Online Classes or Shrunk Semesters: College students grapple with COVID-19 changes

Illustration by Piper Hudspeth Blackburn.

Colleges and universities across the United States are approaching the upcoming fall term in a variety of ways. While some will welcome students back on a shortened schedule, others will stick to online classes. Both scenarios leave students with the uncertainty of learning in an environment shaped by COVID-19. 

“There’s no way it’s going to be the same as it was last year, “ said Grace Palmer, who will be a senior at Notre Dame in the fall.  

A different kind of Fall semester

Grace and Daniel Palmer are just two of the nearly 12,000 Notre Dame students set to return to campus in the fall. However, their semester will be different than those of past years. Classes will start two weeks early and end before Thanksgiving in order to prevent disruption from a potential second wave of coronavirus.

“Seniors this year had their second semester completely cancelled,” Daniel Palmer said. “I’m pretty grateful that we get to go back even if it is under these kinds of strict conditions.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released guidelines for campuses that choose to welcome students back to class. Under their recommendations, dining halls, lounge spaces, and other gathering spaces will be closed. Seats in lecture halls should have taped seats and rows to maintain a six-foot distance between students and faculty. Student athletes could play in empty stadiums.

In order to meet safety demands, Notre Dame has also announced that it will conduct testing of returning students, implement contract tracing and social distancing, and have contingency plans in place if a severe second outbreak did occur. 

“I feel like with what they’re doing, I feel like it’s the right thing… Indiana hasn’t been nearly as hard hit as Chicago, so I feel better about that,” said Daniel Palmer. 

In a letter to faculty, Notre Dame President John Jenkins defended the decision saying, “We believe in the educational value of the on-campus experience for all our students, and we recognize it is particularly valuable for students whose living situations away from campus may not be as conducive to study.” 

If a second wave of coronavirus did hit, Notre Dame is prepared, maintained Paul J. Browne, Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications.

“We will have in place a system that can flip immediately to distance learning again if we have to. Even if that means sending everybody back home,” he said. “We don’t think we’ll have to do that but we’re prepared to do it if necessary.”

Additionally, Browne said that every class at Notre Dame will have the capacity to be taught through distance learning, in case a student becomes sick or is unable to attend class. 

Notre Dame isn’t the only college in Indiana to announce plans for in-person classes in the fall. Purdue University and Ivy Tech Community College have also said students would return with altered schedules.  

As of May 13, two-thirds of colleges are aiming for in-person classes in the fall, according to a report by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

For some students, another semester of online classes 

Not all universities and colleges will follow in Notre Dames’ footsteps. The California State University (CSU), the largest four-year university system in the country,  announced on May 12 that almost all classes will be online during the fall semester.

A statement released by the Chancellor said, “our planning approach will result in CSU courses primarily being delivered virtually for the fall 2020 term, with limited exceptions for in-person teaching.” The decision to plan for classes to be primarily online was based on, “the health, safety and welfare of our students, faculty and staff.”

California’s community college system has also announced that fall classes will only be conducted online.

When asked why CSU made the decision to hold classes online, Mike Uhlenkamp, Senior Director of Public Affairs for the CSU system, said, “The reason to make the announcement now is that gives our students, and our employees as well, a better idea of what to expect in the fall.”

“We haven’t cancelled anything. None of the campuses are closed,” he said. “The decision is really about planning and… the ability to make and fine tune those changes based on the region and based on the campus, and having the benefit of a number of months to prepare for this.”

However, some students said that they wished CSU took more time to make their decision. 

“I wish that the CSU system waited a bit longer… maybe like a month or more to really see how things can turn out,” said Amber Williams, an incoming freshman at California State University Long Beach.

“I was kind of really disappointed,” she said. “I already made so many friends through social media and stuff and I was really excited to meet them.”

The California University System has 23 campuses, serving more than half a million students with a variety of academic programs that may not transition smoothly to online learning. 

“I plan to major in art so I feel like it would be harder through online classes and not as effective,” said Jayme Labidou, an incoming freshman at Chico State.

Uhlenkamp said that each campus is reviewing its academic offerings, and exceptions would be made after permission was granted by the chancellor. 

“There are simply parts of the curriculum that just cannot be delivered virtually,” he said. “Whether that’s in arts… if it’s a class that takes place as a lab or even some of the clinical training for nurses.” 

CSU isn’t the only university system that has announced plans for online classes. The California Community College system will likely stick to online classes for the fall as well, announced  chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley on May 18. Some students have expressed some frustrations with taking online classes. 

Adam Khan, who will be a freshman at California Polytechnic State University, said that online classes, “I don’t learn as well as I would have if I was in person.”

“I feel like it’s going to be harder on us especially because you have to learn to really have self control.,” said Amber Williams. “Since you’re gonna be home alone you’re going to have so many distractions, it’s not like physically being there and having the professor in front of you.” 

More News