How COVID-19 class policies and accommodations have shifted with the return to in-person learning

| Contributing Reporter
Masked people walk across a well lit hallway with a grey carpet and a colorful mural on the wallsHolden Hindes | Student Life

Students walk between classes in Simon Hall

With COVID-19 still circulating on a largely in-person campus, Washington University has updated its accommodations from the past school year to largely resemble pre-pandemic policies while simultaneously integrating practices and techniques learned throughout the past virtual year.

While the University characterized last year’s accommodations system as a “high-flex” model in which students could take classes in a variety of modalities, this fall has featured a return to predominantly in-person classes where remote learning accommodations are sometimes still a necessity.

Vice Provost for Educational Initiatives Jennifer Smith explained that the University is still providing accommodations for students who are quarantining or isolating due to COVID-19, adding that the accommodations depend on the style of the class and the individual instructor’s preference.

“There is an expectation that in-person lecture based classes are being recorded to support absences,” Smith said. “In more interactive classes, because recordings may not be particularly useful, we simply told instructors that they would need to provide a mechanism for students to stay on track with the class and make up for any in-class activities or participation — similar to what would have happened if a student needed to miss class for illness pre-COVID.”

This system is different from last year’s, in which the University required faculty members to provide accommodations to every student using Zoom, meaning missing a class due to COVID-19 was relatively simple for students, Smith said. She explained that this year instructors are not required to provide options for synchronous virtual participation for students missing class due to COVID-19, but many still choose to do so.

“If instructors of interactive classes feel either recording or synchronous zoom participation is the best way to accommodate quarantined students, they certainly can do either, or both,” Smith said.

However, some instructors did not think last year’s policies worked well, which is another reason why the administration decided to allow more flexibility for instructors to choose how they wish to provide accommodations this year.

“Since some instructors found last year that remote participation in in-person discussions or activities didn’t work particularly well in the context of their classes, we did not insist that everyone provide that option this semester,” Smith said.

Sophomore Hannah Hummel had to quarantine last year and was isolated with COVID-19 this year, requiring her to miss classes both times. Hummel felt that taking classes from quarantine was different this year and found it more difficult to participate.

“This year was a lot more watching recordings of classes, while last year was calling into class on Zoom,” Hummel said. “It was definitely more of a possibility to participate in class last year, where this year I would email my professors and they would give me a recording or the takeaways from the class.”

Hummel felt that it was not particularly challenging to keep up with all of her classes from quarantine housing but that it required a lot of commitment.

“I think it requires some personal initiative [to keep up with classes while in quarantine] because it is very easy to not contact any of your professors, but as long as you are doing the basic things it is not too bad,” Hummel said.

Even with the additional challenges, Smith explained that it was a priority to return to in-person classes this year to reinforce the learning community at the University. She emphasized the importance of physically coming together to learn which helps with focus and engagement for both students and faculty.

While Smith underlined that returning to an in-person class structure was a priority this year, there are also many aspects of virtual learning that remain relevant to continue in the years ahead.

“We’ve recommended that faculty continue providing virtual office hour options, and that having experts from other institutions join classes virtually was particularly valuable,” Smith said. “We also felt that having multiple different ways for students to participate — anonymous polling, written discussion board comments, etc — was important in supporting engagement from students who might not always be comfortable raising their hand in class.”

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