Dean of Peabody Institute Fred Bronstein announced the conservatory’s transition to complete online instruction for the upcoming fall semester on July 31. This announcement backtracked on a June statement planning for hybrid fall instruction.
In an email to The News-Letter Bronstein explained that, due to an increase in coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in Maryland, the administration was forced to change its plans.
“As we assessed the deteriorating situation, the likelihood for accelerated community transmission in the weeks ahead, coupled with the unique challenges of music and dance instruction ... it became clear that the move to fully remote instruction was the safest and best decision for Peabody at this time,” he wrote.
The July 31 email stated that students would receive no decrease in tuition; however, Peabody has since followed the University’s plans to give its students a 10 percent tuition reduction.
Rising junior Lara Villanueva noted that while she understands why Peabody made the decision, she wishes students had not been led to believe they were returning.
“While I do understand and approve of the need to go fully online for the fall semester (as per public health regulations), I do not approve of the way that the administration handled its communications to students,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “Now we have people who signed leases to start in the beginning of August who can't get out of them and people with plane tickets traveling back already.”
Rising junior Michael Djabarov was particularly upset that students had been told in June to secure off-campus housing. In an email to The News-Letter, he explained that students signed leases earlier this summer, assuming that they would be attending courses on campus.
“When they announced that we would be online I was livid,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “You can imagine me sitting in my new apartment in Mount Vernon and getting this email and realizing that the money I had just spent was for nothing.”
President of the Peabody General Assembly (PGA) Layan Atieh also believes that students should have been given the announcement earlier. However, she noted that online school will be safer in the long run.
“It’s more realistic than expecting all students to comply to the strict guidelines that were necessary for reopening schools,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
In his email to Peabody students, Bronstein noted that students will need to rely on advanced technology in order to succeed this semester.
“Peabody offers detailed recommendations for computers, peripheral devices, and minimum network connectivity standards for students,” he wrote. “JHU student discounts are available for some of the recommended devices, and financial aid may be available to ensure students have the tools they need this fall.”
Rising junior and voice performance and music education student Kai'jeh Johnson stated that, beyond technology, his learning style will need to adapt to online schooling.
“My learning system has been totally dismantled through remote instruction,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “But I have come to realize that remote instruction is the best way for all of the University’s staff, faculty, and students to remain safe and healthy, so I will just need to adjust.”
Harrison Greenough, a master’s student in double bass performance, noted that music instruction, in particular, is not conducive to online learning.
“Music is one of the most in-person degrees available. Concerts are a core aspect of learning, as are large ensemble rehearsals, group work and, importantly, having a place to practice,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
Greenough also voiced frustration at how Peabody administration is handling the transition.
“Peabody has flat out rejected student pleas, locked students out of what is often their one and only practice location, and zero accommodations,” he wrote. “Additionally, they have posted audition repertoire, but have yet to offer accommodations to students without practice capabilities. This is the opposite of equitable for low-income students.”
Losing a reliable practice space is particularly concerning to Greenough, who cannot practice at his apartment building because of noise restrictions and cannot afford to pay over $150 a week for a private studio space.
Greenough called on Peabody to better support its students given the last-minute decision to go fully remote. He stated that the school should provide some form of financial credit or scholarship so that he and other musicians can find safe and hospitable locations to practice this upcoming semester.
“I came to Peabody to study bass, I am paying tuition, yet have absolutely zero ability to practice right now given my financial situation,” he wrote.
J.T. Hassell, a graduate student studying piano, noted in an email to The News-Letter that the lack of transparency between Peabody administration and its students extends beyond plans for the fall semester.
“The administration is being shockingly obtuse and dishonest at a time when many students are frantically scrambling to understand what the coming semester will look like, from both a financial and educational standpoint,” he wrote.
Hassell began a petition, which currently has over 100 signatures, calling for open communication between Peabody administration and students. The petition states that making students pay for mandatory technology is unacceptable. Additionally, the letter calls for greater financial transparency regarding administrators’ salaries.
“For the administration: you are the source of this discontent and ultimately the only ones who can do anything to quell it. I hope you will promptly and enthusiastically take steps to increase your financial transparency and not make this situation more difficult on yourselves than it already is,” the petition reads.
Djabarov highlighted that his concerns with Peabody’s administration do not specifically apply to the faculty.
“Several teachers have reached out to check and make sure I was doing okay,” he wrote. “The administration, though, is a very different story. They have released no plan on what kind of compensation we SHOULD be receiving and they are requiring us to pay for new technology to make online work. I am someone who is very proud of the school I go to, but right now they are dropping the ball hard.”
In his email to The News-Letter, Bronstein noted that Peabody administrators have been in contact with PGA to discuss changing grading policies given the switch to online. Additionally, he noted that faculty members have been working to deliver courses asynchronously for students in different time zones and with different responsibilities.
Bronstein also urged Peabody students to use this opportunity to reflect on the growing role that technology plays in the artistic world.
“There were a lot of forces underway in our field long before this pandemic, that have forced artists and artistic organizations to reconsider or expand what they do and how they do it,” he wrote. “The silver lining in this moment is that it requires us to in a sense double down on grappling with those challenges.”
Atieh hopes that Peabody students will not have to face the same circumstances in the spring semester.
“Looking ahead, I think one thing I — and no doubt most students — would like to see is a hard set deadline on when Spring 2021 and Fall 2021 plans will be announced,” she wrote. “I understand the need for flexibility in this constantly changing, unprecedented environment, but I believe it would nonetheless be prudent to allow students more time to prepare their living accommodations so that no student is left in limbo again.”
Ryan Aghamohammadi contributed reporting to this article.