Back to School: Assessing the Scene for Students Amid Covid-19 Pandemic
Updated: Jan 12, 2021
Author: Olivia Cason
September 24, 2020
Last spring when universities closed their doors, professors and students were thrown into a whirlwind of distance learning. Over the summer, while administrators and university boards decided on the fate of their institutions in the fall, professors gamely prepared for both in-person and online instruction—and everything in between. The decision to form strategic, decisive measures across the board in higher education is critical to the success of both students and instructors as well as the livelihood of institutions in the fall. Without knowing however how the pandemic will develop, a mix of learning methods including hybrid classes that combine in-person and online learning and the use of video-conferencing software such as Zoom for virtual class are being used in addition to strict rules and safety guidelines for those back on campus.
Hybrid learning is not new and many educators are predicting this learning method to become more prevalent in the wake of Covid-19. However, in the pandemic when many people are working full-time from home, the hybrid model has become somewhat controversial as many universities have compelled professors to show up to campus, which could expose them to the virus. Kalim Shah, professor at the Biden School of Public Policy at the University of Delaware, states "Prior to covid, instructors could create a schedule consisting of both online and in person classes, but now a hybrid model that requires professors to show up to campus for at least some classes becomes a more difficult decision for many professors who are concerned about balancing their students receiving quality instruction but also thinking about their own personal health." In contrast hybrid has also been an opportunity for many instructors who did not consider online course instruction in the past, to learn and hone these skills and by and large many university administrations have been very forward thinking in their support of professors delivering online courses.
The determination of who can work from home is an immense responsibility that requires fair distributions that accommodate the diverse needs of faculty and students. Missouri University of Science and Technology is a good illustration of these challenges. On-campus faculty at Missouri S&T must complete an online screening before coming to work and campus buildings are equipped with touchless thermometers for both faculty and students to take their temperature before entering classrooms. Students are encouraged to take the Miner Pledge, a campus agreement that includes committing to daily temperature checks before going to school, wearing a face mask, and respecting the space of others. Shane Epting professor of philosophy at Missouri S&T, says that “online courses have been redesigned to match the high caliber instruction students are used to receiving in the classroom”. In their local community, Epting also notes "at the beginning of the pandemic, when we first became aware of personal protective equipment shortages, Missouri S&T faculty and students raced to produce this essential gear for our local hospital; I was proud to see that.”
A major concern for universities is making sure that students stay engaged and receive the same kind of learning opportunities online that they would in person. Before March, Zoom was used predominantly used by companies, but as with any savvy application, young people transformed it and now it competes with the top communication apps for millennials. Austin Shultz, an graduate of the University of Delaware, praised Zoom as a way to interact and learn from students who don't normally speak in class. As he is typically more reserved in class, Shultz credits the engagement through online learning for improving his academic performance. Similarly, Oliver Pour, student body president at Boston University, explains that with a class size of 250 students, Zoom expands engagement opportunities because it allows for students to ask questions and receive responses from their peers during class time. Pour notes “responses are diversified because more people speak up on the online platform”.
For the numerous schools that reinstated in-person classes and are now experiencing spikes in coronavirus cases, online learning is becoming an attractive— if not essential—move. This is especially the case for institutions struggling to enforce Covid-19 health and safety measures. Instructors who are required to be back on campus as well as students who, perhaps, take safety guidelines more seriously than some of their peers, may understandably ask their institution: “Is in-person learning worth the risk?” While some form of in-person class time may seem essential to the college experience, the traditional classroom has been transformed into a germ-prevention cube where students are masked and sit six feet apart while the teacher nervously lectures from the other end of the room. Even though students are together, genuine engagement is limited due to Covid-19. Still, we are social creatures and can benefit from being together, even at a distance. If face-to-face learning is required for class, Robin Aspman O’Callaghan, professor of management at City University of Seattle, suggests dedicating in-person meetings for team-building and group-bonding exercises, and says that “hybrid time should be planned and should allow for organic growth because part of the reason for being together is to learn from each other, not just the instructor; [it] needs to be and feel meaningful and relate back to the class”.
Universities have made tremendous efforts to redesign campus traditions to meet Covid-19 safety expectations and still create meaningful experiences for their students. For example, Saint Edward's University held its traditional welcome ceremony for incoming freshmen and made sure that at-home students had the option to tune in virtually. Meanwhile Boston University hosted an involvement fair that organized students both virtually and remotely. David Joseph, vice president of the student body, said incoming freshmen were able to mingle and socialize responsibly. At the end of August, residence halls opened up across the U.S., marking an emblematic step for first-year students who associate moving into the dorms with a new sense of freedom. There are precious moments that come from decorating a college dorm and meeting your first roommate that are priceless for incoming freshmen. The pandemic has put school boards and university leaders in a difficult position however, and this pivotal college experience is now weighed against the risks of in-person classes.
Although physical distancing measures and mask mandates are implemented across U.S. schools, maintaining guidelines off campus is a different story. Schools that opened on the premise of staying compatible with public health regulations are finding the situation unmanageable during the weekends. Within weeks of in-person classes Covid-19 cases spiked across college towns. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking university Covid-19 cases as well as school openings and closures, more than five universities suspended in-person instruction the first week of September. To combat the spike in cases, some schools imposed a mandatory quarantine for students living on campus while others completely closed residency halls and forced students to pack up and return home. According to lead infectious disease expert Anothony Fauci, sending students home can spread the virus to pockets of the U.S. that otherwise had it under control and possibly incite a second wave of outbreaks. To prevent an outbreak, avoid sending students home, and stop unruly undergrads, some schools have moved to stricter disciplinary actions—including suspension and even removal from campus—against students who violate campus safety measures. Despite these efforts, school boards are forced to make a decision between quarantining students or sending them home; both options end in distance learning. To make matters worse, a handful of university and public officials have released statements blaming students for the Covid-19 spike in their communities. While there’s no doubt that the virus can spread at off-campus parties and large gatherings, some students think that campus officials have sown confusion by making contradictory statements about what’s considered acceptable behavior. A mix of methods have been carried out to keep campuses open but college officials are accepting that there are limits to what they can manage, and that it's necessary to reevaluate safety strategies.
At Boston University, a student led campaign titled F**K It WON'T CUT IT uses a more alternative approach to managing the spread of coronavirus by encouraging students to practice safe habits such as not sharing cigarettes, vape pens, or drinks, and encourages communication with intimate partners on the Covid-19 risks associated with having sex. Joseph boasts at the effectiveness of FIWCI saying “it’s catchy, and regardless if you hate it or love it, you’re saying it.” In addition to it being blasted across social media, Joseph notes that it is marketed all around campus. “It’s incredibly important to have the [campaign] physically represented throughout the university in addition to Instagram and Facebook so that conversations keep going and people stay mindful of its purpose.” Moreover, the university’s clubs and organizations have taken initiative to prevent the spread of Covid-19 within their own groups, and individuals are posting reminders and videos online to keep their personal network informed on Covid-19 updates and prevention methods. Joseph, “The point has been made to enough of us and enough of us care to make sure we all stay safe; the overall desire is to stay on campus.”
It’s clear that completing a semester on campus without a serious coronavirus outbreak will require a collective effort on the part of the university, students, and local health authorities. Schools need to have adequate testing and protocols for sick students. Students need to support one another while also accepting that they have a responsibility to their school and community to follow guidelines and use the resources given to them to stay informed and successful on campus. Although Pour didn't anticipate a pandemic, his aspirations for the role of student body president haven’t changed. Pour, “ I am here for the students and especially now I am here to direct them to the right people and resources.” Pour has taken on additional responsibilities in his role but feels that his leadership is needed now more than ever. The progression of fall semester will remain uncertain at most schools, but the human desire to connect with others remains paramount. Whether that be in-person or through a screen, the desire is enough to perpetuate hope for a successful school year.
About the Author:
Olivia Cason is a content writer and communicator for the Interdisciplinary Environmental Association.
Her interdisciplinary viewpoints link humanitarian, scientific, and global perspectives so that she can effectively reach diverse audiences from scientists, educators, students, and activists. She has written several Member Features for the IEA, while her outreach initiatives help advance mission awareness, online visibility, and inclusivity. A novice traveler, Olivia’s international experiences have helped shape her worldly views and are emblematic to her ambitions to become a bicontinental communicator who bridges the gap between domestic and international research so that institutions and scholars can freely communicate across disciplines and geographic boundaries.