Understanding What the Heck Just Happened
COVID-19 has created something completely unprecedented in both global society and everyday life. It was a rough shock to our routines and for some it’s also been a wake-up call to the privilege we experience and the ways in which our lives have been routine and uninterrupted until now. For JCU students, our disruption came one month into the semester in which we all, students and staff alike, had no choice but to embrace online learning. As someone who both is employed by JCU as a staff member and attends as a student, I can say with some confidence that this was a difficult transition for everyone.
What the heck just happened?
The first JCU wide announcement came on the 9th of June, encouraging us to stay home if we were sick, and that JCU would be monitoring the situation. It was Week 3, and I think many of us were wrapping our heads around the semester and the idea of a global catastrophe still seemed quite distant. But by the next week, on the 18th of March, JCU announced that they would pause all teaching for the next week (Week 5) to facilitate the move online. By the 3rd of April, everyone was moved online and JCU opened a food pantry for students struggling financially on both the Cairns and Townsville campuses. The JCUSA began online live training sessions. All non-essential staff were instructed to work from home and online learning began on April 6th. By the 9th, JCU had implemented a simplified result system (moving from graded to a satisfactory/unsatisfactory program, though this was more complicated than initially assumed) and introduced a IT Resources Assistance Scheme that provided students with a package that included a computer, keyboard, mouse, and Wi-Fi dongle. This preceded the introduction of the Student Success Support Package on the 16th April, which included the announcement of an academic safety net, two funds for students experiencing hardship, and telehealth initiatives. On the Townsville campus, Casa Pasta provided free lunch for students experiencing hardship.
In initial announcements, JCU announced that all students would benefit from the Academic Safety Net, before saying that only those doing level 1 and 2 would have their grades waived. The JCUSA created an open letter and petition, which quickly garnered massive support from students, and led to the announcement of an opt-in system across the student body, meaning that level 1 and 2 could apply to have their grade calculated, while level 3 and above could apply to move away from an ungraded system. Prior to this, the JCUSA successfully used the open letter to encourage the university to move Census Date from the 26th of March to the 14th of April, giving students more time to decide if they wished to continue with their semester and be charged the requisite fees. It was a great example of the ways in which student voices can collectively contribute to the conversations with their university in a constructive manner and demonstrated the success when both sides meet and create good alternatives.
Some measure of good news, finally
According to a university announcement, as of the 22nd of May 1,147 students had accessed the initiatives under the Student Success Support Package and provided $228,000 of financial support to students, including 260 computers distributed. Given that international students were excluded from receiving government support, as also occurred during the Townsville floods in 2019, this hopefully helped fill some gaps, however no data is available.
As semester one is wrapping up, the university is also preparing its return to campus plans. For the rest of 2020, lectures will be recorded and available online, but depending on advice given and further developments, some things may move back to campus, such as tutorials, workshops, and laboratory sessions that benefit from face-to-face methods. Learning materials will be available in more formats to allow for a variety of accessibility options. As of the 4th of June, front counter services had re-opened in both Cairns and Townsville, though social distancing still applies. Food and drink services on both campuses remain open, and it will be important for students to support them as we trickle back onto campus.
University is challenging enough, especially first year, without a global pandemic. So much has happened in the first six months of this year alone, and for many of us it has resulted in financial hardship, psychological hurt, and increased loneliness. No matter how your semester shook out, take some time to sit back and be proud of everything you’ve survived and accomplished this year. Taking a breather and acknowledging your success can help you get through the next semester. And remember, we’re all in this weird, scary boat together. There’s always someone to hold your hand as we brave the waves.