At The New Paltz Oracle, we have closely followed the impact of COVID-19 within the town and on campus, particularly within the arts community. An important perspective that has been left out of this coverage is that of the chairs of the School of Fine & Performing Arts (FPA). As the University was first responding to the pandemic in March and focused on getting classes prepared for the fall 2020 semester, the chairs of the FPA offered leadership and guidance in the crafting of courses, as well as meeting the needs of the faculty and students.
Professor Thomas Albrecht, the Chair of the Art Department and Assistant Dean of FPA, describes the first set of courses altered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic reached SUNY New Paltz, the FPA had to radically pivot the structure of their courses to suit an online format. Like the rest of the departments and programs on campus, they had an extended spring break to prepare, but that was still scarce little time to prepare.
“It was not a lot of time, and it was really an extreme challenge for faculty as well as students to shift to that mode of curriculum delivery,” Albecht said. “I really congratulate both the students and my colleagues for shifting to so quickly, without a lot of experience from any faculty from ever teaching online, particularly for studio art.”
However, despite these difficult, rapid changes, provided valuable insight in how to structure courses for next semester, both for online courses and in person classes. As of writing, only 20 to 25% of art students are taking classes in person. In order to ensure student and faculty safety, new guidelines were established. All studio spaces had to be equipped with the proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This includes hand sanitizer, masks and wipes to keep everyone safe.
“New studio guidelines were established,” Albrecht said. “Not only in terms of social distancing, but in the hours the studio would be monitored, would be in use, and communicating effectively with students to publicize studio space scheduling, so that there wouldn’t be more students than would be allowable when classes were not in session.”
Each department faced their own unique challenges in terms of preparing for this semester. The theatre department, for example, had to implement a variety of safety measures to protect students when performing.
“We changed the enrollment of the number of students in classes, and we designed and fabricated some plexiglass sneeze guards for some of the spaces to allow students to have a little more protection and comfort coming into a class, even though they were socially distanced,” said Ken Goldstien, the chair of the Theatre Department. “We also created these large plexiglass rolling screens for performance spaces. The performance classes are different from what they were in other semesters, but they still get to be small, live instruction classes.”
With proper precautions in place, art and theatre classes are able to be held on campus during the pandemic. However, the difficulties faced by the music department are a bit more tricky to address, and might not be able to be fully resolved given the technical issues of video chat technology.
“In music in particular, some of those challenges have to do with what it means to play music together,” said Chair of the Music Department, Beth Thomas. “So if you’re teaching an ensemble group online, the technology that allows people to play music synchronously at a distance is very sophisticated, but it’s equipment we frankly don’t have.
“Figuring out how to play together, how to get the sound quality at a level where instructors can really hear the nuances of what students are doing can be a challenge.”
Another challenge that the music department faces comes from the virus itself and how it transmits.
“When we have things like vocal and choral instruction, we know that there’s accelerated movement of aerosol in the rooms. Same with brass and wind instruments,” Thomas said. “The faculty did a lot of research, specifically about vocal, wind and brass instruction, to figure out how to do this safely. And what we concluded is that we need to be doing this online for those specific types of instruction.”
All of this puts a strain on the faculty as a whole. They have to undertake a completely whole new method of delivering their content, have a firm grasp on the applications they use to connect with one another, the restrictions and difficulties living under a pandemic, on top of their responsibilities in their own home. Similar sentiments can be shared for the students.
Yet, everyone is doing their best under these strange and dire circumstances.
“I think what I can say about our department is that we’re trying to be supportive of each other personally and professionally in every way we can,” Goldstein said. “There will constantly be this learning curve of how to do it well, but I think we’re all making sure we put our humanity first, particularly as we deal with each other as faculty, but also how we deal with the students. It’s incredible to see the best of people come out in circumstances like this.”
“Although this whole thing has been very surprising and a real challenge for everybody, it really has allowed us to ask questions about instruction and student and faculty experiences in new ways,” Thomas said. “I do think that when we come out of this we’re going to have more to offer our students. They’re really hungry for being back together with our faculty, and for being able to perform in person and together. We can’t wait for that to happen and for it to be safe.”
As of the time of publication the School of Fine & Performing Arts will be maintaining the same course structure into the next semester. Hopefully, conditions will improve over the winter, and the school will be able allow more students to perform and make art in person.