Community-Engaged Courses

Community-Engaged Courses


For the 2020-2021 academic year, faculty and students doing community-engaged work face particular challenges. The pandemic is amplifying and exacerbating more inequities by the day, and the University of Virginia as an anchor institution bears responsibility for ethical engagement during the continued crisis. And as thousands of students return to Charlottesville, the public health imperative to physically distance from residents of Charlottesville and the surrounding counties seems to undermine the goals of community-engaged teaching.

For classes in which community engagement, public service, and volunteering comprise a key portion of the learning objectives and course assignments, these goals present particular challenges. In many cases, learning goals must change this year and remain flexible.

As you continue to plan your classes, please remember the stress that a public health crisis places on community organizations. In the coming months, it will be essential to place the needs of community organizations before the pedagogical needs of our students.

In any engagement with the community, the underlying question should always be: How can the University of Virginia be a good neighbor and a good partner?

Community Partners

With very few exceptions, community engagement should be carried out virtually this semester. It may be appropriate for faculty to find out if the organizations they have worked with in the past have needs that can be accomplished virtually. Community-engaged language classes, for example, helped translate documents during the Spring 2020 semester. Please do not have students reach out individually to organizations in search of volunteer opportunities. Please also remind students that most, if not all, of your community partners are continuously grappling with the challenges dealt by the COVID-19 pandemic to their organization and the communities it serves. They may be unable to respond to inquiries about virtual volunteering or to maintain long-term virtual volunteering partnerships.

Madison House

On March 12, 2020, Madison House suspended all volunteer activities for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester. For Fall 2020, Madison House continues to evaluate its volunteer programs on a case-by-case basis. Faculty who had planned to work with Madison House during the Fall 2020 semester to secure volunteer placements for their students should contact Madison House individually to learn more about the status of their plans.

Suggestions for Fall 2020

Shift the focus of the class to critical reflection and incorporate assignments that encourage learning about the social issues impacting the groups you work with. You may want to ask students to spend some time investigating how something like a pandemic could, or currently is, affecting the people and communities they would have been working with. Similarly, you may research how some of the domino effects of the pandemic—from social distancing, to racial profiling and K-12 educational disruptions—impact the community now and in the future.

Be sure that conversations about the impact of COVID-19 on communities also include coverage of the constructive ways in which the community is responding. Students can explore the grassroots mutual aid networks that have emerged around the nation, as well as how community organizations are bridging gaps in service, outreach, and communications created by social distancing directives.

While considering the impact of the pandemic on the community, it is essential that students also consider how their own role and responsibilities in the community of UVA, Charlottesville, and beyond have shifted or expanded.

Your students may also contemplate and discuss how the University’s collective role and responsibilities (including its role as an anchor institution) has changed, or should change in order to be a better neighbor. Consider initiatives and calls-to-action, like the ones below, as starting points:

Ideally, community engagement courses are co-designed with community partners. This would be a good time to practice that method with the students themselves. You might take the first class meeting to co-create expectations that account for displacement, distance, and revised course objectives.

Use COVID to re-examine “community.” What does community mean when the act of creating and maintaining community has been upended? Where else does community exist? Does it go online?

Foreground the work that you and your students must do to create community in the virtual classroom. This may mean asking students to help you come up with classroom community-building exercises that invite students to freely converse with one another, share personal reflections, and get to know one another. Consider having conversations with your students about what they feel is the academic or interpersonal importance, if any, of building community among their classmates.

Working from the idea of a classroom as a community, you may explore whether students can provide support, or at the very least a sounding board, to their classmates as they each adjust to a semester of virtual attendance and suspended activities.

Expand the concept of classroom community to include college students around the country. You may do so by using resources developed on other campuses (see list below), or by creating a local “COVID-19 Syllabus” of your own in the style of the Charlottesville Syllabus or Charleston Syllabus.


These guidelines were assembled by Bonnie Gordon and Rose Cole, with help from Ellen Blackmon, over the week of March 16, 2020. Some links were added and updated on March 26, and the latest update was completed on August 18. Faculty and staff are invited to reach out to Bonnie, Rose, or Ellen with questions and comments.

  • Bonnie Gordon
    Associate Professor, Department of Music
    Faculty Director, Equity Center
  • Rose Cole
    Director of Community Engagement, Madison House
  • Ellen Blackmon
    Curricular Coordinator for Community Engagement, Office for Academic Outreach

Community-Engaged Teaching in a Time of Trauma

Check out the CTE video series that documents the unique experiences of UVA faculty who taught community-engaged courses in Spring 2020.

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