By David M. Greenwald
In Syracuse this week on Wednesday, a large group of first-year students gathered on the Quad late at night, prompting an angry message from the Vice Chancellor warning that “the students who gathered on the Quad last night may have done damage enough to shut down campus, including residence halls and in-person learning, before the academic semester even begins.”
An investigation is underway, but he warned, “I want you to understand right now and very clearly that we have one shot to make this happen.”
This comes just a few days after another university—UNC-Chapel Hill—announced it was “ending in-person instruction for undergrads just a week after reopening after dozens of students living in dorms and a fraternity house tested positive for coronavirus.”
The scene is playing out across the country as well, even as many on the west coast, including UC Davis, have already announced that, for fall at the very least, there will not be in-person instruction.
There are a lot of lessons in this—and certainly some will question the wisdom of opening at all, while others will criticize a bunch of 18-year-olds for wanting to hang out in their first college experience away from home—but for me, it illustrates something else, which is that ultimately COVID is not going to fundamentally change higher education.
A survey over the summer illustrated this. An Axios poll found that 76 percent of students planned to return to campus if schools gave them the option and 66 percent said they would attend in-person classes if those were on the table. Most said they were willing to wear face masks and download an app to conduct contact tracing, and 67 percent would leave campus again if there was a major outbreak in their community.
Another 79 percent of surveyed students said that they would not attend parties the way they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.
I was discussing this issue yesterday and, as one person put it, you could have most people behaving responsibly—but a small number of people acting irresponsibly can shut down an entire campus.
More important than the impact on this fall, which seems headed toward most colleges again being shut down except for distance learning, is this—students want to return to campus. They don’t want to be taking class via Zoom or Skype.
This is an important thing to understand. When I read through dozens of emails on the University Commons, many of the people arguing for the council to oppose the project argued that COVID and the uncertainty around COVID was a reason to not approve it.
As one person put it: “We don’t even know how many or when students might be living in Davis year-long.”
This project isn’t about the 2020-21 school year, it might be more about the 2024-25 school year. There are those who are arguing that COVID might change the way that colleges deliver instruction. I
think that’s “wishful thinking” or perhaps “convenient” thinking—they oppose the project and are inferring reasons for doing so.
Certainly, it is not thinking based on talking to students about their intentions. So I did exactly that over the course of the last week and probably had conversations with several dozen. The immediate plans for students is mixed—many will stay at their parents’ houses this fall, some will come to Davis and take their classes online, and most plan to return as soon as they possibly and safely can.
That mirrors the national trend.
In April, Inside Higher Ed reported, “College students say the online instruction they’re getting in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is not the education for which they paid. Some students plan to withhold tuition payments; others are demanding partial tuition refunds.”
While that was April, the talk this week is not much different.
The New York Times reported this week, “Schools face rising demands for tuition rebates, increased aid and leaves of absence as students ask if college is becoming ‘glorified Skype.’”
The issues of cost and financial assistance are at the forefront here, but beneath the surface is the notion that online education is no replacement for in-person instruction.
As one educator put it: “This is a moment that is basically forcing students and parents to say, ‘What is the value? If I can’t set foot on campus, is that the same value?’”
Will Andersen, an 18-year-old incoming freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, put it this way: “Who wants to pay $25,000 a year for glorified Skype?”
“Education isn’t just information,” agreed Yolanda Brown-Spidell, a Detroit-area teacher talking to the Times.
“Being able to meet up with friends, have those highly intellectual conversations, walking over to CVS, and getting ice cream at 1 in the morning,” she said. “And let’s not forget just not being home with your mama, with her eyes on you.”
In the local debate, though, the question is not about this quarter. It seems prudent and logical that UC Davis would be shut down to in-person instruction until the pandemic is under control. For me, the question is more about the longer term. And the people who are arguing that COVID will bring about long-term changes in population, I think, are simply not paying attention to the national discussion and certainly are not talking to the student population at issue.
I know my life would be extremely different right now if, instead of moving to Davis in 1996 to attend graduate school, I stayed in San Luis Obispo and took the courses online. That would have been life-altering and not in a good way.
For now, it remains prudent to shut down in-person instruction, but at some point, we are going to have to think about how to move forward—either with a vaccine or with new rules for social interaction. Either way, not planning for adequate housing while we wait seems irresponsible, and the kind of policy that helped create the housing crisis here to begin with.
—David M. Greenwald reporting