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A year-long homework assignment

Photo by Robert A. Lisak

In the months since the coronavirus pandemic shut down YSM offices and classrooms, people quickly noticed the little things they’d lost—bumping into someone in the hallway, popping into a colleague’s office with a quick question, going for coffee after a lecture.

“I miss the grapevine. I miss saying hello to people walking down Cedar Street. I miss people walking up to my door and saying, ‘Can we talk?’” said Nancy R. Angoff, MD ’90, MPH ’81, MEd, HS ’93, associate dean for student affairs. She began working from home in March 2020.

Ever since, faculty and staff have kept things running at a distance. To be sure, moving just about every interaction to Zoom, email, or the phone saves time. And working at home can be a boon for parents of small children. But most agreed that something important had been lost.

“The atmosphere of a community is based on the ability to have and be part of conversations beyond the work you do together,” said Michael Schwartz, PhD, associate dean for curriculum. “If you’re talking about things in the office or getting together in the conference room, everybody hears the conversation and may hear something important to them. Working virtually sometimes makes it feel like you’re left out of conversations that might impact what you’re doing.”

“We all feel like we get more done when we’re in the office,” said Susan Larkin, MBA, associate director of the Office of Education, which at one point had staggered its schedule so that no more than two people were in the office on any day (as a resource for students and faculty). “Connecting on a personal and professional level is so stilted on Zoom.”

Email also comes with glitches, Larkin said. “Trying to have a conversation over an email trail oftentimes leads to miscommunication or confusion. In our office we say that if it’s going back two or three emails, just pick up the phone.”

Jill Aulenti, MSEd, director of student programs in the Office of Student Affairs, saw working at home as a mixed bag. “I miss the camaraderie of sitting around the lunch table and having a cup of coffee,” she said. “We have a great group in our office, we consider ourselves family.” But she liked being at home with her two school-age sons. “I’m able to drive them to school and pick them up. That eliminates the risk of them being on the school bus.”

Students also missed casual encounters. First-year students say they have yet to meet all their classmates, but they have formed small bubbles based on where they live. Four women who share an apartment a few blocks from the medical campus live directly below and above classmates. “It’s easier to see people who are in our building,” said Victoria Marks, one of the four roommates.

Marks has also found that classes on Zoom create a sort of barrier. “At the end of the lecture, Zoom ends and I don’t get to meet the person sitting next to me and find out what lab they’re in,” she said. The same holds for small workshops. “Instead of walking out of the room and chatting with the people you did it with, and going out and getting lunch, you’re alone in your room.”

Second-year student Ellelan Degife said that her class spent a semester together before the coronavirus separated them. “We were on the precipice of getting to know our classmates—and I haven’t seen the vast majority of them in person for the last 10 months,” she said. “I think that that is something difficult, and hopefully there is time to recuperate those relationships later on.”