College in the Midst of COVID-19

“I want to go home!” Stephanie couldn’t believe her ears. Her daughter Emily had spent the past few months hoping and praying that she would be able to return to her small-college campus for her senior year this fall, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

BY Kara Jolliff Gould, Ph.D. | September 2020 | Category: Education

College in the Midst of COVID-19

A bright student, Emily has battled anxiety as well as serious health issues since high school. Her junior year, cut short in March of 2020 due to COVID-19, had been her best ever health-wise as well as socially.

Now, her first day back on campus, Emily was grappling with the changes that the pandemic has required of colleges, as well as the reality that she and her friends could become ill suddenly or be required to isolate for two weeks if a close contact were diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. How many friends would she be allowed to see at a time? Have they quarantined before arriving as required? How can she help to protect her roommate who has serious underlying health problems? What should she say to students she meets who aren’t following guidelines and seem unconcerned about protecting themselves and others? Faced with this new reality, she began seriously questioning her choice to return to campus.

Emily is not alone. Millions of U.S. college students and faculty members have the same concerns and are asking the same questions. Yet, while many colleges and universities have canceled life on campus for this fall, others are inviting student back to campus for a more controlled, socially distanced fall semester.

COVID-19 has had a major impact on higher education. When colleges and universities abruptly closed their campuses in the spring of 2020 and moved to remote online learning via the internet, many suffered near-catastrophic financial losses. Seniors had to say their goodbyes weeks or months early, as most returned home to finish courses on their own. Scores of universities, including the entire California State University system, have chosen to teach exclusively online this fall. But many small colleges across the country, as well as large universities in states including Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa and Kentucky are planning to host students on campus with a mix of in-person classes, remote or online courses, or a combination known as hybrid learning.

Unfortunately, none of these options seem to promise anything like a normal semester and results thus far are mixed. The University of Notre Dame reported high COVID-19 positivity rates among students in mid-August, after beginning the semester early in order to end by Thanksgiving. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill began in-person classes August 10, and by August 17 announced a pivot to online-only instruction due to clusters of COVID-19 infections in residence halls and a positivity rated among students test of 13%. Will other universities teaching in-person experience the same fate? Only time will tell.

Students with special needs and their parents are accustomed to considering the potential challenges of every school year well in advance. Still, the months leading up to this school year have been particularly challenging as decisions regarding college choice, whether to take a gap year, where to live and “how” to learn have been looming. How to navigate this terrain? Parents and students should keep in mind that their individual situations may result in different choices for different students, and that’s perfectly acceptable.

For some students with disabilities, online classes eliminate some barriers to learning and provide more opportunities to succeed. Parent Jen Driscoll writes, “We have been pretty satisfied with how things have played out. Our son just completed a successful summer semester class online… He was adamant that fall be entirely online and was willing to change his course schedule if necessary… but all of his classes will be online. He’s ready to thrive online, even if he’s sad to give up some independence for a semester by living at home again.”

Pressure over whether or not to study on campus has increased stress for many other families, however. “We have been riding a wave of uncertainty and disappointment as my new first year student heads toward college,” parent Laura Kazan notes.

College professors are feeling that same uncertainty and disappointment. We want to meet our students in a classroom and teach them in person. We also want students and their families to stay safe. In many areas across the U.S. and world, it is not possible to hold in-person classes safely under current conditions.

A parent whose chronically ill son has chosen to move onto campus for his freshman year explains how hard the decision to allow him to do that was for her. “This has been the most difficult decision of my life. He moves into his dorm of nearly 500 students in only two days and I’m still not sure I want him to go… There is zero sense of comfort. All I have is hope and God willing, some luck.” 

Parents moving students into campus housing this fall will have a different experience from years past. “My soon-to-be-college freshman daughter is not allowed any parent to help her move in – she has to bring all her stuff up and unpack/arrange it by herself,” parent Irene Berkowitz writes. Her concern is that her daughter with ADD and executive functioning issues won’t be able to get unpacked effectively in time for classes to begin. “I’m so concerned she’s going to be sleeping on an unmade bed and living out of suitcases.”

Olivia Schneider’s daughter, a senior in high school, is undecided about the kind of college experience she should pursue. “It’s hard to know whether or not the pandemic will affect the college experience for freshmen in 2021, but Schneider hopes that her daughter won’t miss out on all that an in-person collegiate experience can offer. My daughter seems to be going back and forth between pursuing an online degree and going to a traditional school. But she needs social [interaction] and can’t imagine being stuck at home all through college. I wonder how all of this will impact this generation – only time will tell.”

Emily decided to stay on campus for her senior year. She realizes that while she can’t control whether and how other students follow socially distancing guidelines, she can simply focus on what she needs to keep herself and her close contacts safe. Her college announced that if a move to online teaching only is necessary, the plan is for students to stay on campus until Thanksgiving, living together and learning online. Although there is no guarantee, this decision provides students such as Emily with some stability, and hope – hope that she and her classmates will be able to finish fall semester, and eventually their senior year, together. •

[Author’s Note: For the purpose of privacy, Stephanie and Emily are pseudonyms.]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Kara Jolliff Gould, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Journalism at the School of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Arkansas. Previously, she taught for more than 20 years at colleges such as Weber State, John Brown University and Pepperdine. She has worked professionally in media in Chicago and Salt Lake City and has published scholarly work in The Journal of Media Education, The Southern Communication Journal, and The Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. She is acquainted with the needs of students with disabilities both as a professor and as a parent.