The Cornish Commons in downtown Seattle, where some students are residing for the fall semester.
The Cornish Commons in downtown Seattle, where some students are residing for the fall semester. Kelly O

How do you hold a theater rehearsal in the middle of a pandemic? Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts is trying to figure it out.

As a college that focuses on the arts—and one of the first Seattle-area colleges to start classes this fall—Cornish faces the unique challenge of providing a high-quality (and rather expensive) fine arts education during an era of social-distancing mandates.

The school begins instruction this week and plans on offering a blend of in-person and remote classes for the rest of the fall semester. Its 623 students are not required to participate in-person, but if they do, the college has set up guidelines across all three of their campuses that sound pretty familiar: mandatory mask-wearing, social distancing, good hygiene practices, reduced capacity, and some serious deep cleaning.

To tell the story of Cornish's first week back to school, I'm doing daily check-ins with current Cornish students on Slog. Some of the students have been given pseudonyms to protect their identities.

Today, I chat with Mitch, Rebecca, and Christiana:

Senior, Interior Architecture Major
Mitchs home setup for their first day of school at Cornish.
A diverting backdrop for days of back-to-back-to-back Zoom calls a.k.a. attending college. Courtesy of Mitch

Mitch put a lot of time into rearranging their backdrop to look more "put together" on screen—all of their classes today were online. "There aren't many options for repositioning in my 140 square foot apartment," they admitted. "But I guess a pile of plywood and scraps is an appropriate backdrop for an interior architecture student."

They had two back-to-back meetings today which they said "exhausted" them as they are used to being outside on a bike and moving around. "I accidentally fell asleep during a lecture thanks to a fat bowl of ramen I ate for lunch," Mitch told me, which threw them into a panic before their next meeting. They ended up calling in late to work to give themself time to regroup.

"The mental energy it took to keep engaged in the dense information from the guest lecturers and the social energy from meeting the new students drained me," Mitch said. Especially when it all took place within the confines of their apartment.

While they are looking forward to lectures from international designers and architects, Mitch confesses they are not looking forward to days of endless meetings.

"I think we have a plan to have minimal screen meetings and more brief check-ins," they said. "I hope my instructors remember to record the lectures."

Senior, Performance Production Major
Where Rebecca will be spending most of the school year.
Where Rebecca will be spending most of the school year. Courtesy of Rebecca
Today, Rebecca had only one class, Scenic Design IV.

"Over the summer, I had meetings with my teacher via Zoom, so this class felt just like one of those meetings," Rebecca told me. "My roommate, who is the only other student in that class, set up their laptop on our coffee table, and we both did the class from our couch."

Her small class went through the normal "first day" things like going through the syllabus and discussing their first assignment. Rebecca says the class will most likely remain completely online, sharing work with the teacher through Zoom. Both she and her roommate have set up their own workspaces in their apartment that will function as their "personal studios."

"I feel good about this class because there are so few of us," Rebecca said. "It feels like we will be held more accountable for getting our work done."

In regards to any in-person courses—she has a practicum which would normally be dedicated to building theater shows—Rebecca says she feels okay with going into school for those classes. "I worked in a food service job over the summer where customers would blatantly not follow our rules," she told me. "I doubt campus will be any worse than that."

Senior, Dance Major
The view from outside of Christianas dorm window in downtown Seattle.
The view from outside of Christiana's dorm window in downtown Seattle. Courtesy of Christiana
Christiana is a senior dance major who lives in the Cornish dormitory in downtown Seattle. After an hour-long Zoom call with the dance department this morning, the dance faculty and students took an online hip-hop class with one of their technique instructors. Christiana danced along with her roommate, who is also a senior dance major.

"We had fun taking it together in the same room and still got that physical connection of having a hip-hop class without being in-person with everyone," she told me over the phone this afternoon. For Christiana, the experience of learning dance technique over Zoom wasn't new to her, so she was able to adapt to the new form of instruction.

"I feel like since a lot of teachers have had more experience teaching over Zoom this year, now their verbal instructions are a little clearer,” she told me.

Because of the lag between sound and video over Zoom, you can't rely on only watching the instructor on the screen—often the teacher describing their actions ("move left, then turn right," etc.) gives a better sense of the movement as opposed to actually seeing them do the movement.

"Verbal instruction goes a long way," Christiana said.

Overall, she described both the department and hip-hop class as "fun" despite the technical hiccups. Tomorrow is the first day of technique—we'll check-in with her then to see how that goes.