Physics in the pandemic: ‘I learned that my students miss the structure and support that the university provides’ – Physics World


Bill Atkinson is a professor at Trent University in Canada

This post is part of a series on how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the personal and professional lives of physicists around the world. If you’d like to share your own perspective, please contact us at 

Bill Atkinson
Seasonal renewal: Bill Atkinson enjoys the first signs of spring near Peterborough, Ontario. (Courtesy: Bill Atkinson)

It’s been two weeks since Trent University shut down.  We all knew it was coming, but its abruptness came as a real shock. On Thursday night, I was making final preparations for Friday lectures (one of my heavy teaching days), and on Friday morning everything was closed.  Now, the term is winding down and we’re all trying to figure out how to move exams online.

Despite the upheaval, it’s easy to feel removed from everything that’s going on in the wider world.  Peterborough is a small city two hours northeast of Toronto, plunked in the middle of lakes, cottages, and farmland.  Birds have been streaming back into the area now that winter has ended, and the seasonal renewal contrasts strangely with the constant messaging around the virus.  Social distancing is almost effortless here: I can easily wander the streets around my neighbourhood without crossing paths with another person, and a 10-minute drive takes me out onto quiet railway trails through the countryside.

In many ways, my life has become simpler since the shutdown.  I still have lots of work to do, but the interruptions have disappeared.  As I have recently learned, this is not necessarily true for my students.  Indeed, the strangest aspect of the shutdown has been losing touch with them.  Trent is a small university, with a lot of interaction between students and faculty, and I hadn’t realised how much student feedback informs my teaching.

Twelve time zones away

To fill the void, I posted a survey with one question (“How are you doing?”) and discovered that they were eager to share.  Most have left town, and are back in their parents’ houses, including the international students who are now up to twelve time zones away.  For some, the return home comes with emotional stress that makes it hard to focus on coursework; others are grateful for the extra support that their families provide; and more than a few confessed that they have been “on vacation” since the shutdown.

More seriously, a few students are anxious because they have family members with serious health problems that make them susceptible to the virus.  Ultimately, I learned that my students miss the structure and support that the university provides.  But they adapt: some continue to study together using Discord, a Skype-like app specifically designed for gamers, while others build new daily routines.  I hope they are ready for the real challenge that comes next week: exams.

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