What to expect from a fall semester with classes ‘more like college’

| Senior News Editor
A white tent stands on a patch of green grass in front of two multistory brick buildingsCurran Neenan | Student Life

A study tent, where professors can conduct distanced outdoor classes, stands in front of Ridgley Hall.

Washington University administrators and professors anticipate more in-person classroom instruction and fewer asynchronous activities in the fall, even as the exact modality for medium and large classes remains uncertain.

An April 12 email from Jen Smith, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, announced that small classes, with 30 students or less, will be taught mostly in person; medium classes, with 31-149 students, will be taught in a modality depending on what end of the range the class falls; and large classes, with 150 and more students, will likely remain remote.

While some remote classes were asynchronous this year, Dorothy Petersen, the undergraduate academic coordinator for economics, said that there will be fewer asynchronous and recorded options available for students in the fall.

“My impression is that for faculty who are going to do any kind of remote instruction in the fall, that what they’re thinking about is having it be synchronous,” Petersen said.

According to Petersen, a markedly low number of students opted to show up in-person to classes that were being delivered both remotely and in-person.

“Some students came all the time, most students came none of the time and watched the lecture videos, or they Zoomed in in real time,” she said. “So the structure at this point [for the fall is], if it’s an in-person class, unless there is an extenuating circumstance, that [class] may not be recorded.”

While the administration has released tentative guidelines for next year’s classroom modalities, health experts say that guidelines are subject to change as the vaccine rollout continues.

According to Dr. Steven Lawrence, one of the University’s top infectious disease experts, there is currently “very little data” on the post-vaccination world, including what the transmission rates will look like in a mostly vaccinated population. Even with a lack of data, Lawrence was confident that there will be far lower rates of transmission when the majority of the University community is vaccinated.

“When you’re looking at adding the vaccine into the layers of reducing risk, it is the king of all of the mitigation measures,” he said. This assertion is consistent with recent findings that show a significant reduction in COVID-19 infections and transmission after vaccination.

Even with a mostly vaccinated community, Lawrence said that masks will still be necessary for in-person classes. He said that masks will likely be the last precaution lifted, since they are the most important measure, outside of vaccination, to prevent disease transmission.

“It’s also easier to get everybody together in the same space if you still are maintaining masking, while there is residual risk from low level community transmission,” Lawrence said.

Although social distancing and masking will likely continue to be implemented in the fall, some students are excited to have more in-person classroom instruction.

Freshman Rikki Drexler said that she is looking forward to increased structure in her school days.

“’I’m excited to have places to be at specific times,” Drexler said. “I have an in-person class this year that’s at 9:00 a.m., and I like that it gets me out of bed, gets me on campus. I’m looking forward to hopefully having that every day.”

Drexler said she will welcome the opportunity to have a daily routine. “Being able to get out of my door and having the need to put on a relatively put together outfit I think is really healthy, and something that was sometimes lacking this year,” she said.

Alternatively, some students see the increase of synchronous classes as an obstacle to choosing when to complete their work.

“It has been very nice having asynchronous classes,” freshman Justin Lewitus said. “I’m someone who has an easy enough time motivating myself to get work done, and get work done ahead of time, so from my perspective having asynchronous classes is nice, because for some assignments I can do work when I want to and not necessarily during the assigned class time.”

However, Lewitus added that he could understand why other students were looking forward to the increased structure of synchronous classes.

Postdoctoral fellow in history Elizabeth Reynolds, who teaches small classes that will likely be in person in the fall, noted that some aspects of virtual education will likely continue.

“I think some element of hybrid or remote learning is going to stay with us in some capacity, and I think that should be welcomed,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said that she plans to continue conducting group activities over Zoom, rather than in-person.

“I really dislike using group activities in the classroom because it’s loud; everybody can hear each other,” Reynolds said. “But when you have these breakout rooms and you have the instructor kind of visiting [the rooms], it can potentially be so much better. I have colleagues who have found this to be a very positive teaching tool.”

Although some classes will continue to have virtual aspects, professors noted that the switch to more synchronous instruction will allow fall classes to more closely resemble pre-pandemic classes.

“For the large classes, the goal is to move toward synchronous with some level of active participation—many will still have lectures for remote viewing, but the big goal is to start bringing students ‘back’ into normal patterns,” chair of the biology department Dr. Joseph Jez wrote in a statement to Student Life.

Even with masks and distancing, Lawrence agreed that the fall will look more normal.

“I anticipate the fall will look better than this year has, and it will look more like college,” Lawrence said. “It’s getting closer. So even if it isn’t going to be exactly as the same as it has been before, I anticipate the fall, just in many aspects, not just the classroom, but in many aspects will look more and function more like a college campus than what we’ve seen this year.”

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