By Michael Burgess II, The Undivided for Howard University News Service
Due to the rapid spread of coronavirus, many students from all around the country were forced off campus as administration worked double time to limit the spread of coronavirus in their own communities and make a smooth and swift transition to virtual teaching. Starting with the University of Washington on March 7, by the time April came around, and schools were starting their transitions to virtual learning, over 14 million students from over 1,100 colleges and universities were forced off of their respective college campuses and forced to find other living arrangements. As the summer rolled through, many were optimistic about the return of in-person instruction for the fall semesters, citing the successes of sports leagues around the world whom managed to make a similar transition into the continuation of their seasons. However, as the coronavirus numbers continued to increase, with major breakouts in the southeastern United States and other areas, some college administrations decided to push the entire semester to virtual learning for other students, while other administrations went with a hybrid (some classes in-person, other classes virtual) model for their instruction formats heading into the semester.
Cherokee Anderson, a senior at California State University, Fullerton, was one of those 14 million students. Anderson, who usually stays in an on-campus apartment, has been staying at home with her family since March. “Since I’m back home with my family, I’ve had more obligations, which has brought me more stress than usual. With the added stress, I feel more mentally drained. I’ve lost motivation.”
Back in April, Fullerton was one of the first schools, and the first school in the California State University campus system, to decide to stick with remote learning for the fall semester of the 2020-21 school year. For Anderson, her college’s early decision made planning the rest of her year easier, but the adjustment to a full semester of virtual learning was still tough. “I’ve been adjusting to it as best as I can. Now that I’m back home, I’ve found it harder to focus so I sometimes leave my home to find a place where I can better concentrate,” she said.
College students have felt this decision the hardest, with many unable to access their university’s resources that were used to enhance their learning experience.
According to Dr. Rhea Merck, a licensed psychologist and the Senior Instructor of Psychology at the University of South Carolina, college students will feel the effects of this pandemic deeper than any other demographic. “People from the outside do not know what it is like to deal with the issue of not being able to go to college,” Merck said. “A lot of the social media and the media in general is overly dismissive and not looking at the real issue.”
According to Merck, those college students who were able to go to school and still do their classes online fare better because they get some semblance of the college experience; those who were not able to attend college in-person this semester will struggle mightily.
As recent studies show, others may not even go to school at all. A study done by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which has collected data from over 75 percent of colleges, college enrollment is down at all levels. Total undergraduate enrollment has dipped by over four percent since this time last year, with freshman enrollment facing a decline of 13 percent and 10.5 percent at four-year colleges and universities. While graduate enrollment has increased by over three percent, postsecondary programs as a whole have faced a near-three percent drop in enrollment.
In their annual International Student Enrollment Snapshot, The Power of International Education released that the number of international students studying at American institutions has dropped 16 percent since last year, while new international students enrollment has dropped 43 percent.
Merck said, “Next year, you’ll be having a lot of college sophomores trying to play catch up because they were not on campus this year,” Merck said. Merck said the idea of “redshirt freshmen,” a sports term used to describe an athlete who was withheld from play during his freshman year of college, saving that first year of eligibility for him or her, can be applied to new students who didn’t get to go on campus.
A recent study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that from August 2 to September 5, coronavirus cases among Americans aged 18-22 increased 55 percent nationally as many college campuses allowed some of their student body to move back onto campus. The study stated that previous studies had shown that young adults were more likely to break social distancing guidelines while socializing, and that’s a note that Merck touched on.
Merck acknowledged that, even at the university she works at, students have ignored and disregarded social distancing guidelines set by the University of South Carolina, resulting in multiple videos of students at packed bars or parties. However, from Merck’s perspective, this disobedience should have been expected.
“Students would rather risk covid and socialize than stay safe and social distance,” she said.
She added that many students were forced into quarantine with their parents since March and are suddenly released to their friends with no one around to tell them to distance themselves.
Richland County, where the University of South Carolina is located, is one of the hotspots for the virus in the state, accounting for nearly 10 percent of South Carolina’s total Covid-19 cases. As of October 26, the University of South Carolina has reported over 2,600 positive coronavirus tests since the campus opened up on August 1, with over 97 percent of those positive results coming from students.
Despite the apparent effects on college students, the numbers show that even with guidelines in place, coronavirus can still spread and cause outbreaks on college campuses. According to a coronavirus tracker by the New York Times, there have been over 178,000 cases of the virus at over 1,400 schools as of October 8. According to data posted by USA Today on September 11, for the previous two weeks, college towns were a hotspot for the spread of the virus, responsible for 19 of the largest 25 coronavirus outbreaks in the country over that span.
These are facts that Anderson has been wary of as she’s navigated through the pandemic. Anderson says she has gone out with her friends during the pandemic, but the entire group had to get a negative coronavirus test before they can go anywhere. “[My friends] have been pretty responsible. I’ve been safe because I have stayed away from my friends if they told me they weren’t feeling well. I’ve been wearing masks in public places, continuously washing my hands, disinfecting my phone, etc.”
Another aspect of the coronavirus pandemic that can not be understated is the expanded use of video-conferencing applications like Zoom. While playing a major part in how teachers are able to teach class, it plays a bigger part in how students are able to learn and participate in a class. Terms like “Zoom exhaustion” or “Zoom fatigue” have been used by psychologists for a few months now, as many students are forced to adjust their learning style to adjust to the virtual setting.
Merck said that while Zoom opens up opportunities that were not super accessible, the effectiveness of learning from it can vary greatly.
“You have some students who this will be a great adjustment for, as they are able to take their classes in the comfort of their own rooms. However, for other students, like those who get distracted easily or those who require that personal attention from instructors, they could take a bad hit and not be able to recover with either their mental health or their GPA.”
Anderson has definitely felt the impact of virtual learning. “Academically, I feel as if I’m teaching myself. I’m not receiving the same learning as I would in person…At this point, I’m just trying to turn in assignments. I’m not actually learning, just making deadlines…I’m not doing them at my full potential.”
She’s not alone in feeling that way.
According to a survey done by Tophat, 53 percent of college students either disagree or strongly disagree that “The online learning experience is engaging inside the classroom” compared to just 40 percent who either agree or strongly agree. The survey also found that 64 percent of college students either disagree or strongly disagree that “the online learning experience is engaging outside the classroom” compared to 32 percent who agree or strongly agree, and 53 percent of college students either disagree or strongly disagree that “[they are] able to stay motivated and engaged with [their] education and classwork outside of class time” compared to 46 percent who agree or strongly agree.
When asked what she missed the most about being on-campus, Anderson replied that, outside of the obvious free reign she had with no parental supervision, “I miss going to the AARC (African American Resource Center) at my college. My friends and I would always hang out there. It was full of such good memories.”
Courtni Hill, a senior at Howard University, said that while her transition from in-person to virtual learning was better than others, it still wasn’t a great experience.
“The learning experience has gotten worse for me. As a senior film student, I have more hands-on classes, and with classes being virtual, I have less accessibility to my professors than I would have had classes been in-person.” Hill also adds that she misses her friends and having the ability to converse with her old professors. When asked if she was optimistic about there being in-person instruction for the spring semester, Hill sighed and said, “I have no clue.”
With the rampant spread of the coronavirus over the past several months, millions of college students in America faced the brunt force of the impact as their semester (and for some, semesters) had to be instructed virtually. With the rollout of new coronavirus protocol and the progression of the development of a vaccine, many are optimistic about the reopening of their respective campuses for the spring semester. However, with some schools already announcing virtual learning for their spring semesters, only time will tell what side of the line the rest of the colleges and universities in the country fall on.