The Honors Program and COVID-19: Navigating a New Era

Much like the rest of campus, the St. John’s Honors Program has gone virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The program, which offers classes tailored to Honors students, was once known for providing its students with free events like walking tours across New York City and free tickets to Broadway plays and musicals, but has now been forced to adapt to a new normal for the fall semester. While not all activities could make the transition to online, substitutions have been made in order to adapt to safety guidelines. 

Dr. Robert Forman, a professor and the director of the Honors Program, has spent months preparing for both the program and his own courses so that both are able to function the best they can under the current circumstances. 

“I do not know if the benefits of online instruction could be called unexpected, but for certain students in certain situations there are benefits. Students in families with members at risk can travel less,” Forman told the Torch. “[However] I do think we need to realize that there is no substitute for in-person instruction. When COVID-19 finally abates and life becomes more regularized, I hope we do not make fully online instruction the default norm.

One of the most difficult aspects of the online transition for the Honors Program has been keeping the same level of “personalized instruction and co-curricular events that encourage student-faculty engagement,” according to Forman. “Online instruction, WebEx notwithstanding, cannot duplicate these experiences.” Forman also noted the “unsatisfactory” nature of WebEx, the chosen medium of virtual learning by the University, and has modified his classes to be held safely in person or asynchronously online with supplemental emails to get the full benefit of the taught material. 

Torch photo / Sara Kiernan

Since it became apparent in April that this semester would be modified,  Forman has been tasked with creating Honors Program events and classes that are safe, functional and social. As is the case with many other University activities, the introduction of incoming freshmen to the Honors Program has been altered. Rather than meeting Forman at Summer Orientation, he has “cobbled together” a series of on-campus events which include the staples of the program like the walking tours and opera showings. Those events, along with other programs, are now to be held virtually in a socially-distanced classroom. This allows students to connect and learn from a safe distance. 

Forman recently hosted the first of the new virtual walking tours through Dutch New York this past Thursday, Aug. 27, which was attended by 20 freshmen. “That hour and fifteen minutes was the most enjoyable time I have had since mid-March,” Forman said. “I felt as though I had come home again.” 

“We appreciate the fact that Forman is really out here and doing his best to do the online stuff and give us as much as he can,” Matthew Wong, class of 2023, said. “It [the transition] hasn’t really made a difference” to the Honors Program. 

Besides the modified activities, the Honors Commons, a space open only to members of the Honors Program,  – nestled in the back of St. Augustine Hall and accessible through the tunnel next to St. Albert Hall – has also been affected. The room that once held up to 50 students at a time now has a maximum capacity of 10 people. Also, all students are required to follow University policy, by wearing a mask and practicing social distancing while in this shared space. 

Torch photo / Sara Kiernan

The biggest change has been to the room’s operating hours. In previous years it had been open 24 hours a day for all Honors students. Now access is reduced to 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.  Monday through Thursday and until 3:00 p.m. on Fridays. It is now completely closed during the evenings and on the weekends. So far, students have “been remarkably understanding about this,” Forman added. 

“I feel like it makes the students’ lives a lot harder because 4:50pm is kind of early, especially when a lot of us end class at 4:50 and some of us have night classes,” Wong told the Torch. 

“It’s just hard to keep in mind the hours and have to work with it; a lot of us commute so we don’t have anywhere else to go besides the Honors Commons.”