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Fall Semester: Pandemic Edition

By Nina Appasamy

The year 2020 is like a Bingo game that no one wants to play: instead of prizes there are just new calamities that make the real world feel more like a dystopian novel. In most years, August is a time of excitement and sadness with summer drawing to a close, and autumn lingering in its wake to usher in a new school year, brimming with possibilities and homework. This time last year, I was nervously awaiting the start of my first year of graduate school at Vermont College of Fine Arts, looking forward to all of the opportunities the MFA in Writing and Publishing program had to offer. Never did I imagine that one year later, our world would be in the midst of a pandemic that shuttered schools and halted the routines of life that I once took for granted. Because of the dangers of SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19, most students have not set foot in a classroom since early March.

More than 700,000 people worldwide have lost their lives since the COVID-19 pandemic began; more than 159,000 of those people were in the United States alone. Compounding the ongoing, incomprehensible loss of human life are the long-lasting ailments that many COVID-19 survivors suffer, the economic losses that have increased unemployment rates and left people in dire financial straits, and COVID-19’s uncertain path. Since COVID-19 is a new virus, experts are unsure if it will follow the same patterns as pandemics of the past. In fact, a report by the Center for Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota indicates that not even past coronavirus scares are helpful in illuminating the potential path of COVID-19 because “the epidemiology of other serious coronaviruses is substantially different from that of [COVID-19]…” (Moore et al. 2020, p. 2). However, we do know for certain that COVID-19 is a potentially deadly contagion that can cause persistent ailments in survivors, and that, until a vaccine is widely available, the best way to lessen the impact of the pandemic is to wear a mask, practice social distancing, and quarantine after travelling or displaying any COVID-19 symptoms. Thus, it is still unsafe for schools to resume normal classes, where crowded hallways and communal restrooms are already hotspots for contagious illnesses such as strep throat and influenza. Although a cautious approach to reopening schools is necessary, the impacts of remote learning are neither easy nor insignificant.

This semester, my fellow second-year students and I will be beginning the creative culmination of our master’s program; otherwise known as the thesis. Before the pandemic hit, my main thesis idea was for a science fiction dystopian novel. Now, I just can’t bring myself to write a straightforward novel. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to reckon with the uncertainty of life. I cannot write a story so linear, nor one with a gloomy ending, because linearity feels like a false representation of the roller-coaster–like nature of life, and there is already too much gloom in our world.

Sadly, because of the pandemic, the incoming first-year Writing and Publishing students will not be coming to campus at all, and the other graduate programs at VCFA — all low-residency programs — will hold their typically on-campus residencies remotely. The Writing and Publishing program, as the only full-residency program at VCFA, is permitting second-year students to live on campus and possibly attend a few classes in-person, although students are permitted to attend remotely, and most classes will be held virtually anyways. Per Vermont’s guidelines, anyone who arrives on campus from out of state must quarantine for 14 days, and no one can enter classroom buildings without taking a COVID-19 test, which VCFA is providing for students. Still, regardless of these changes, my love for the Writing and Publishing program has only blossomed in the last several months, especially as program faculty have gone out of their way to ensure that students still receive the best of academic experiences.

In the spring, when everyone was tossed into remote-learning at the drop of a hat, my professors had to adjust their syllabi overnight. We learned as we went — evolving our virtual learning skills through trial and error and the occasional Zoom mishap. Throughout those months, my professors and fellow classmates were compassionate and understanding. None of us had ever experienced such a sudden uprooting of life, let alone on such a colossal magnitude; yet, we were all determined to still make the most of our program. Now schools have had a few months to create effective and ever-evolving remote learning models, and my program is ready to resume with the rigor and passion required of a graduate program — with as remarkable and loving people as ever.

Like probably most people, I am anxious about what the future may hold, especially in this year of calamities. I still cannot fathom the loss of life that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing, and the heartbreak does not — for anyone — get easier, knowing that the number of cases and deaths will continue to rise until we have a vaccine AND a properly unified response to the invisible enemy that is SARS-CoV-2. Hopefully, when times are better, we will all have learned some lessons from this era of tragedy and trauma: to not take anyone or anything for granted, including mundane, routine life; to always be prepared to adapt in the face of the unexpected and unthinkable; and, most importantly, to love and cherish each other and remember that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, but we need to work together to reach it and save as many people as we can.