Students turn to Facebook group for aid, information amid COVID-19 pandemic

Media Credit: Photo Illustration by Alexander Welling | Assistant Photo Editor

Students said the Facebook page Overheard at GW has helped them navigate updates from the University response to COVID-19.

As students braced to leave campus last week, senior Alex Cho opened the Facebook group Overheard at GW and told peers that his family’s local restaurant would offer a discount for students who couldn’t go home.

He said the post, which racked up more than 1,600 reactions and nearly 160 comments on the page, helped him reach a large portion of the student body as it grapples with the novel coronavirus pandemic. He said the “positive” feedback he has received in the group led him to talk with his family about making the deal permanent for students.

“I wanted to do something to alleviate their tension [and] stress and serve them in a way school would have done if deemed absolutely necessary,” Cho said.

Cho’s post is one of more than 130 that have cropped up on the Facebook group over the past couple of weeks with information about available resources to students staying on campus and with questions related to the COVID-19 outbreak. More than 10 students said the group has helped them navigate the flood of updates from the University, while officials said the page has become a useful tool to identify confusion as they respond to the pandemic.

Some students have posted about frustrations related to their canceled study abroad plans, while others have circulated petitions pushing administrators to move classes to a pass/fail basis – a demand officials met – and to reschedule the University’s now-canceled Commencement ceremony on the National Mall.

Zahin Hasan, the page’s moderator, posted Friday that students using the page should post to offer advice and not to share grievances related to the virus “as they lower the position of other helpful posts.” Hasan’s post adds that any news from the University or the U.S. government can be shared if it’s accompanied by a reliable source.

“In light of the coronavirus, and its effect on campus, Overheard has become a space for the campus community to get together and support each other,” Hasan said in the post.

University President Thomas LeBlanc said at a Faculty Senate meeting Friday that officials are keeping tabs on Overheard at GW and monitoring other social media pages for questions posted on those platforms about GW’s response to the pandemic.

Joe Cordes, a professor of economics and public policy and public administration and member of the Facebook group, suggested that the page might be a helpful resource for officials to identify the student response to administrative decisions made to cope with the pandemic.

“If you’re not monitoring that, somebody should, because it might help you think of problems we haven’t thought of,” Cordes said at the meeting.

Yannik Omictin, the Student Association’s vice president for government relations, said the Facebook group has helped curate a mix of resources and information tied to the pandemic. He added that the page is a more “personalized” way of communicating with officials about criticisms students have expressed about topics like the decision to cancel Commencement.

“On Overheard, we express that disagreement and ask the University to change their policies,” he said. “And surprisingly, they’re interested in what we have to say.”

Omictin shared a spreadsheet on the Facebook page last week for students to offer housing and transportation or supplies like food, medicine and other miscellaneous needs to their peers. He said the page helped ensure the document reached a large portion of the student body.

About 22,000 people are members of the Facebook page.

“There was really no other option in terms of a place where there is a critical mass of students, and by that, there are enough students in Overheard that almost everyone can be covered,” Omictin said.

Freshman Anna Bella D’Amico said Facebook has always been a regular form of communication among students, but she’s recently used the group to reach out to peers about how the transition to online classes will impact deaf students. D’Amico shared a link to a BuzzFeed story in the group about how students who are hard of hearing will be affected by the virtual courses.

“This is a very stigmatized and often silenced disability that a lot of people don’t associate with college students, let alone successful ones of the GW kind,” D’Amico said.

She said she has passed along feedback gathered on the page from the deaf community to Disability Support Services and professors to relay how classes can better accommodate students with hearing impairments – for example, lectures could be pre-recorded so students can transcribe them afterward using a professional captioning company.

“The biggest thing I think a professor can do is communicate frequently with students and DSS and be patient, recognizing that students with a disability may need adjustments, extra time, help or simply alternate assignments [and] communication if the primary way is beyond their abilities,” D’Amico said.

Senior Seraina Schottland said the Facebook page will remain an outlet for students to feel like they are still part of the GW community while they transition to online classes for the rest of the semester.

Students have also said the Facebook group “GW Memes for Horny Horny Hippo Teens” has helped them form a sense of community on an urban campus.

Schottland shared a comment she heard about a student who expressed discontent that Commencement was canceled, and she said in the group Wednesday that she will send the petition to officials if and when it reaches 5,000 signatures. She posted again Thursday that LeBlanc responded to the petition, saying officials are figuring out how to accommodate graduates on the National Mall and “mark the occasion” on May 17, the originally scheduled Commencement date.

“It’s going to be difficult for students who are home or away from their friends, and Overheard offers a way to stay on the same page, tag each other in interesting or funny posts and laugh together through a somewhat difficult rest of the semester,” she said.

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