The unparalleled challenges of a global pandemic have brought big changes to college campuses. But one adjustment schools have had to make — moving to more virtual learning — may be here to stay.
“I think it’s the present of college and I think it’s the future,” said Kristin Sobolik, chancellor of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Education in general was moving in that direction before COVID-19, but the pandemic forced institutions to pivot much more quickly, Sobolik said. And in a lot of cases, educators are finding that flexible online learning works as well or better than face-to-face instruction, she said.
“I’m not sure that it’s going to go back to the way it was,” she said. “I think that frankly, COVID has changed the landscape of our nation and particularly higher ed.”
As universities make plans for the future, many will likely keep a bigger portion of academic life online, said Jennifer McCluskey, vice president for student success at Maryville University.
“We’ve always known that some academic experiences don’t require being in person,” she said. Tutoring, counseling and career fairs, for example, are moving online, giving students greater access to these services. For prospective and incoming students particularly, the virtual options that were added last spring and summer allowed Maryville to reach more students than ever and helped level the playing field for some.
“Those things will certainly stay moving forward,” she said.
After the abrupt end to in-person learning that turned so many campuses into ghost towns last spring, college administrators scrambled to nail down fall 2020 reopening plans that focused on the health and safety of students and faculty while following guidelines released by health experts and regulations issued by surrounding communities.
Those plans led to a new normal of quieter campuses this fall, as more students attend class from their dorm room or home. In-person classes are smaller, campus visitors are restricted, gatherings are limited, and events — such as homecoming parades and parent weekends — have been canceled.
At the University of Missouri-Columbia, officials limited the size of university-sponsored events to 20 people, banned parties in fraternities and sororities, and worked with the city and county to institute curfews in bars. Greek life looked different as sororities and fraternities went online to recruit new members and modified long-held traditions to achieve social distancing.
Face masks and health checks
In addition to requiring facial masks, many colleges assigned students to complete safety training before arriving on campus and then monitor their health by taking their temperature daily. At Mizzou, students were asked to log in daily to a self-screening app.
At Saint Louis University, residential students were tested for COVID-19 at move-in. Washington University planned to screen all of its undergraduates using a new saliva test created by its own faculty, and test them again every two weeks through the end of the semester.
“Students have adjusted very well,” said Dr. Chris Bahr, provost of McKendree University in Lebanon, Ill. “Although it may be a bit uncomfortable to wear a mask, all appear to be doing what is required to minimize risk to others during class.”
Where students live and eat
Deciding how to house students this fall was a big issue. Double rooms became singles, quads became doubles. Maryville University even turned to its neighbors, Drury Plaza Hotel and Marriott, to help reduce density.
Move-in times for residence halls were staggered over multiple days to relieve congestion, and students were asked to limit the number of helpers they brought. Schools set aside dorm or hotel rooms for students who test positive and need to self-isolate.
Common areas in campus housing were reconfigured to reduce seating, and visitors were limited or banned. Cleaning and sanitizing measures were increased. All across campus, directional signs and floor markers appeared, and doors were designated for entering and exiting.
The pandemic also forced new social distancing measures in dining halls and on-campus restaurants. Self-service stations such as salad bars and beverage machines were eliminated while takeout and pre-packaged grab-and-go options were increased. Seating was limited and plexiglass dividers were set up.
Tweaking the calendar
Some universities tweaked their academic calendars in hopes of discouraging students from traveling. Many planned to send students home before the Thanksgiving holiday, moving to all virtual classes for the remainder of the semester and administering final exams online.
SLU decided to hold classes on the Labor Day holiday, and William Woods started a week early and canceled fall break to get classes in before Thanksgiving to decrease the risk of students going home and then returning to campus and potentially spreading the virus.
Campus life in the age of COVID may be tougher for students who crave more face-to-face connections, but officials say students are learning valuable real-life lessons in adaptability and flexibility.
“Those are very key words and key attributes to have,” UMSL’s Sobolik said. “These are the skills that are going to serve them well in the future.”