Johnny Ellsworth would like nothing more than to return to a classroom in a world without a pandemic, where the sophomore at Pomona College could “connect with people in a more intimate way than you might be able to over Zoom.”
Instead, as a person who is immunocompromised, he wakes up every morning and checks his phone to see what the local Covid rates are before he heads to class, reminding himself of all the reasons his education is important to him, including his family and his future job.
So far, Ellsworth has forced himself to go to the two classes where his professors insist that he attend in person. But many days, he said, it’s hard to focus on academics when he’s thinking about the potential consequences of contracting Covid in class.
“I wish more administrators and professors could understand how traumatizing this pandemic is, especially for students with disabilities,” Ellsworth said. “We see ourselves in these hospitalization numbers, these death numbers.”
While the Covid pandemic is not over yet, some colleges across the country are urging — and in some cases requiring — students to go back into classrooms. College administrators say that students are clamoring to connect in person and that remote instruction can’t fully replace face-to-face interaction. Some hope that returning to classrooms will help mitigate what professors describe as unprecedented levels of student disengagement, in which students are failing to show up for class, participate in class discussions, and complete assignments.
Some students, though, want their colleges to make hybrid learning permanent. They argue that scaling up remote learning during the pandemic made higher education more accessible — not only for students with disabilities and the immunocompromised, but also commuter students, those balancing schoolwork with jobs, and students with caregiving responsibilities — and helped to protect vulnerable faculty members.
The debate over hybrid learning on many campuses this spring is the latest development in higher ed’s two-year struggle to figure out how best to deliver instruction to students amid the pandemic. It also raises questions about whether colleges coming out of the Covid era will pursue a “new normal” of flexible learning, as some higher-ed experts expected, or simply push for a return to the classroom of 2019.
College administrators have cited a variety of reasons in explaining why they want students back in classrooms, including maintaining academic rigor, building relationships, and making teaching more effective.
Their approaches generally leave the decision of how to deliver courses to faculty members, as has traditionally been the case, but no longer require instructors to offer students the flexibility to attend class online, as became commonplace during the height of the pandemic.
Last month, the executive vice provost for academic affairs at the University of Oregon told faculty members, “It’s time to help our students transition to more customary modes of learning.” She said many professors were struggling with the extra workload required to offer more flexible courses.
“This may be a difficult transition for students who have come to expect a level of flexibility and accommodation that is no longer necessary following the Omicron surge,” Janet Woodruff-Borden, the vice provost, wrote. “It is also not sustainable.”
Last week, the chancellor’s office at the University of California at Los Angeles sent students an email endorsing professors sharing recordings and livestreams for students who miss class for pandemic-related reasons and reaffirming support for other flexibility “when it serves learning and equity goals.”
The statement also noted that faculty members are responsible to ensure that the university’s degrees have value “with each individual instructor possessing the authority to make decisions about their courses and the dissemination of teaching materials.” But it fell short of requiring faculty members to provide remote instruction, as some students had requested.
At Princeton University, three deans published an opinion piece in January that declared in-person learning central to the university’s mission. Jill Dolan, dean of the college and one of the co-authors of the piece, said in an interview that students engage with one another and with faculty members more fully in a face-to-face setting.
“[We] do find that having people together in a classroom where the risk of posing an idea that someone might dispute, the joy of seeing people connect with ideas that you’re sharing in a class, the ability to raise your hand and be recognized by an instructor — all of those facets of in-person learning, we find, are really important to our students’ educations,” Dolan said.
Many colleges are also relaxing other precautionary measures, such as mask mandates and surveillance testing, which adds to the stress of returning to classrooms for some students, although some colleges are reinstating their mask requirements after an increase in cases.
What Students Want
Officials at Princeton and other institutions say that even before the pandemic, they had systems in place to accommodate students with disabilities and other specific needs.
But some students argue that those systems were inadequate and that the pandemic merely exposed their flaws. Typically, only students with documented disabilities who have pushed for specific accommodations are able to receive them — a process that can be difficult to navigate — and some argue flexibility should be extended to more students.
For Jennifer Lee, a third-year student at Princeton and president of the Princeton Disability Collective, better access to classes for students with disabilities is a matter of equity and compassion. “It is absolutely crucial to have virtual-learning options in place so that we all have an equitable playing field [and] opportunities to achieve and learn,” Lee said.
Across the country at UCLA, Quinn O’Connor, a senior who co-founded the Disabled Student Union, is advocating for a guaranteed remote-learning option for all students. O’Connor said remote instruction “makes education so much more accessible to so many underrepresented groups.”
The Disabled Student Union created an online petition that has gathered nearly 30,000 signatures and held a 16-day sit-in in February to demand greater accommodations. Following the sit-in, the university sent the email encouraging — but not requiring — professors to continue to offer remote instruction in certain circumstances.
O’Connor has a physical disability that sometimes flares up and makes it harder for her to walk and get to class. While she said she has received the accommodations she needs, she knows many others who could benefit from the additional flexibility of hybrid or remote classes.
“Remote access, in the long run, is not just a Covid issue, and it really would help a lot of different groups on campus have better access to education,” O’Connor said.
Some students are also urging colleges to reconsider rules around attendance, which some view as arbitrary and ableist.
Paul Grossman, executive counsel for the Association for Higher Education and Disability, or Ahead, said that prior to the pandemic, it was challenging for students to win accommodations such as remote instruction from colleges. Now, he said, it will be harder for colleges to argue that such accommodations are too difficult to offer because just about everyone has already done remote learning. Before, Grossman said, “I think people just didn’t think it was possible or feasible, and now they know it is.”
Grossman has taught law as an adjunct professor and accommodated some war veterans who could not make it to class because of physical disabilities. Those students attended class remotely and met with Grossman during remote office hours. “Yes, I wish they had been in my class to engage in the Socratic process, but it’s not harmful to the class that one person must do it in a different way,” Grossman said.
‘Convenience and Flexibility’
Not all colleges are urging students to return to classrooms. The California State University system and the University of North Carolina system are seizing the moment to maintain or even expand online instruction, aiming to counteract negative enrollment trends.
At MiraCosta College, a public community college in Oceanside, Calif., about one-quarter of classes were offered remotely before the pandemic. This spring, the college offered about half of its classes remotely and half in person, but 62 percent of the classes that students signed up for were online.
“The convenience and flexibility is what we’re hearing they really appreciate,” said Sunita Cooke, president of the college. Cooke said the college aims to meet students where they are, while maintaining the level of instruction. For example, without the constraints of needing a building on campus to be open, the college has started to offer tutoring and counseling to students at the hours when they most need it — which can be Sunday evenings or late at night.
Pace University, in New York, meanwhile, has sought to increase its capacity for online instruction by investing in technology and training faculty members to become more effective teachers online. The college has created a new Online Learning Center to help provide professors with the technology and support to create video content for classes.
Marvin Krislov, Pace’s president, said that superb online instruction is part of the future of higher education. “We believe that online education can be excellent education, and so it’s not just flexibility but it’s the quality of the experience,” Krislov said.
Karen Costa, a faculty developer and online-teaching expert, has a theory about why students are demanding to be back on campus but then opting to attend class virtually rather than in person.
“What students are expressing is a desire to return to a world without Covid, which is very human of them,” Costa said. “What they’re really saying is we want to be back on campus in 2019 when I didn’t have to worry about all this stuff, which is very different than I want to be back on campus in 2022, my mom texted me and she’s sick with Covid, I’m worried about her.”
College leaders who are seeing pictures on social media of empty lecture halls need to listen to their students and design learning for them, not simply order everyone back on campus because that’s how colleges used to work, Costa said: “That’s magical thinking.”