and said that Covid should be discussed in shows, as TV should represent the problems of the current time. 

Ashley, who also chose not to disclose their last name, is a 20-year-old nursing major who watches a lot of TV and has seen Covid represented in some of the shows they keep up with, including the final season of “Shameless.” Even with this representation, Ashley said, “It’s just kind of weird watching it when we’re going through it. Would I prefer that it wasn’t occurring in TV? Yeah, probably.”

There isn’t one way for a person to escape from their daily stresses, and the variety of ways Covid has been represented on TV since 2020 reflects that. Some viewers are able to watch shows with characters that are either blissfully unaware of the pandemic or living in a world that has overcome the pandemic. Others can watch characters face the same issues that the viewers are, providing comfort, recognition, and understanding to the viewer.

Until Covid is truly in our rearview mirrors, we won’t be able to fully say which strategy works best to address this issue so central to everyone’s lives, but at least there are options for many escapist attitudes.

Source: University of Pittsburgh Admissions and Financial Aid Facebook

Unmasking Visitors on Campus

The University of Pittsburgh dropped its mask mandate last week, a change that is expected to continue throughout the last few weeks of the school year. With reported COVID cases dropping to a predetermined low-risk level, students, faculty, and guests may now enter University buildings proudly displaying the lower half of their faces after two years of wearing masks. While this may be an exciting prospect, the weekly COVID-19 Medical Response Office (CMRO) emails only display the vaccination and case information for Pitt affiliates, leaving the question: how do guests factor into this plan? 

The number of Covid cases and vaccinations on campus, as reported by the CMRO, does not include any information on the health of guests. Guests are coming by the thousands to visit campus and take tours of Pitt. These guests are not required to prove vaccination, provide a negative test, or report to Pitt if they test positive after taking a campus tour. Now, they are not required to wear masks in University buildings, and Pitt is hosting hundreds of visitors a day. This puts the tour guides and those interacting with these guests at risk.

Since March of 2020, high school students have had to rely on virtual tours or impromptu campus visits in order to determine which university is the right fit for them. To help ease the process, Pitt offers both virtual campus and virtual residence hall tours. The campus tour was the most popular as it took students through the university, stopping at most of the major academic buildings and landmarks known on campus. These tours are overseen by the Pitt Pathfinders—such as myself—who would attempt to do their best at adapting the traditional tour script to fit the needs of the virtual option. 

“Although I didn’t need a tour to commit [to Pitt] because I was already familiar with the campus with my brother coming here,” says Erin Friel, a second-year Public and Professional Writing major, “The second Covid hit, it was clear that it would be impossible. The virtual tours were a good way to get that basic familiarity, even if they weren’t the same.”

Although much of the information given by the Pathfinders on tours was the same in-person or online, many families would later remark that while these virtual tours helped in the decision-making process, they lacked the personal touch of physically being on campus. They found it difficult to get a sense of the overall feel of campus life, or scale the buildings and classrooms you could see on a screen. 

As a tour guide myself, I understood their plight. One of the reasons I decided to come to Pitt was the indescribable feeling I was overwhelmed with when I stepped onto campus. Suddenly, I could envision myself spending the next four years here.

“The tours are the thing that made me commit to Pitt because I fell in love with the campus when I visited,” says Charlotte Pearse, third-year English writing and Public and Professional Writing major, “I definitely would have been more hesitant to visit or tour in this climate.”

Knowing that nothing could compare to the feeling of being on campus, Pitt moved to an in-person option as early as they could. Starting in the summer of 2021, visitors were welcomed back on campus. Pitt kept tours to ten people and held tours exclusively outdoors. Prospective students and parents could peek into classroom windows and get a general sense of the campus while keeping the risk of Covid exposure low. 

Beginning in the fall of 2021, visitors could attend tours at the full capacity that we saw before Covid restrictions went into effect, with the stipulation that visitors were masked inside all buildings. As of Monday, March 28th, Pitt decided to begin relaxing its COVID requirements. Since the Pittsburgh campus is currently designated by the CDC to be an area of low or medium COVID-19 level, masks are optional inside all University buildings. On tours going in and out of buildings, however, masks remain completely optional for unregulated guests.

The tour schedule for the spring of 2022 includes hourly weekday tours with hour-long presentations by admissions officers at 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 1:00 p.m. tour slots. The majority of Fridays and Saturdays are blocked off for programs. On these days, hundreds of guests are invited to visit Pitt. They can go on tours, sit in on admissions and financial aid presentations, as well as panels about student life. 

When registering for tours visitors are asked to fill out an array of questions. These included indicating whether any member of their party had recently come into contact with someone with COVID with no apparent follow-up if the student indicated yes. The email confirmation included a line asking students to reschedule if they have signs or symptoms or if they have knowingly been in close contact with someone confirmed or probable for COVID-19 in the last 14 days.

After inspecting the Pitt Admissions Office website, there appears to be a maximum capacity of about 8 hundred guests sitting together in a single presentation room in Alumni Hall before going out on tours. Although all Pitt students, faculty, and staff have been required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or have an approved exemption since December 6, 2021, this mandate never applied to visitors. 

“I am not overly concerned with COVID, but knowing that they’re not required to be vaccinated is slightly concerning especially since they’re all sitting together,” says Meghan, a first-year psychology and philosophy major, who chose not to use their last name, “it might not necessarily cause an outbreak, but there’s definitely more potential with less information.”

The reality is, with cases declining steadily, many students are taking advantage of these lessened restrictions. I have observed anywhere from half a class to an entire class choosing to not wear a mask, and interviewees such as Meghan find it unnecessary with the majority of the Pitt population being vaccinated

For the Pathfinders that find themselves face to face with these unknown visitors on a regular basis, there is still a feeling that those who are vaccinated and received their booster are well protected, but there is room for improvement in these visitation requirements. 

Nick Johnbosco, a 21-year-old fourth-year Biology and Music major and a Pathfinder at Pitt, says, “I would like to see the requirements be that (visitors) have at least the first shot of the vaccine and that information be disclosed to the tour guides so that we may better protect ourselves while we give tours.”

After spending roughly three years giving tours at Pitt, I have fallen in love with the campus and all of the people that call it home. The removal of the masking requirement has allowed people to regain a sense of normalcy within their college experience that has been sorely lacking since the beginning of the pandemic. With this, though, there is a need to ensure the safety of the students, faculty, and staff. Prospective students and their guests should be welcomed on campus provided that they follow the same safety procedures required for all current Pitt students.

Post-Pandemic Self-Care: Gone and Sadly Forgotten?

Hakuna Matata! We are mask-free and moving on; welcome to April 2022! Do we just want to look forward and forget about the pandemic of the past or should we reflect on the valuable lessons learned from this tragedy?

COVID-19 has negatively impacted society in countless ways. People were robbed of their financial stability, isolated from social connection with friends and family, plagued by uncertainty and fear, and surrounded by loss and suffering. Individuals are rightfully hopeful for brighter days ahead, but it would be a mistake to leave behind our efforts toward personal improvement that taught us about ourselves and the ways to enhance our wellbeing.

Prior to 2020, society awarded little priority to mental health, work-life balance, and personal fulfillment and wellness. One of the best outcomes of the pandemic is the increased attention to personal well-being. In order to tune out the societal whirlwind induced by a worldwide crisis, people turned inwards to perform activities that brought them a sense of stability and restoration. Disguised as new hobbies and ways to pass the time, self-care practices became a new norm.

As a college student before this crisis, I was accustomed to constant movement, minimal sleep, and almost no time to myself. When life shut down, I was bombarded with free-time and a plethora of mixed emotions. To cope, I spoke with friends and read on social media about the different ways that people were taking care of themselves and passing time throughout the day. I decided to start a process of trial and error to find a practice that brought me peace and formed a habit to improve my day.

I stumbled upon ten minute yoga classes on the Peloton app, and I would like to argue that the way in which I begin each morning has changed forever.

Photo by Elina Fairytale on

Waking up and practicing mindfulness sets the tone for the rest of my day. Yoga provides an opportunity for reflection and gratitude and centers me before all of the noise of the outside world kicks in. Plus, it only requires as little as 10 minutes a day! I caught myself constantly thinking “Why did I never try this before?”

I found a passion for self-care and set out on a journey to advocate for these practices beyond the restraints of a pandemic era. This restoration is increasingly important during society’s return to normal as people need to continue to tend to their well-being.

On the University of Pittsburgh’s campus, I interviewed college students of all ages to learn about their individual experiences with self-care. To my surprise, every student I interviewed participated in some kind self-care activity during the pandemic. Students started to read, cook, bake, meditate, play music, and more.

First-year engineering student Alex Smith started to meditate and improve his sleep schedule. Danielle Calling, a senior business student, started to go on walks and allocate more time to spend with her family. Both students continue these practices in smaller ways today because they recognized that acts of self-care made a positive impact on their lives.

When asked why she took up baking during Covid, first-year Pitt Law student Lauren Bauer said, “[Before Covid] who had time to make macaroons?” Bauer claims she has always enjoyed baking but simply never had enough hours to experiment.

Time shortage appears to be a common barrier. First-year psychology student Maeve Sheehan started doing various forms of art that she had only performed for classes prior to the pandemic. She claims that this activity calmed her anxiety and took her mind somewhere peaceful because the pandemic brought a surplus of time to overthink. Even though she does art less while school is in session, she plans to return to it this summer when she has more time.

While college students and people of all ages alike may have less time to devote to personal activities, the importance of practicing self-care and seeking rejuvenation has not faded. There might not be enough time to make macaroons each day or read an entire book, but continuing these practices in small ways can still offer worthwhile benefits.

Sam Hovis, senior business student, allocates ten or fifteen minutes a day to sit down and read a book. Even though reading only assumes a fraction of her day, she attests that “it helps me stay relaxed and know that I am doing something for myself.”

According to a 2019 study published on the “Impact of a Yoga and Meditation Intervention on Students’ Stress and Anxiety Levels,” college students who took one hour over the course of six weeks to practice yoga or meditation reported a significant reduction in stress and anxiety. The findings of this research “suggest that adopting a mindfulness practice for as little as once per week may reduce stress and anxiety in college students.”

Student interviews and research support the idea that the most effective way to continue restoration practices is to devote a feasible amount of time to this practice either daily or weekly. A sustainable way to practice self-care is to make it a habit. Start small. Instead of hoping to have time to meditate for an hour each day, block out five minutes daily on your calendar for a week. If all goes well, increase it to eight minutes the following week, then ten minutes the next.

There is no perfect formula: no perfect activity, no perfect amount of time, and no perfect way to take care of yourself. Those decisions belong to you. The best act of self-care is the one that renews your individual energy, centers you, and is something that you enjoy.

I urge you to continue practicing what centered you during the pandemic. If you did not practice self-care, start now. The benefits may feel invisible at first, but over time they may just change your life for the better.

365 Days Later: College Students Speak Their Minds on COVID

March 11 marked the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaring COVID-19 a pandemic. Since then, nearly 30 million people in the United States have contracted the virus and over half a million people have died from the virus, which is by far the most per country across the world.

However, as businesses begin to open and people begin spending their second batch of stimulus checks, I wanted to reflect on the past 365 days and see what we college students have learned.

I decided to talk to a few college students from different universities around the country and get their thoughts on how well their school is handling students on campus in flux, and what they can do better as a whole.

Although there were many people who dealt with the difficulties of the pandemic, it appears as though college students continue to get the raw end of the deal. With many of them returning to campus this past fall full of uncertainty — but teased with the prospect of in-person classes — they all will come flooding back to campuses across the country to put their school’s protocols to the test.

By and large, the University of Pittsburgh has mitigated the spread of the virus well, with random testing and capacity limits put into place all across campus. However, the decisions being made by the school during the pandemic appear to be a one-way street.

College students are often overlooked by administrators when it comes time to change the landscape around the school. At a time like this, it is not only important to keep students safe, but also to take their advice on how to make the college experience easier for them.

Sports have been able to get the rest of the American people through a very tough time during the summer and fall months; and ake our minds off the real world with an entertaining spectacle as such has been a huge relief to millions of people.

However, what I did do was reach out to an athlete to see how their experience during COVID may differ from a regular college student.

Jake Tyndale is a former high school friend and current Track & Field athlete at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina. I spoke to him about his thoughts on how smaller schools can be better at handling the ebb and flow of keeping their students safe on a daily basis.

Part of the luxury of attending a smaller school during the pandemic is the ability for in-person classes to start ramping up, and Tyndale, along with other students, was able to get back to a sense of normality in the classroom even when larger lectures still took place over Zoom.

He also is one of the lucky ones who was tested every Tuesday, but that jumped to three times during the week of a track meet. Jake was unlucky to have his roommate test positive, which led to both of them being quarantined.

When asked if he had to be tested after the conclusion of his 14-day quarantine period, the shocked look on his face soon transferred over to me.

“I thought so,” he said. “But they just told me I could go back to resuming normal activities.”

Although I am not a doctor, I certainly would not have recommended a school take this approach. When I asked what the school can do better, he gave the answer that every great student would.

“I would say sanitizing a lot of the stuff in the library,” he said.

I immediately followed up and wondered if it was the student’s responsibility to do.

“That’s what [the administration states],” he said. “But I also don’t see any wipes or anything to use.”

From what I gathered overall, though, it seems like Jake was fairly happy with the job Wingate had done with handling the pandemic, whether that be with capacity limits and mask-wearing.

After talking to Jake, I tried to get a differing perspective from my former high school track teammate and University of Tampa ROTC student, Hunter Kramer.

As Hunter wakes up every day in a state with arguably the loosest COVID-19 restrictions in the country, I thought he would be someone that could provide a bunch of insight on how a school handles the pandemic.

University of Tampa students were not required to supply a negative test before returning to campus for the fall semester. The school did require that the ROTC program space out the PT sessions across the week, so instead of the entire group meeting three times a week, they had hybrid sessions where half of the group would train every other day in the week in order to lower capacity, leading up to a Friday session where the entire group finally meets.

Hunter also provided very positive feedback when talking about the quarantine housing offered by the university, with a dorm room or an off-campus hotel to house those who had tested positive or came into contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus.

I asked about what the school can do better in terms of making him more comfortable.

“I don’t know, because personally, I think the school has done everything right,” he told me. “And we’ve been getting praise for it.”

Not a shocking answer from someone who has been able to live relatively freely in a state that relies mostly on individual responsibility to combat the pandemic.

“I don’t know, because personally, I think the school has done everything right…And we’ve been getting praise for it.”

University of Tampa ROTC student, Hunter Kramer

It’s always a weird situation when you’re approached with the different protocols that are put into place at a school other than the University of Pittsburgh. And with the numerous shifting of positions, I’ve heard that Thomas Soekinto, a junior here at Pitt, has called for a more open line of communication between students and board members.

“I think more transparency will be much appreciated, like how they decide on their positions [guarded or elevated],” he said. “I know it’s nice that they give us the emails with COVID updates and everything, but then to some people raw data doesn’t mean anything.”

This statement seems all the more relevant with the news that the University would be moving back to elevated risk as of 9 pm on March 31 because of the presence of the U.K. variant of the virus on campus.

And unlike many other students, Soekinto lives with his family nearby and is able to commute to campus without any hitches. However, he’s still a college student who would like to live a college experience without having to worry about his safety being a priority.

Regardless, I think many Pitt students share Thomas’ sentiments about the need for the University to be more open with its students. Perhaps if school administrators listened more actively to the experiences of their students, students would be more likely to believe that their college experience is being made safer and more comfortable.

Improved communication would also build bridges between students across the country. All of these benefits and more can be gained just by listening to students.

Finding Balance Before You Burnout

A year of pandemic life has left many students and professionals spiraling into exhaustion as they struggle to manage the demands of life, school, and work in a remote world of uncertainty.

A little over a year ago, Pitt made the switch from in-person classes to remote learning. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many of us to alter our daily routines as we spent more time at home, more time on the computer, and more time worrying about the unknowns of the virus and, ultimately, our future.

Working from home has caused a massive spike in screen time as we now spend our days shifting from Zoom classes to Zoom meetings in our new “virtual” reality. A long day spent “zooming” often leads to a long night back in front of the computer to complete our tasks and assignments on time. Many students — like myself — are simultaneously holding down a job, attending school, and working on applications for internships and volunteer opportunities, which can quickly become overwhelming.

The end of yet another grueling semester has many in the Pitt community looking forward to a well-deserved break. Pitt and other universities decided to eliminate scheduled breaks during the pandemic to prevent traveling, leaving many feeling overworked and exhausted.

“It feels like we’re being given more work with less breaks,” said a sophomore at Pitt. “Spring break was taken away and labeling a random Tuesday as ‘Self-Care Day’ leaves little time for students to practice self-care when we’re bogged down with assignments in the days leading up to it.”

It seems that many of us are experiencing feelings of burnout as our anxieties climb and relaxation falls to the wayside.

But what exactly is burnout?

“Burnout is a metaphor for energy drain,” says Nisha Nair, a clinical assistant professor at the Katz Graduate School of Business. “Experts who research burnout have found that it typically manifests in three different kinds of states.”

The first state of burnout is emotional exhaustion or energy depletion. This is followed by a second stage where exhaustion leads to withdrawal or disengagement from work. These feelings culminate into a third state, which is marked by increased feelings of doubt in a person’s belief that they can perform well.

In some cases, burnout can manifest as a combination of all three, which could then lead to feelings of depression, severe anxiety, nervous breakdowns, or an overall decline in mental health. Many are suffering from physical symptoms as well with the most frequent grievances involving neck and back pain, headaches or migraines, aching or twitching eyes, and of course, a sore rear-end from sitting in front of the computer all day.

Daily checks for COVID-19 symptoms have become routine but checking for symptoms of burnout occurs more sporadically — if at all. “It can be difficult for a person to realize they are experiencing burnout,” Nair said.

Preparing for battle with burnout has always been challenging — especially when you don’t even know you’ve entered the fight. The COVID-19 pandemic ignited a colossal amount of uncertainty that has intensified feelings of burnout in students and professionals across the globe.

Battling burnout amid a global pandemic is something that none of us have experienced before, yet we feel pressured by an implicit expectation to adapt and overcome any struggles. Symptoms of burnout have been normalized in the pandemic as most of us have come to believe that heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and isolation are common and must be endured for the unforeseeable future.

So, what can we do about it?

“Work life and personal life are all mixed up in a way that feels like they’re all on all the time,” says Chancellor Patrick Gallagher in the University Times. “It’s really important to make sure that we don’t encroach in the limited personal life that’s there — by putting some boundaries around work and making sure that people don’t have an expectation to answer email and be on that electronic tether 24/7. Those are some small things we can do to try to restore some very much needed boundaries in our life when the technology makes it so easy to take them all away.”

Finding balance before you burnout can seem damn-near impossible when you’re swamped with work and watching COVID-19 case counts surge as the country moves into the fourth wave of the pandemic. But balance is a crucial key to restoring mental and physical well-being.

Activities that make you feel engaged, important, and appreciated can help to prevent burnout and raise your self-esteem. Small acts of kindness — such as waving to a stranger, opening a door for someone, or donating your old clothes to charity — can steer your mind away from your problems and reduce stress. Helping someone with a small task can transform any negative feelings about yourself into positive ones.  

Taking breaks throughout the day can refresh your mind and body like hitting the refresh button on your web browser. A short break from the computer allows you to stand up and stretch your legs or your aching back. A bit of movement can loosen up those stiff muscles. Try playing with pets during breaks to bring joy to you and your furry companion. Get up and dance to your favorite upbeat songs for ten minutes or so to boost your mood.

Now that spring is finally here, get outside and go for a short walk, hike, or jog. Any form of exercise can help to clear your mind of worry or give you time to exhale — you may even come up with a bright idea for that project you’ve been working on. A bit of exercise during the day can help you sleep better at night. Getting enough sleep is essential to combatting burnout and experts recommend seven to nine hours of sleep per night to reboot your system.  

Most importantly, remember that you are not in this alone. Reach out to someone if you’re drained or losing hope. Schedule a therapy session if possible or call a family member or friend who is a good listener.

Talkspace aims to provide affordable options for therapy, offering 24/7 access to online therapy with licensed professionals. Completing a brief assessment of your insurance on their website will help determine if you’re eligible to proceed. And don’t forget to explore their student discounts.

For more tips and tricks on how to find balance before — or after — you burnout, check out the University’s Work-Life Balance website.

In case you haven’t heard this in awhile, you’re doing a good job! Smile knowing that people in your life are proud of you and appreciate you more than you know.

Photo of poem kept on my grandmother’s refrigerator, Poem by Spike Milligan

The State of Network Television During COVID-19

The fifth season of NBC’s “This Is Us” premiered last fall and, while the meaningful drama typical of the show was in full effect, something was distinctively unusual — or perhaps, it was too familiar for comfort.

Production delays kept fans on the edge of their seats until the October season premiere. With the first episode of the new season, we finally catch up with each of the characters after waiting seven long months since Season 4’s finale last spring. One of the main characters, Kevin, finds out he’s going to have a baby. But when he goes to tell his sister the good news, he does so while standing six feet away with a mask on his face. Later in the same episode, we see Kevin and his partner, Madison, at the hospital after she experiences some pregnancy complications. Again, both Kevin and Madison are wearing masks, as is the doctor.

If it’s not yet clear what I’m alluding to, the creators of “This Is Us” decided to incorporate COVID-19 into their Season 5 storyline. And they’re not the only ones. ABC’s “The Conners” and CBS’s “All Rise” made the same creative choice. Even NBC’s “Mr. Mayor” imagined the setting of a post-COVID-19 world for its debut season.

To put it rather bluntly, I’m not the biggest fan of these choices. While I wholeheartedly believe that network television should at least attempt to relate to its audience and address important topics, the COVID-19 pandemic feels too complex for these shows to portray justly. It simply doesn’t feel like these shows are able to capture the intricacies of a year-long health crisis in a half an hour or hour-long weekly episode. At best, it’s simply unrelatable; at worst, it trivializes the dire circumstances brought about by a once-in-a-century global virus outbreak.

It simply doesn’t feel like these shows are able to capture the intricacies of a year-long health crisis in a half an hour or hour-long weekly episode.

Julia Jacobson

In addition to my personal feelings on the matter, there is also scholarship behind why this may not be the most appealing narrative to audiences. The SAGE Glossary of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, edited by Larry E. Sullivan, provides a definition of escapism that speaks to a part of the reason why many of us watch television in the first place. Escapism is “the avoidance of reality by distracting the mind with some sort of entertainment…Entire entertainment businesses—radio, television, films, video games, and so on —have flourished on the premise that their programs or products help people escape.”

If part of the reason we watch television is to escape from our daily lives and experiences, perhaps grounding these shows in our coronavirus-engrossed reality is not the way to go. 

Regardless of how we feel about these creative choices, it doesn’t seem as though media depictions of life amid a global pandemic are going away anytime soon. Besides these television shows, other realms in the entertainment industry seem to have also taken hold of this trend. Borat 2, released last October, includes scenes related to the pandemic. Director Judd Apatow is currently filming his newest comedy film, and from the looks of it, COVID-19 might as well be at the top of the call sheet.

This isn’t to say that I think COVID-19 has no place on our television screens. Last October, CNN released the first in a series of specials titled The ABCs of COVID-19. In these specials, CNN correspondents and public health officials collaborated with characters from “Sesame Street” to create a public health program that is digestible for kids and families.

To me, this leveraging of the familiar characters from “Sesame Street” to communicate important information about COVID-19 is a great way to ease anxiety during a scary and confusing time for kids (and adults, too). Programs like this can offer clarity for people who may otherwise have a hard time grasping the pandemic. I would venture to say that viewers of “This Is Us” and the like are already intimately acquainted with the “new normal” that COVID-19 has brought. They’re living it.

While I don’t wish to judge all of this content too harshly — there are certainly bigger fish to fry, and these shows and films aren’t necessarily bad — I do wonder how network television will handle the slow movement back to normalcy post-pandemic, whatever that may look like. Are the creators of these shows committed to their pandemic plots for as long as it takes to control the spread of the rapidly evolving coronavirus? We’ll see. 

The World’s Greatest Threat: Repeating History

Same story, but we’re the different characters.

It’s 542, and Procopius of Caesarea, a historian for the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, finds himself in the heart of one of the most powerful empires in the world.

This city, Constantinople, is seen as a crown jewel of religion, commerce, and culture. It is a cross roads between north and south, east and west; a continuation of Rome, the city that took the world. Armies will march upon its walls over twenty times and fail over twenty times. A mother will assassinate her own son and then rise to the throne as the first empress of the Byzantines. Chariot racing will be the catalyst to a riot that breaks out in the streets of the city, leading to the execution of over thirty thousand citizens in less than a week. Yet none of those moments even come close to bringing Constantinople to its knees like what Procopius was about to witness.

It’s 542, and the eastern half of the Roman Empire is about to collapse.

Procopius is roaming the narrow streets of Constantinople dressed in the finest threads of silk from China. While many would take notice of him on any normal day, today is anything but. No artisans in the streets, selling their wares. No fishermen along the docks, tempting a passerby with their catch. Silence has descended upon the city. A silence so quiet it reminds him of the cool nights in Dara, where in every direction there was nothing but sand and the tents of Belisarius’s soldiers. Procopius does not even have to close his eyes to remember that peace that passed over the men as if they had saved their voices for the roaring that would come in the following days.

Procopius of Caesarea

That was not Constantinople though. When this curse first arrived, all Hell had broken loose and reports of supernatural apparitions disguised as human beings running amok in the streets and invading people’s dreams were not uncommon.

From his chambers in the Great Palace, Procopius could view all the chaos that unfolded down below. How people pounded on the doors of their neighbors, calling for them to be let in. He had heard reports that they all turned on one another because they believed those that knocked were demons. But now? Nothing.

Constantinople had fallen silent.

The Hagia Sophia came into Procopius’ view. In all this mess, the pristine spires of the church stood tall, towering over the city in all its glory. It made the Great Palace look small though it was three times its size. Nothing could dwarf the grandeur of God.

His eyes lingered on the sight above, for he had no worry about what laid in front him because there was nothing. The only people he saw now were those piled in with heaps of bodies. When he did see someone alive, it was only to carry out their dead who had been slung over their shoulders in white cloth, and even then, they resembled those they carried.

He thought by now his nose would be accustomed to such a stench. Truly, he thought by now that this curse would be gone. Yet, as it seemed, God had abandoned the Roman Empire.

What caused all of that turmoil and torture? What made people see apparitions and have visions of creatures standing over them? The answer is simple: disease. Specifically, Yersinia pestis, or, as it’s more commonly referred to: The Justinian Plague.

Many of you may think, “Thank goodness we are no longer living in the time of that Procopius guy.” I agree with you. It’s very nice to have the developments of modern medicine and a better understanding of how to protect ourselves from disease. It is also nice that the disease we face now is not as deadly as the one that Procopius had to live through. Yet, people take that as justification that we can continue on with our lives because COVID-19 is a milder disease. They point to the recovery rate and say “99 percent of people who get it survive.” Yes, COVID-19 has a high survival rate (although, not 99 percent). However, that’s not what health and government officials are terrified about the most. That’s not what should worry you the most. The disease itself is, of course, something that no one wants to spread because we have seen first-hand what it does to patients and our fellow citizens; yet, what truly scares governments, the CDC, the WHO, the NHS, and all other types of organizations, is the collapse of society that Procopius witnessed.

We cannot verify with absolutely certainty the number of people who died, but Procopius ventured that it was about 20 percent of the population in Constantinople between 541 and 543. Not infected, but died. Almost a quarter of the people gone in one of the most powerful and populated cities in the world at this time.

Blue mosque (Hagia Sophia) in Istanbul (Constantinople).

As a whole, though, historians believe that half of the world population in the sixth century was killed. The highest estimates put it at 50 million. So, I want to let all of you who are abiding by the rules set out by governments and health orgs know that you’re doing the right thing. More than the right thing. You’re being a hero in ways that one would not think possible. For there is certainly a loud group of people who just want everything to be open and for us to carry on with our lives. With that being said, let’s look at some numbers and see how similar our world could be to that of Procopius of Caesarea’s should we abandon reason.

According to Bandolier, an independent journal comprised of Oxford scientists, they state that the risk of dying from the bubonic plague can reach up to 70 percent when untreated. Let’s say 70 percent, since there were no treatments in medieval times. That means that if 50 million died, roughly 71 million became infected. It’s important to understand that this was a world with little knowledge about how to treat such a disease. They understood keeping their distance, but as Procopius mentioned, people were around bodies all the time because of the sheer number of deceased.

Now, I won’t use the mortality rate because COVID-19 is not nearly as fatal. However, I will use the infection rate of 71 percent, since COVID-19 is highly contagious and the world that some want us to live in is one that mirrors that of Procopius’. Such as people who carry on with their daily lives, stop wearing masks, or don’t socially distance. Now I’ll lower the infection rate to 60 percent because we wash ourselves more regularly than the people of the Middle Ages.

“We start seeing a world that is similar to that of Procopius’.

Adel Mansour

Currently, the estimated population of the world is 7.8 billion people. Sixty percent of that then is 4.68 billion. If 99 percent recover, that is 46.8 million people that will have died from COVID-19 alone. That’s almost 20 times the number of recorded infections at the writing of this piece. However, death doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Those numbers are people. They are farmers, doctors, government officials, parents, teachers, children; the list goes on.

Putting aside the familial trauma, what happens when the number of hospital beds start running out and those from other causes start dying? What happens when infected farmers that we rely on for food can’t tend to their farms? What happens when the doctors who were supposed to be treating all those patients can’t anymore because they fall ill to COVID? Suddenly, that number of 46.8 million starts multiplying exponentially when the people we relied on to keep our world afloat start dying. We start seeing a world that is similar to that of Procopius’. One where “if one succeed[ed] in meeting a man going out, he was carrying out one of the dead. And work of every description ceased… in a city which was simply abounding in all good things starvation almost absolute was running riot.” So yes, the recovery rate for COVID-19 is quite high, but only because there is a vast majority of people taking it seriously.

We must understand that our world is fragile, and it doesn’t take much for it to unravel at the seams. For if we threw caution to the wind, not only would the infection rate skyrocket, but our way of life crumble into ruin like that of the Great Palace in Istanbul (Constantinople).

So, to all the essential workers, to those of you who have been socially distant, wearing masks, and sacrificing memories of your college years or time with your loved ones: thank you. You have not only saved yourself from illness, but people all across the globe from ever experiencing, as Procopius put it, “the whole human race… being annihilated.”

Online vs. In-Person Classes: Virtually the Same?

Globally, colleges have been using the online learning format for over a year now. This means students don’t need to leave their homes to receive their education. Using video conference tools like Zoom and learning management systems like Canvas, professors conduct classes remotely and interact with their students virtually. While online education is the best way to prevent the spread of disease, is it the optimal way to receive a college education?

I wanted to investigate this topic here in Oakland at the University of Pittsburgh. I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. George Bandik, Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Advising and Student Services here at Pitt.

Dr. Bandik is an award-winning professor from the chemistry department with 40 years of teaching experience. During his time at Pitt, he has been awarded the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1993, the Carnegie Science Center Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1998, and the Bellet Teaching Award in 2001. In other words, Dr. Bandik is an acclaimed and experienced educator, so I was fascinated to hear about his strategies for adapting to the online environment.

“This is uncharted territory for all of us,” he told me.

When Dr. Bandik first faced the reality of switching to virtual learning in March of 2020, his confidence dropped.

“I was petrified,” he said. “I will honestly tell you I was really scared because I am such a people person, and I get so much out of being in the classroom and being able to look at people’s faces and all that. I thought this is going to be a disaster. I mean, I really, really expected it not to go well.”

In the implementation of virtual learning, Dr. Bandik expressed that the biggest challenge he faced was not easily defined.

“I thought this is going to be a disaster. I mean, I really, really expected it not to go well.”

Dr. George Bandik, Pitt Chemistry Professor

“It’s not easy to put a label on or put words to,” he said. “When a student is in class, and I’m teaching, I can literally look out and tell by just looking at students’ faces if they’re confused or not. I can kinda get a sense of whether a topic is a little too difficult or I didn’t explain it well.”

This face-to-face connection Dr. Bandik makes with his students proved to be more difficult in an online Zoom class.

Classroom culture has changed drastically in the era of virtual learning. Students have the option to mute themselves and not show their faces on camera. As a result, some professors teach to a sea of invisible, inaudible, non-participatory students. Dr. Bandik was determined to make his online classes as immersive and engaging as his in-person classes.

“When I had to go in and begin this term, I really spent a lot of time thinking about what I can do to make this work and to make it successful.”

His solution? Go back to basics; human connection, a rarity in the era of COVID-19.

“I don’t buy this idea that 250 people in a room are just a bunch of numbers. I think that doesn’t have to be,” he said. “That was always one of my goals from the time I started teaching here, I was going to get to know the people in that classroom, and that has followed through even having to go online.”

Although the circumstances had changed, Dr. Bandik was determined to get to know his students.

“I went to all of the Zoom classes about ten minutes early, and as soon as I logged in if there was somebody with their camera on, I started talking to that person immediately. Just things like, ‘How was your day?’ And you’d be amazed; I would say that in my Organic Chemistry I class last term, around 75% of the students had their cameras on.”

Seventy-five percent of a 250-person online lecture having their cameras on is quite the feat. Some of his students told him stories of virtual classmates introducing themselves to each other on campus because they recognized each other from his class.

“I think students also appreciated being able to see other people,” he told me.

One of the students from his fall 2020 Organic Chemistry I class was junior Shaina Gatton, a Pre-Veterinary Neuroscience major. I spoke to Gatton about her time in Dr. George Bandik’s virtual class and what his approach to online teaching meant to her.

“George’s Organic Chemistry class was my most challenging class last semester, but it turned into my favorite class very early on,” she said. “George understood how difficult life has been for students during the pandemic and that the online environment isn’t necessarily the easiest to facilitate learning.”

Organic Chemistry sounds daunting to most, but removing the in-person aspect was especially intimidating to Gatton.

“Organic Chemistry is already difficult enough, and I dreaded trying to take it on during this time, but if one person could teach you complex chemical reactions during a global pandemic, that person was George,” she said.

Dr. Bandik is the type of professor to forgo the formality of titles like “Doctor” or “Professor” with his students, yet another testament to his dedication to connecting with his students.

Gatton explained how Dr. Bandik’s online class stood out from others.

“Some of my classmates and I joined our Zoom meetings ten minutes early to sit around and chat before class started. It was the closest thing we all had to having an in-person class and socializing with classmates and our professor before the lecture.”

Gatton appreciated the sense of normalcy this provided and the opportunity to get to know her professor. She attributes these conversations to the classroom environment that Dr. Bandik fostered.

“In every other class, I just felt like a name on a screen, but in George’s class, so many of us had our cameras turned on and were willing to participate when he called on us. Even on bad days, we had the opportunity to turn our cameras off and observe, and George would take that as a sign that we did not want to be called on to answer questions that day,” she said.

Like most of her classmates, Gatton chose to keep her camera on during Dr. Bandik’s virtual lectures.

“Keeping my camera on during class helped me stay engaged because I knew I could get called on at any point, but it was never anxiety-inducing because George would allow you to say, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I need help with this one.’ ” she said. “Even if you were completely wrong, George encouraged us to stay engaged and learn the correct answer. During this pandemic—which is likely the most stressful time of all of our lives—being allowed to be wrong or to say ‘I don’t know’ was so relieving. It took away the pressure of always having to be right or not say anything at all. This was something I had rarely experienced in college before.”

From hearing Dr. Bandik’s approach to connecting with his students in the new virtual setting to hearing what it meant to one of his students, it is apparent he has overcome many of the challenges set forth by the online format.

“It was so much better than I ever thought it could have been,” Dr. Bandik told me about his experience teaching virtually.

There are even some perks of online classes that he plans on implementing once classes are held in person again.

“The best thing is that the classes are now recorded,” he said. “I like that so much that I’m trying to figure out how to continue to record my lectures.”

This is a significant change in Dr. Bandik’s teaching style. Before the pandemic, he actively chose to limit students’ online resources.

“I had never before used any type of online management tool…I really wanted students to come to class. I didn’t want them to have the luxury of having everything online in case they decided not to come. I made people come to class even to get handouts; nothing was posted online, but I do think that I will continue to use some kind of online learning management tool.”

While all professors had to adapt to virtual teaching, the challenges posed in a science class can be different from those in an English class. To get a perspective from a different department, I spoke with Beth Marcello.

Beth Marcello has been a part-time instructor in the English Department at Pitt for 18 years and has worked at PNC Bank for 15 years as the Director of Women’s Business Development. Using her real-world experience in the industry, Professor Marcello teaches students about professional writing. I had the pleasure of speaking with her about her experience adapting to and teaching in a virtual environment.

“As an instructor, it was a heavy lift to get ready,” she said.

Diving into an entire semester of online learning in the fall of 2020 was an unprecedented challenge, but Professor Marcello was up for the task. She told me that the English Department encouraged all of their professors to be kind to themselves and their students. They were encouraged to be mindful of Zoom fatigue: the exhaustion caused by sitting in long Zoom meetings all day. To combat this, Professor Marcello focused on adapting her courses to serve her students in the online format best.

Photo by Meruyert Gonullu on

This included eliminating one or two assignments from the syllabus that she would typically include in an in-person setting. She also focused on finding the best way to deliver the material in a meaningful and successful way in the new environment. She told me that she tried “chunking up the material to make it more digestible.”

Because the University of Pittsburgh has introduced the Flex@Pitt model, online classes have to be available to those attending synchronously and asynchronously. Professor Marcello focused on making sure that her classes could be just as informative to those attending the Zoom meeting synchronously and those watching the recording back asynchronously by “chunking [the material] up in a way that someone who chose not to come to class at all could still learn and feel like they were getting the same relevant experience.”

While Professor Marcello admits that planning for this historical semester was challenging, she was shocked by the result.

“When I got into the semester, I felt like I was pleasantly surprised at how well I thought it worked.”

She attributes part of her class’s functionality to being able to see and interact with her students.

“We were able to come together,” she said. “I was pleased that most students would turn on their camera, so we did have that visual connection.”

Another opportunity presented by the virtual format was the ability to incorporate more guest speakers into class. In the past, Professor Marcello typically invited guest speakers to her in-person courses, but the flexibility provided by online school made it possible for her to give her students different perspectives from more guest speakers.

“I think that my ability to provide more insight from guest speakers was the best thing,” she said. “I was able to interview them virtually and then share that either in class or as an interview you could watch and comment on.”

Learning management systems like Canvas have been a part of education for a while now, but they became integral to virtual learning at the onset of the pandemic. Professor Marcello shared that she too preferred students to hand in physical copies of their work before COVID-19, but has taken a liking to Canvas saying, with a chuckle, “Reading the assignments online and being able to make comments and edits, I found that I was able to do that effectively and I think it’s easier for the students than to print it out, hand it to me, and then struggle to read my handwriting.”

The discussion board was also a feature of the learning management system that was new to Professor Marcello; however, she felt that it supplemented the material well after using it.

“Instead of having longer written assignments, I was able to create discussion board posts that were short writing sprints,” she said. “I could assess and comment on people’s writing, but also assess whether or not the videos that you would watch outside of class were hitting their mark.”

But there were drawbacks to the virtual setting. Namely, workshops.

Typically, in an in-person class, Professor Marcello would put students into groups where they would have the opportunity to discuss their writing and assist their peers in the drafting process. These workshops are a vital part of the writing process, but it’s a bit more complicated over Zoom. Zoom has the capability to put students into breakout rooms, but once they enter the room, they are no longer visible or audible to the instructor.

“I don’t think that it was as effective online as it was in person,” Professor Marcello said about the workshopping. “The breakout room does always require someone to step up as a leader­­—someone is going to get the conversation going and make a suggestion for what is going to be our process for reviewing each other’s work and I think that’s just a little bit harder to do online.”

For Professor Marcello, a meaningful workshop is difficult to duplicate virtually.

Looking to the future, there are some aspects of virtual learning that Professor Marcello wants to incorporate into her in-person classes.

“As I think about going back to the classroom in the fall, what I’m hoping that we’ll strike is something maybe even a bit hybrid.”

She is interested in continuing her virtual interviews with guest speakers and even potentially hold virtual classes.

“I would still do those interviews, put them on Canvas, and have students listen or watch those in lieu of a class, or maybe we still incorporate a virtual class or two into a semester when we’re still in person,” she said.

Through speaking with both students and educators about the struggles and triumphs of online learning, we can see the hard work and dedication that goes into the pursuit of education. While these are unprecedented times, extraordinary commitment from educators and students alike has made the past year of higher education possible. Here at the University of Pittsburgh, we can look forward to the fall 2021 semester, which was recently announced to be in person.

As I begin to shift back into regular life, I will not forget educators like Dr. George Bandik and Beth Marcello, who worked tirelessly to provide their students with a meaningful online experience. Their willingness to adapt and grow from the past year exemplifies their passion for helping students like Shaina Gatton thrive in this strange online format.

By observing the challenges of online learning, the solutions to those challenges, and the takeaways as we inch closer to in-person classes again, we can begin to understand the profound effect the past year has had on the future of higher education.