Johnny Ellsworth just wants to go back to classrooms in a pandemic-free world, where Pomona College sophomores can “connect with people in a way that’s more intimate than Zoom.”

Instead, as an immunocompromised person, he wakes up every morning to check his phone for local Covid rates before class, reminding himself of all the reasons why education is important to him, including his family and his family. future job.

So far, Ellsworth has forced himself to take two classes that his professor insists he take in person. But he said many times it was difficult to focus on academics when he considered the potential consequences of contracting the virus in the classroom.

“I hope more administrators and professors understand how traumatic this pandemic is, especially for students with disabilities,” Ellsworth said. “We’re looking at these hospitalizations, these deaths. to myself.”

While the Covid pandemic is not over, some universities across the country are urging — and in some cases requiring — students to return to classrooms. University administrators say students are demanding face-to-face interactions, and remote instruction cannot fully replace face-to-face interactions. Some hope the return to class will help alleviate what professors describe as unprecedented levels of student disengagement, in which students are unable to attend classes, participate in class discussions and complete assignments.

Still, some students want their universities to make blended learning permanent. They argue that expanding distance learning during the pandemic has made higher education more accessible—not just for students with disabilities and immunocompromised students, but also for commuters, students balancing school and work, and students with caregiving responsibilities— — and help protect vulnerable teachers.

The debate on blended learning on many campuses this spring is the latest in a two-year effort by higher education to figure out how best to deliver instruction to students during the pandemic. It also raises the question of whether universities emerging from the Covid era will pursue a “new normal” of flexible learning, as some higher education experts expect, or simply push for a return to the classroom in 2019.

“Unsustainable”

University administrators cite a variety of reasons why they want students to return to the classroom, including maintaining academic rigor, building relationships and improving teaching efficiency.

Their approach typically dictates how courses are delivered to faculty as is traditional, but no longer requires teachers to offer students the flexibility to take classes online, which became commonplace during the height of the pandemic.

“It’s time to help our students transition to a more accustomed mode of learning,” the University of Oregon’s executive vice provost for academic affairs told faculty members last month. Many professors, she said, are struggling to provide more flexible courses. struggling with the extra work required.

“This can be a difficult transition for students who expect a degree of flexibility and adaptability that will no longer be required after the Omicron surge,” wrote associate provost Janet Woodruff-Borden. “It is also unsustainable. “

Last week, UCLA’s Office of the Chancellor sent an email to students supporting professors in sharing recordings and live broadcasts for students who are absent for pandemic-related reasons, and reiterated its support for “in service of learning and equity goals.” time” additional flexibility.

The statement also noted that teachers have a responsibility to ensure a college degree has value and that “every faculty member has the right to determine the dissemination of their curriculum and materials.” But it did not require faculty to provide remote instruction, as some students have requested.

At Princeton, three deans published an opinion piece in January declaring that face-to-face learning is central to the university’s mission. Jill Dolan, dean of the college and one of the article’s co-authors, said in an interview that students interact more fully with each other and with faculty in a face-to-face setting.

“[We] Really finding that bringing people together in class has the potential to come up with ideas that some might disagree with, the joy of seeing people connect with ideas you share in class, the ability to raise a hand and be recognized by a mentor – we found that, All of these aspects of face-to-face learning are very important to the education of our students,” Dolan said.

Many universities have also eased other precautions, such as mask mandates and surveillance testing, adding to pressure for some students to return to classes, although some have reinstated mask requirements after cases rose.

what students want

Officials at Princeton and other institutions say they had systems in place to accommodate students with disabilities and other special needs even before the pandemic.

But some students argue that these systems are insufficient and that the pandemic has only exposed their flaws. Typically, only those students who have a disability certificate and push for specific accommodations are accepted – a process that can be tricky to navigate – and some argue that the flexibility should be extended to more students.

For Jennifer Lee, a junior at Princeton University and chair of the Princeton Disability Collective, better educating students with disabilities is a matter of equity and compassion. “It’s absolutely critical to have a virtual learning option so we all have a level playing field [and] An opportunity to achieve and learn,” Lee said.

Nationally at UCLA, senior Quinn O’Connor, who co-founded the Students with Disabilities Union, is advocating for guaranteed distance learning options for all students. O’Connor said remote instruction “makes education more accessible to so many underrepresented groups.”

Students with Disabilities created an online petition that gathered nearly 30,000 signatures and held a 16-day sit-in in February demanding more accommodation. Following the sit-in, the university sent an email encouraging (but not requiring) professors to continue offering remote instruction in some cases.

O’Connor has a physical disability that sometimes flares up, making it harder for her to walk and attend classes. While she says she has received the accommodation she needs, she knows many others who could benefit from the extra flexibility of a hybrid or remote program.

“In the long run, remote access isn’t just a Covid issue, it’s really going to help a lot of different groups on campus get a better education,” O’Connor said.

Some students are also urging universities to reconsider rules around attendance, which some see as arbitrary and competent.

Paul Grossman, executive adviser to the Higher Education and Disability Association, said prior to the pandemic, it was difficult for students to obtain accommodation such as remote instruction at universities. He said it would now be harder for universities to argue that such accommodation is too difficult to provide, as nearly everyone has completed distance learning. Before, Grossman said: “I think people just thought it was impossible or not feasible, and now they know.”

Grossman taught law as an adjunct professor and hosted veterans who were unable to attend classes due to physical disabilities. The students attended classes remotely and met with Grossman during telecommuting hours. “Yes, I want them to be involved in the Socratic process in my class, but it doesn’t hurt the class that one has to do it differently,” Grossman said.

‘Convenience and flexibility’

Not all colleges are urging students to return to classes. The California State University system and the University of North Carolina system are racing to maintain or even expand online instruction in an effort to offset negative admissions trends.

At MiraCosta College, a public community college in Oceanside, Calif., about a quarter of classes were offered remotely before the pandemic. This spring, about half of the academy’s classes were taught remotely and half in-person, but 62 percent of the courses students enrolled in were taught online.

“What we hear they really appreciate is convenience and flexibility,” said Sunita Cooke, the dean of the college. Cook said the goal of the college is to meet the needs of students while maintaining teaching standards. For example, in the absence of restrictions on the need for buildings on campus to open, the college has begun to provide tutoring and counseling to students at the times when they need them most, which may be Sunday evenings or late nights.

Meanwhile, Pace University in New York sought to improve its online teaching capabilities by investing in technology and training faculty to become more effective online teachers. The college has created a new online learning center to help provide technology and support for professors to create video content for courses.

Pace President Marvin Krislov said top-notch online instruction is part of the future of higher education. “We believe online education can be great education, so it’s not just about flexibility, it’s about the quality of the experience,” Chris Love said.

Karen Costa, a teacher developer and online teaching expert, has a theory on why students are asking to return to campus and then opting for virtual classes instead of in-person classes.

“Students are expressing a desire to go back to a world without Covid, which is very human for them,” Costa said. “What they’re really trying to say is that we want to be back on campus in 2019 when I don’t have to worry about all these things, which is very different from when I want to be back on campus in 2022 and my mom texts me that she has Covid-19 Virus, I’m worried about her.”

University leaders who see pictures of empty lecture halls on social media need to listen to students and design learning for them, rather than simply ordering everyone back to campus, as universities used to work, Costa said: It’s an amazing idea.”