Corona Virus and the Online College Experience

16 Apr

By Evelynn Coffie 

On Wednesday, March 11th, the World Health Organization announced that coronavirus was a pandemic, determining that the rapid spread of the virus would infect millions if officials across the globe didn’t take action. Now, a month following the announcement, colleges and universities have closed their campuses and advised students and faculty to pack their belongings and head home. 

As the coronavirus sweeps through the United States, many states have implemented strict shutdowns to prevent the influx of infected individuals. In countries like China—the former epicenter of the epidemic—massive shutdowns have helped curb the spread of the virus. However, for college and university students and faculty in the United States, these shutdowns seem to pose a challenge to academic and social growth.

For college newcomers like Cara McKay, a freshman at the University of San Francisco in California, transitioning to online classes hasn’t been the easiest process. “I really feel distant from my class now more than ever because it feels like 20 or 40 individuals are watching a man speak for two hours,” McKay said. “The transition from in-class to online learning was pretty abrupt and poorly timed.”

McKay had a week to figure out how to return home and pack her stuff before returning home to Long Island, New York. The move was not something she or her university was prepared for, especially as the semester neared the end.

“The jury is still out on if moving online is helping or harming me,” McKay said. “It’s definitely messing up my environmental science lab because they expect us to have access to certain software that’s pretty pricey like Microsoft Excel, which costs $64.99 every three months.”

Another issue McKay questions is tuition cost. The University of San Francisco began rolling out refunds for meal plans, as well as refunds for room and board, but she believes they should discount their tuition. “Tuition for USF is around $50,000 without a scholarship, but they closed the gym, closed the library, the dorms are almost empty, dining halls have limited service,” she asked, “so why are we still paying full price for the next two months if we’re in online classes?” 

However, McKay says it could be worse. When comparing her university’s response to the pandemic to that of other universities such as Harvard or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she thinks her university is handling the situation well, considering the college adopted a pass-fail system for grading, granted an extension to live in the dorms, and started a shipping service that sends abandoned dorm items back to their owners or storage until May. 

Since the closure of schools and universities, Zoom has been the leading remote conferencing platform to help students and professors stay in contact. Instructional Technologists like Kate Johnson, who had to practically beg professors before the pandemic to adapt to technological services like Canvas—an open online course service—and Zoom to keep in touch with their students, are now bombarded with emails and conference calls each day to guide professors through these technological platforms.

Johnson began working as an Instructional Technologist at Tulane University last spring. Her job had never been as stressful or essential as it is now. “I used to help faculty gain access to more advanced tools to help them in the classroom,” she said. “All of sudden, I’m providing technological services for every faculty member and getting them trained to adapt to these tools as soon as possible.”

The sharp increase in her workload also put a strain on her progress for personal projects. At first, she was concerned because of the quick turnaround for deadlines and because her department hosted large in-person trainings, which would increase the risk of catching the virus. She says it’s been an eye-opening process. 

“I’m working more with faculty who are wholly out of their element, and I’d say my job has never felt more necessary or important than it does now.” 

In the current climate, technology seems to be working on overdrive to keep everyone together as public health officials encourage social distancing practices to help “flatten the curve,” with public health mandates including: 

  • Working from home instead of at the office

  • Closing schools or switching to online classes

  • Visiting loved ones by electronic devices instead of in-person

  • Canceling or postponing conferences and large meetings of more than 10 people.

Social distancing is essential to curbing the rate of infection, but the lack of physical interaction can take a toll on people’s mental health. Students like Okiemute Ayemaro—a sophomore at Case Western University—says the closure of her university transformed the way she interacts with people in her daily life. 

Ayemaro received a full-tuition scholarship in her senior year of high school through the Posse Foundation—a program that recruits and awards select students across the United States with a full-tuition leadership at a four-year institution. After her university e-mailed students to depart from campus, she wasn’t sure what to do. 

“My mental health hasn’t been the same because I’m in a more stressful environment,” Ayemaro said. “I had to figure out how to pay for a plane ticket and storage with the money I barely had.”

Like students at hundreds of colleges and universities in the nation, Ayemaro was on spring break, but unlike most of her peers, she stayed on campus to sustain herself financially. Midway into her break, Case Western began sending emails advising students that’d they’d start transitioning to Zoom, then telling students who were away for spring break not to return, and finally demanding students to get off campus and go home entirely. She had two days to pack up. 

“I don’t think my professors who live in Ohio understand how difficult it is for out-of-state students to move out,” she said. “Now we have to be more intentional with communication.”

A couple things she wishes were better: consistency and communication.



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