Blackfriars Oxford: Learning Under Lockdown
The sudden imposition of Covid lockdown restrictions came as a great shock. It is easy to forget how little we knew about how to deal with the challenges in those early days of the pandemic. An obvious priority for the friars was to learn how to livestream our Masses; but those of us involved in our educational apostolates in Oxford needed to figure out how to put our teaching online – lectures, tutorials, and language classes. Few of us had experience of online teaching, so we needed to learn very fast! And that’s exactly what we did.
At Blackfriars Oxford, we have two educational institutions. Blackfriars Hall is a Permanent Private Hall of the University of Oxford. Almost all of the teaching for the Hall is organised by university departments, so they would sort that out. The other institution is Blackfriars Studium, a seminary for those training for priesthood and whose students are mainly members of religious orders. The teaching for the Studium is very much the responsibility of the friars and Blackfriars staff.
Thankfully, the start of full lockdown, on 23 March, was outside term time. This gave time to organise experimental sessions to allow people to become familiar with online teaching platforms. To general relief, and perhaps surprise as well, the teaching went very smoothly. Online technology was also used for other purposes, such as a goodbye event for students of Blackfriars Hall who had to leave Oxford in March and who were not going to have a summer graduation ceremony due to the pandemic. We were able to toast our graduates, raising a glass to them from wherever we were in the world.
The summers at Blackfriars in Oxford are usually quiet. For the friars working in the Hall and Studium, it is a time to catch up on matters that we are unable to do during the busy academic terms. This summer was, however, very different.
Due to the Provincial Chapter in March, a meeting of friars in which we plan things for the coming four years, Fr David Goodill finished as Acting-Regent and took up the role of Provincial Bursar; and Frs John O’Connor and Bruno Clifton (pictured) arrived in Oxford in July to take up the positions of Regent and Vice-Regent, respectively. Whereas the university students had to return home for the last term of the academic year 2019/2020 due to Covid, now they were expected to be physically present in Oxford for the new academic year. This meant that a great deal of planning had to be done.
A plethora of safety protocols had to be worked out and put in place so that we could open our library and offer accommodation in our student housing. Another complication was to figure out the arrangements for students coming from abroad who would need to quarantine for fourteen days. Most of the Studium teaching would remain online until the situation changed sufficiently.
Many people have said to me that the summer of 2020 was a very difficult time for Fr Bruno and me to start our new roles. I must admit that it was at times stressful for the team of friars and lay staff at Blackfriars. But it is at such times that we see the best in people. It is not mere politeness to say that we could not have managed without the good-natured and hardworking cooperation of staff (teaching staff and non-teaching staff), friars, students (Dominican and non-Dominican), not to mention the goodwill and support of so many others who have helped out in myriad other ways.
The pandemic has also been financially very costly for both Blackfriars Hall and Blackfriars Studium. The generosity of many in response to our recent video appeal has not only been of immense practical benefit to us, it has also lifted our spirits hugely. And so I say sincerely and warmly: Thank You!
The Blackfriars Special Appeal video featured recent alumni and successfully raised around £25,000 to support Blackfriars Hall through the current difficult times.