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OPINION

Report card from Zoom University

Students are trying to make the best of a troubling situation, as they peer into a future that is much murkier than any of us could imagine when the spring semester began.

I last saw my Suffolk University journalism students, face-to-face, on March 4. Now they are faces on Zoom.

With their permission — and some student editing suggestions — I share some of their thoughts and pursuits as they weather the rigors of social distancing and virtual learning. On the bright side, they are reconnecting with parents and siblings. They are cooking breakfast, baking cookies, hiking, and working out. They are creating podcasts, reading novels, and collecting vinyl from the ’60s. They are drawing in charcoal, learning to play the piano, and relearning how to play the guitar. They are keeping journals and trying to quit smoking. They are attempting to impose discipline on their lives by minimizing screen and sleep time.

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But they are also taking an unexpected crash course in Life 101, and the lessons in disappointment and adversity that go with it. It’s harder on some than on others, because Zoom University also exposes another slice of America’s great class divide. As The New York Times reports, the more privileged get to set up laptops at spacious vacation homes; the less fortunate deal with cramped apartments with weak or no Wi-Fi. At Suffolk, the university’s website notes that working students face “food insecurities, the possibility of missing rental payments, and more.” A fund supported by alumni, staff, and friends has been started to help them out.

My students are worried about lost work-study jobs, vanishing internships, and the new world they will face after COVID-19 runs its course. They miss Boston, their friends, and their routines. Like others, they are fighting boredom and fear of the unknown. But overall, they are trying to make the best of a troubling situation as they peer into a future that is much murkier than any of us could have imagined when the spring semester began.

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“What I’m doing is being me again,” wrote one student, relaying his efforts to repaint the room he shares with a younger sibling while he looks for ways “to make some money to help my family out with groceries.”

Noted another student: “I think the most important takeaway of staying home has been a time to think about my direction in life after graduation — not so much career . . . but how I want to live my life after quarantine. I found it empowering to think what happens afterward. Not just what happens next for the world, either, but for my generation, as well as for me, too.”

Such resilience and resolve should make parents proud.

But what about that journalism course, which, after all, is what those precious tuition payments supported? The students, as always, will get to judge that.

From my perspective, I know more about them now, through our virtual relationship, than I did before. Zoom provides a weird intimacy, and so do online discussion boards. However, I worry about keeping their interest, since technology is not my best friend. And while I understand the reasoning behind the decision to let students choose a pass/fail grading option, I hope it doesn’t encourage a loss in focus.

In January, our class set out to report on what then seemed like a relatively big story — Boston traffic and the T. Part of the plan was to show the merits of interviewing people in person. Transportation activists came to our classroom, and we trekked over to Boston City Hall to interview City Councilor Michelle Wu. On March 4 — our last in-person class — we interviewed MBTA general manager Steve Poftak at T headquarters on High Street. Foreshadowing the calamity ahead, Poftak told the class about that morning’s press conference, when he stood next to Governor Charlie Baker and discussed plans to disinfect trains and stations.

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The rest is pandemic history. The coronavirus has turned into a global story for the ages, one that will transform our country and our lives. It will also transform teaching at all levels, as educators come to terms with the value and challenges of online learning.

This semester, my students and I caught a glimpse of both. Meanwhile, interviews for their final writing assignment will, of course, be conducted remotely — like our class.


Joan Vennochi can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.