How BYU is remaining a ‘covenant community’ as students disperse across the globe due to coronavirus pandemic

PROVO, Utah — At a challenging moment of disruption and uncertainty, several COVID-19-era phrases have forever entered Brigham Young University’s lexicon: Social distancing. Zoom conferences. Remote learning.

But when BYU public management professor Eva Witesman reflects on the ongoing, unsettling whirlwinds of change, she discovers hope in the many small acts of kindness within the school community that are immune to viruses and pandemics.

“Students have emailed me and simply written: ‘Hey, I’m thinking about you. I know this is hard, but I really appreciate what you’re doing — so thank you.’” 

Tens of thousands of BYU students, administrators, staffers, coaches and faculty members such as Witesman have already been changed by a global public health crisis that has temporarily altered the way the Church-owned school conducts teaching, learning and serving.

BYU classes that were being taught a couple of weeks ago in, say, the Spencer W. Kimball Tower or the David O. McKay Building, are now being broadcast to students isolating themselves in homes and apartments across the globe via online video conferencing platforms such as Zoom.

Dr. Leigh Johnson teaches about plant biological diversity using Zoom during the first week of online classes after BYU directed students in March 2020 to finish the semester at home due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Dr. Leigh Johnson teaches about plant biological diversity using Zoom during the first week of online classes after BYU directed students in March 2020 to finish the semester at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Nate Edwards/BYU

And as at other Church-operated schools, BYU is answering the charge to educate and inspire its 33,000-plus students thanks to a campus-wide amalgamation of capacity and commitment, said school president Kevin J Worthen.

“I’m both amazed and grateful for the ways in which people have responded,” he told the Church News.

BYU’s transition to remote education essentially happened over a weekend.

“We shut down classes and courses on Friday (March 13) — and on the following Wednesday (March 18), everything, with some rare exceptions, had been moved to remote education,” said President Worthen. “That was a remarkable undertaking.”

The school president said the speedy, unprecedented transition to remote classroom instruction has required the flexibility and cooperation of students, faculty members, administrators — along with the professionals in the school’s office of information technology.

Unforgettable new chapters of school history are being written almost daily at the 144-year-old institution.

Witesman said the largest adjustment she’s made in recent weeks is becoming a full-time home-schooler of four children (ages 3 to 17) even while performing her daily BYU duties.

“For sure, shifting my classes to an online pedagogy has been tricky … but I was already familiar with Zoom and used it on a regular basis, and my classes were already communicating electronically via Slack.”

No surprise, Witesman and other professors admit to a few humorous transition snafus. Before one recent class session, she set up a Zoom call, forgetting that she had already established a recurring Zoom call. 

The result: many of Witesman’s students ended up on a different call from their professor. But they graciously assumed ownership of the situation.

The bedroom of a BYU student become a setting for online classroom instruction during the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.
The bedroom of a BYU student become a setting for online classroom instruction during the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. Credit: Rebekah Baker/BYU

“The ‘other’ class continued without me, took notes on the questions they had, and then assigned someone to send me those notes and questions so that I could respond to everybody.”

Sophie Stephenson, a sophomore and public relations major from Salem, Oregon, said she misses campus life. Activities such as rooting at Cougar games and supporting student plays with friends enrich her college experience.

But she doesn’t feel alone now that her classes have shifted to remote instruction.

“The teachers have done a great job shifting to online classes,” she said. “It’s not ideal — but it’s been good.”

A covenant community

In a recent video message, President Worthen spoke of BYU remaining a “covenant community” even as students disperse across the globe.

Looking out for others is not dictated by proximity.

“We’re blessed to live in an era of technology in which we can keep in touch with one another even though there is a physical distance,’” he said. “That’s one thing that makes this BYU experience unique.”

Witesman is uplifted by the empathy professors have shown for their students during the ongoing pandemic. At a recent meeting of BYU’s faculty advisory council and school administrators, the professors discussed the many challenges of remote learning. 

“But the majority of the meeting was this group of faculty talking about the concerns they had about the students and wanting more information about how they could help support the students through the transition,” she said. 

The current circumstances won’t last forever. One day, students and professors will again gather in campus classrooms. Fans and alumni will again fill Lavell Edwards Stadium and other sports venues and cheer for the Cougars.

“When this concludes, we will have learned things that you can do remotely,” said President Worthen. “But I remain convinced that there is still a reason for gathering here in Provo, and I look forward to that day. But we can maintain our community through the means that are provided for us, to the extent that we can, right now.”

Follow the prophet: Find joy in any circumstance

President Worthen is also asking the BYU community and beyond to remember President Russell M. Nelson’s counsel to be joyful, regardless of circumstance

The Church president, he said, teaches that being joyful becomes even more important during “tragedies and travesties.” Remain focused on the Savior and His restored gospel. 

“You can see that in our students and faculty who are, to some extent, joyfully making adjustments that are not necessarily convenient,” said President Worthen. “But they are deriving joy by focusing on others. There is something within us, as spirit children of God, that gives us ‘spiritual endorphins’ from serving others, adapting to circumstances we never anticipated and seeing talents that we did not know we had.”

President Worthen acknowledges that the BYU community has forever changed. It will be different when students again gather with their professors inside on-site classrooms and study halls.

On a practical level, lessons are being learned daily about the capabilities of remote education and technology. That will enhance the in-person classroom experience.

“And I would hope for a deeper understanding of the importance of a covenant community and a deeper understanding of the power of joy and its centrality to our existence,” he said.

BYU track and field athlete Caleb Witsken clears out his locker after the athletic department decided to close all campus athletic facilities during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.
BYU track and field athlete Caleb Witsken clears out his locker after the athletic department decided to close all campus athletic facilities during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Jaren Wilkey/BYU

Stephenson said she has never felt more connected to her professors and classmates, despite the unwelcome physical separation.

“My teachers talk about reaching out to those who are struggling,” she said. “And at other times, they talk about faith and how their love of the gospel is helping them get through this time.”

Witesman added she will return to her traditional BYU classroom a different professor and a different person because of her remote learning/pandemic experiences.

“This has been an incredible opportunity to take stock of what is most important: What are the most important pieces of my character? What are the most important pieces of my job? What is most important to manage at home?

“And then being able to put all of those pieces together in a fresh way with a fresh start is exciting to me. I hope that when we all come through this, that sense of reprioritization will allow me to be a more whole and gracious human being. And I would hope that I would bring that to work at BYU.”