You’re a 20-year-old college student, and all your “live” courses are now being taught online. So there you are, alone in your room with a laptop parked atop the same desk where you scratched out your sixth-grade math homework, flipping through PowerPoint slides in a frantic effort to complete an assignment that’s due tomorrow.

But you’re stuck on a concept that you just don’t get. What do you do?

Email the professor and hope she gets back to you before the deadline.

Now, suppose you’re a classmate of this student and you, too, are having difficulty completing your assignment, but not for the same reason. Your dad just got laid off, your mom doesn’t earn enough to cover the household bills and the part-time job you took to help pay for college is gone. Your family is in crisis. You’re unable to concentrate because you’re worried—about them, about you, and whether there’s even a point to doing this lousy assignment. What do you do?

Email the professor, perhaps for no other reason than to have someone—anyone—to talk to and hope she responds soon.

For instructors today, distance learning is more than just assigning lessons and grading papers that are uploaded to Canvas or Blackboard. It’s interacting with a generation of students who are trying to comprehend all that’s happening, with no common point of reference: They were toddlers when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, and they were learning to ride two-wheelers when the economy fell off a cliff seven years later.

These young adults are neither emotionally nor experientially equipped to deal with the enormity of a crisis that simultaneously threatens their family’s health and financial standing.
Heck, even the instructors are struggling!

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Nevertheless, we have a responsibility to those who look to us for more than they had before. So with that in mind, I have three suggestions to make on how we communicate with our students during this challenging period.

Turnaround time matters.

Certainly this is crucial when a deadline is looming. But what if that’s not the case? A prompt response communicates more than just the answer to a question. It says that we care, and that demonstration of emotional engagement can help our students to feel less isolated.

Tone makes a difference.

Newton’s second law of motion is represented by the formula force (F) = mass (m) X acceleration (a). Consider the force that a too-quickly clicked response with an edge to it can have on someone who is struggling. Previously, that snarky email could end up on social media, much to the sender’s embarrassment. These days, though, it’s more likely to fester in a lonely room.

Think about alternatives.

What if you were to receive an email in which your student is desperate for advice that you are unqualified to give? “Sorry, I can’t help you,” is a response with zero value in a time of need. Consider spending an extra moment to offer useful suggestions or, when possible, referrals to others who may be in a better position to help.

Take for example a student email I received a week ago. She and her family are experiencing considerable distress. Among the many challenging things facing this young woman—many that she is ill-equipped to handle—are the tax and tuition consequences of a family member’s financial mistake that, stunningly, their accountant drop-kicked back to her to address.

I am not an accountant. Nor am I authorized to address the cost of next semester’s tuition. So, I suggested she contact the financial aid office to discuss the tuition matter and, while there, ask for a warm referral to an accounting professor in the business school who maintains a sideline practice (as some do) for a second opinion on the tax matter.

A perfect response? Hardly. But it was the best I could come up with for the very panicked young woman. My point is, although our lives are every bit as turned upside down as our students’, we are still responsible for those who look to us for guidance, assistance or just a kind word in a dark moment.

Mitchell D. Weiss