The sudden and unexpected:Coronavirus
point park university students learn to overcome adversity in the midst of a global pandemic.
by joie knouse
When Point Park United Student Government president, Jake Berlin, was told by a high-level source on March 11 that the university would be closing due to the coronavirus, he promptly made the announcement to the student body.
As the Point Park administration waited, all other colleges in Pittsburgh announced closure. Berlin watched closely as friends and constituents on the downtown campus lapsed into fear of what was yet to come.
In an effort to inform the student body, Berlin tweeted about the upcoming closure and was promptly charged with a conduct violation by Point Park administrators who insinuated that he was inciting fearful behavior amongst students.
Berlin’s situation is one of the many outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic as it engulfed Point Park and every university in the city and uprooted the lives of virtually every college student and citizen of Pennsylvania in what has become the largest health crisis in American history.
“I moved out when it was highly recommended to do so. After I finished my film project, I packed my stuff and left as soon as I could. The day I left they found two cases in Pittsburgh, so I’m pretty glad I left,” said Michael Booker, a freshman at Point Park.
Booker, like other students at Point Park and beyond, has had to adapt to an online education since the closure of all Pennsylvania schools. Students have had to forsake face-to-face classes for virtual ones in the first such move in American history. It became a fluid situation at Point Park and elsewhere, causing a lack of materials, feedback, and community access for students.
The pandemic still remains unpredictable and there is no clear end to its widespread effects.
Exploring the Unknown
Following strict international travel restriction, the United States reported its first death caused by the coronavirus on February 29. The virus has since spread throughout the country like wildfire and on March 13, Governor Wolf announced the statewide closure of all K-12 Pennsylvania schools.
As surrounding universities announced closure, Point Park’s President Dr. Paul Hennigan began offering messages of hope and despair, reminding students to frequently check their emails for COVID-19 updates.
The closure of the University of Pittsburgh was one of the first in the area. They informed students not to return after the spring break and that they will be transitioning to distance learning. This was the beginning of a chain of closures across the city, starting a mass exodus of students in the area.
That is when Berlin began hearing rumors of Point Parks closure. Berlin, a journalism major, tweeted on the evening of March 11 that the university was closing its normal procedure, prior to an official announcement.
After his tweet had circulated and the administration caught wind, Berlin was contacted by the Point Park administration asking him to cut off all communication with students.
“I was given information from an anonymous high-level source, which was not off the record, saying that the school would be closing and we will be moving to online instruction. I did not speculate about any other information, I only relayed the facts which were later confirmed by the email Dr. Hennigan sent. I was threatened with a conduct violation if I didn’t cease communication with the student body,” said Berlin.
Berlin’s concerned that the university used the coronavirus as an excuse to cut project funding and increasing tuition.
“I am concerned because we now know the university went to bed after every major school in Pittsburgh announced it would be closing, and administration woke up the next morning and decided that we would follow the guidance of all these other institutions,” said Berlin, I’m worried the coronavirus is an excuse to cut projects and increase tuition in the future when other schools are facing the same problem”.
Berlin refused to comply with the initial demands of administration and continued tweeting and communicating with the Point Park population. That is when he received his conduct violation notice.
Wrong v. Right
“ I was faced with conduct violation and I am currently fighting that, and hopefully they will see that I am journalist and freedom of speech is just as important as our public relations mechanisms of point park administration,”
Berlin plans to appeal his conduct violation on the ground that he was using his freedom of speech as a journalist and a public figure to the Point Park community.
“I don’t want to imply guilt by not appealing the decision. I will go through any channel I have to do so and in the meantime, I haven’t stopped tweeting or communicating with the student body, and I am sure that is bothering administration as well,” said Berlin.
After that controversy, the university began to take direct action. Dr. Hennigan sent a school-wide email officially announcing the closure of normal school procedures. Effective March 12, the university halted all in-person classes and meetings. Students and faculty had until March 18 to transition to an online format. At this point, resident halls and dining services remained open.
As a Professor at Point Park University, having only six days to prepare for an online format, Darlene Marnich hurried to find ways to give her students as much access to her as possible in order for her to help them through this anxiety-filled time.
“I email the materials out to my students ahead of time and I try to get as many students as I can to attend the online lectures. I take notes and send them out after every class, and I also offer one-on-one video meetings with my student,” said Marnich, of Grove City, PA. ”Does it take more time? Yes, it does. Is it worth it to help students get through this time? Absolutely”.
Paul Brigman is an online graduate student trying to obtain his Administrative certification through Point Park University. Brigman is trying to find creative ways in this new learning environment to be a support system for students.
“I’ve been trying to work creatively within the system and try to be in consultation with my professor to find ways I can still be involved. I’ve been sitting in on a lot of administrative meetings, and trying to work behind the scenes to help build a resource support team for students,” said Brigman of State College.
Along with his efforts to help younger students, Brigman is also worried about his own education.
“The timing was pretty awful for me because the class I have now is my first of two practicums, in which I'm supposed to be getting between twenty-twenty five hours a week of direct administrative experience in the school system. I’m not able to actually work face to face with students or even work alongside my administrators and supervisors,” said Brigman.
Hands Off Experience
Students with more hands-on majors are lacking the resources they need to gather equipment and feedback from their classes. Michael Booker, 19, is an example of a student who needs these resources in order to be successful in his major.
“Since I'm a cinema student, most of my work that I have to do is strictly visual and in-class stuff and so it's kind of hard getting access to the movies we have to watch. It’s also hard without the community of reading scripts and getting feedback and thoughts in a collective space,” said Booker of Apollo, PA.
Some students, Like Trinity Jensen, a psychology major at Point Park, live out of state and were sent into a panic once the pandemic hit.
“I was really distraught because I thought that everything was going to
be okay at the start of the year. I was going to have the best time with my
best friends, but then the virus struck and it only kept getting worse. My
mom started becoming more afraid because we were sure if they would
allow traveling and I didn’t want to be stuck on campus away from my
family if it ook a terrible turn like it has now,” said Jensen of Santa Fe,
As more cases started to appear across the state, Dr. Hennigan
emailed students highly encouraging them to leave campus and
head home. On March 17, Point Park students received an email
saying that the university was shutting down the entire campus,
giving students ten days to move out.
“To address the health crisis, Point Park University is asking all
residential students to leave the residence halls no later than Friday,
March 27, 2020. Very few exceptions will be granted,” said Dr.
Hennigan in an email.
After the notice of the school closure, students are still learning
how to cope with an online learning platform.
“It was very difficult to switch to online because I already don’t like
doing homework and it is not the best way I can learn. I need to be
there physically. The online format has taken a toll on my mental
health because I feel overwhelmed with assignments that I should
have been doing in class but now I am doing it on my own. I feel like
I am not learning as much as I should,” said Jensen.
Keywords: Students, Point Park, Online, Coronavirus, COVID-19, Pittsburgh
Joie Knouse is an aspiring photojournalist in her second year at Point Park University
Jake Berlin, Point Park Student Body President, tweets the unprecedented news of Point Park's closure.
The intersection of Blvd. of the Allies and Wood street, normally packed with students, now is deserted.