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In January 2020, when the earliest indications emerged that the COVID-19 virus could find its way to the Stanford campus, Stanford leadership began planning for a crisis: meeting with counterparts from peer institutions, convening its infectious disease team, and conducting tabletop exercises. 

On Friday, March 6, 2020, amid a worsening global pandemic and a rapidly changing public health situation, that planning turned into action. Stanford Hospital announced it was treating its first COVID-19 patients. That same day, university leadership acted quickly to move the remainder of its winter term classes online. At about noon, Stephanie Kalfayan, vice provost for academic affairs, and Provost Persis Drell called Sarah Church, then the vice provost of teaching and learning. “Can we go online by Monday?” they asked. Church said, “Let me call you back.” A few hours later, the answer was yes. Church, now vice provost for undergraduate education, recalls meeting with Richard Webber, associate vice provost and chief technology officer in Learning Technologies and Spaces, and Steve Gallagher, chief information officer in University IT. “We wondered, ‘Could we do this?’” Church says of the unprecedented pivot to remote instruction. “It was a frantic dash to let faculty know, and then it was all hands on deck to support them.” 

Over the course of the following weekend of March 7–8, faculty reworked their courses. Staff teams spent the weekend in marathon meetings, drafting documentation for students and faculty to guide them through this emergency shift to remote learning for what was initially thought to be a period of a few weeks. Soon after, spring quarter courses moved online until further notice, and the work to pivot successfully to remote instruction continued at a rapid pace. The Teach Anywhere website was created in a day, including valuable information about using Zoom and how to get equipment for remote instruction. The Center for Teaching and Learning held constant office hours for faculty for four weeks straight, and University IT’s general help email provided extra support for remote instruction. In addition to these staff efforts, Church lauds the hard work of the faculty during this disruption. “Instructors were tremendous. Often all we did was make the decisions; the instructors were the ones who made it work and did the hard work,” Church says.

Stanford’s world-class community of teachers and learners faced the emergency switch to online learning with ample resources, a deep understanding of technology, and a long history of academic excellence and innovation in distance education. Yet, despite the successful transition to virtual classes from in-person, the path was bumpy for many, particularly students with fewer resources.

A man in a mask stands with his bike by outdoor tables draped in caution tape because seating is closed
In July 2020, Tresidder Memorial Union outdoor eating area was closed due to COVID-19.

The pre-pandemic campus experience had leveled the playing field in many ways: students slept in similar rooms in on-campus housing, ate similar meals in the dining halls, and had the same access to the internet, libraries, and study spaces. Pandemic learning removed this shared experience and brought once-hidden differences into the light. As undergraduate students scrambled to leave on-campus housing, stark differences began to become more evident. Some students had no homes to return to outside of their campus housing. Some students’ loss of a campus job impacted their families’ financial situation considerably. Others returned to homes where they were relied on to be caregivers on top of their academic obligations.

An April 2020 survey of first-generation and/or low-income (FLI) students conducted by the First-generation and/or Low Income Partnership (FLIP) found the FLI population was especially vulnerable to negative impacts from pandemic disruption. Among FLI students, 80 percent felt they faced circumstances that made academic success difficult, 60 percent felt concern about access to resources, and 50 percent had concerns about stable housing and/or food. Institutional Research and Decision Support reported that data collected during a spring 2020 student survey indicated that “roughly twice the percentage of FLI students don’t have access to an adequate place to study compared to non-FLI undergraduate students.” Many students joined synchronous class sessions from across the globe, in the middle of the night local time, some on borrowed wireless internet. Many staff and faculty also suffered extreme loneliness because of isolation from their peers, and still others found themselves overwhelmed by new demands for education of their children and health care responsibilities for elder family members. University leadership took action to address this challenging context for teaching and learning, creating new programs for supporting academic continuity, such as shipping laptops to students in need, providing additional funds to students who receive financial aid, and other interventions discussed in this review. 

While some instructors made a seamless transition to teaching online, others struggled to deliver course content in a technology platform they were wholly unfamiliar with. Burnout and Zoom fatigue were common as, particularly early in the pandemic, students passively consumed long lectures on computer screens. As the pandemic wore on, instructors adapted their teaching to the pandemic circumstances and to students’ needs. Instructors quickly increased their skill in using Zoom for teaching and thoughtfully reworked their instruction, with help from newly developed resources and training programs rapidly spun up by teams across campus. These innovations, explored in this review, improved student engagement in remote teaching and learning. 

In addition to the challenge of remote teaching, other issues in our society had major effects on Stanford during this period. In the summer of 2020, the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police aligned people across the country in a call for justice under the banner of Black Lives Matter. The movement had impacts on the Stanford community, as faculty and students made new space to discuss the impacts of racial injustice and inequality. At Stanford, a large-scale memorial to Black victims of police violence was erected at the Oval, while some students struggled to work with faculty to find space for organizing and for grief. Capturing the impact of this moment on students, a Stanford Daily opinion subheading reads, “Our friends are outside being tear gassed in the middle of a pandemic. Just please let us pass our classes.” 


A student with a Black Lives Matter mask standing on Stanford's empty campus

“Our friends are outside being tear gassed in the middle of a pandemic. Just please let us pass our classes.” 

Stanford Daily opinion subheading


The COVID-19 pandemic increased anti-Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) sentiment, sometimes resulting in hate speech and violence. Stanford’s community was not spared from the stress and fear caused by the increase in anti-AAPI hate. Hateful messaging surrounding the pandemic, such as references to the virus as the “China flu,” likely drove the spike in anti-AAPI hate crimes, with 708 reported hate crimes in the Bay Area during the first year of the pandemic.  

Many members of the Stanford community faced these issues in society with a deep commitment to addressing racial disparities, social injustices, and educational and economic inequities. Stanford groups rallied together remotely for equity and justice. The Black Lives Matter movement and the movement to end anti-AAPI hate affected students’ presence in their virtual classrooms in an unignorable way. Many instructors made space for students to share the impacts of issues in society on them and centered conversations around topics of identity and equity.

Meanwhile, some students never left campus: those who petitioned to remain due to circumstances preventing them from living and studying elsewhere safely. About 500 undergraduate students remained in spring 2020, along with 4,500 graduate students, including coterm, professional, and PhD students. They experienced a drastically different campus than pre-pandemic. Evolving plans and policies caused changes to where these students could eat and work and sometimes forced relocations of their living spaces. Staff groups tasked with supporting students’ learning technology needs, both remotely and on campus, were stretched thin. The staff members responsible for maintaining residential computer hardware, who supported printers and even refilled printer paper, were students who had left campus.

Starting with the emergency pivot to online teaching and learning in March 2020, Stanford’s leadership continued to innovate to find new ways to deal with the many challenges arising from the constantly changing COVID-19 situation. “We had been working on updating a pandemic plan since January 2020,” says Russell Furr, associate vice provost for Environmental Health and Safety. However, that group, like so many others across the nation, did not anticipate the scale of disruption that COVID-19 caused. “We were doing things we hadn’t contemplated in January,” Furr says. Indeed, these efforts required immense innovation and adaptability. Gallagher notes that the pandemic response required “a dramatic culture change, not just in terms of teaching and learning, but the campus at large” to allow for so much innovation so rapidly.  

University leadership met regularly with leadership at peer institutions to determine best practices, though local regulations required each institution to formulate its own policies in crucial areas like masking requirements for classrooms, the ability to conduct research, and indoor workplace capacity. “We were put in situations where we had to make decisions with little information,” Kalfayan recalls. New task forces and working groups such as the Academic Continuity Group emerged to meet the situation with the necessary thoughtful agility. 

Yet, because of the evolving public health crisis, each necessary transition to virtual learning, starting from that first two-week stretch in March 2020, happened piecemeal, sometimes at what seemed to be the last possible moment. The way the university communicated changes in policy was unavoidable given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the plethora of new and rapidly shifting federal, state, and local government regulations around COVID-19. It was not possible to avoid sudden but needed adjustments to the academic calendar, which, in some cases, increased anxiety and eroded confidence among some instructors, staff, and students and their families. For a subset of the Stanford community, including the undergraduate class of 2024 — which was remote for its entire first year — confidence in the stability of their learning environment has been slow to return. Edith Wu, associate dean and director of New Student Programs, describes members of that class having “a lack of trust” in Stanford authorities. “Any university administrator or leadership can say something, and the students will immediately be skeptical; they will immediately not trust it,” she says.

“Faculty and staff worked hard to find new community-building tools. There was a spirit of shared responsibility.”

Sarah Church, then vice provost of teaching and learning

While some first-year undergraduate students felt understandably disconnected from the university as a result of the pandemic disruption, many more faculty, staff, and students reported feeling increasingly connected to the institution due to a new emphasis on practicing compassion and empathy in the classroom. As Church noted in a presentation to the Faculty Senate in February 2021, instructors put in much extra effort to prepare remote classes, which students greatly appreciated. “Faculty and staff worked hard to find new community-building tools,” she added. “There was a spirit of shared responsibility.” Kalfayan says, for instance, that she received reports of improved attendance by faculty at academic meetings during the first two years of the pandemic. All of these developments suggest that Stanford community members pulled together and found ways to continue to provide a Stanford education despite the hardships.

“There is no ‘normal’ to return to” 

Stanford’s pivot to an online campus was meant to last for the duration of the pandemic’s threat, initially estimated to be the remainder of winter quarter, then the remainder of the academic year. The rapid transition to remote learning lasted far longer than that. “Nobody expected an emergency to last as long as this one did,” Kalfayan says. 

In fact, reverberations of pandemic-disrupted teaching and learning continue to echo — and will likely continue to do so for decades. While fall quarter 2021 brought a buzz of energy back to campus and a push to return to “normal” face-to-face education, pandemic measures such as remote and hybrid classes and rules about social distancing, masking, testing, and vaccination remained throughout the 2021–22 academic year and beyond. University leadership, faculty, staff, and students are trying to determine which pedagogical practices from the previous years should continue and which should be let go. The entire university is looking to address the inequities brought to the fore by pandemic experiences and the protests over racial injustice. The negative and positive impact to students — to their learning, to their skills, to their well-being — is yet to be fully understood and is likely significant, based on what we learned in our interviews.

“There is no ‘normal’ to return to,” remarked one of our interview subjects, highlighting the lasting nature of the seismic changes of the pandemic’s in 2020 –21 on Stanford, on our society, on teaching and learning.

This review, organized around themes and stories that emerged from our interviews of members of the Stanford community, intends to weigh these impacts. We set out to create an archival snapshot of both challenges and innovations during this time by listening to stories from across our community. We hope that what we heard will help the Stanford community to understand better the potential of some learnings to be embraced and be long-lasting and to work to address the challenges made more visible by the pandemic that persist beyond it.