Increase in COVID cases leaves professors adapting and students struggling
As students return to the classroom for the third academic year since the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, professors are still grappling with the best way to handle absence policies when positive cases emerge.
Despite recent reports from the Washington Post that indicate that colleges across the nation are currently experiencing a rise in positive cases as students return to school, Washington University in St. Louis currently has no formal policy requiring professors to teach asynchronously due to COVID.
While some professors are continuing to upload their lectures or enforce flexible attendance policies in order to prioritize safety, many students feel as though there are no guarantees that their absences won’t jeopardize their academic careers.
Cheri LeBlanc, Executive Director for Student Health and Wellness, stated that WashU abides by the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mandating that those with COVID should quarantine for five days from the onset of symptoms. After that, students and faculty are required to wear a mask while in class for an additional five days.
LeBlanc explained the difference between quarantine and isolation, saying that isolation occurs when people who test positive stay home, whereas quarantine occurs when someone who was exposed to the disease limits their interactions with others in case they develop the disease.
“Exposed students no longer need to quarantine,” LeBlanc said.
In past years, professors have been required to offer asynchronous class options for COVID-positive students, but since this semester began, there have been no such requirements. However, despite the lack of requirements, many professors have continued to offer virtual classes for their students, with policies varying depending on the professor and the undergraduate school.
In large lecture halls, professors often record their lectures to accommodate hundreds of students. An example is Professor Douglas Chalker from the school of Arts and Sciences, who teaches biology classes with upwards of 350 students.
“We record our lectures so students can turn in the work by the end of the day, and so that there’s no reason they have to come to class in this section,” Chalker said.
Chalker emphasized the importance of students being able to succeed when they are unable to come to class.
“If we’re forcing students to come to class when they’re sick and going to spread it to others, it is just going to exacerbate the problem,” Chalker said. “An assignment is not as important as a student’s health.”
While recording lectures may be adequate for large lecture classes, it can be more difficult to accommodate students in small classes that require group work, active discussion, or in-class assignments.
Professor Rebecca Leffell, who teaches in the Sam Fox School of Art and Design, explained that many classes involving studios have fairly strict attendance policies so that students are present and participating.
“While it’s difficult to make up for a class that’s so dialogic and experience-based,” Leffell said, “I think we really try to give our students whatever space they need to feel better.”
Leffell explained that, difficult as it may be to find adjustments, she and her colleagues care about students feeling empowered and supported.
“We’re really taking it one day at a time as the communication comes in from students, and really crafting our response on a person-by-person basis,” Leffell said.
Professor Tristram Kidder, who teaches in the Department of Anthropology, pointed out that there is no way to record group assignments or recreate them perfectly in an online setting, but that he sees value in treating students with mercy and grace.
“Our concern, at the end of the day, is about student learning,” Kidder said.
Kidder also emphasized the systemic issues that make it difficult for both students and professors to navigate classes while remaining safe, saying that he believes the University is probably not doing enough to support students.
“The entire healthcare structure — not only of the university at the undergraduate level, but frankly, in America — is creaking and groaning,” Kidder said.
While some professors have made efforts to adjust their classes and attendance policies, some students have reported experiences that made them feel left-behind in their courses.
A freshman student who wished to remain anonymous tested positive for COVID during the first week of classes and eventually decided to go home to quarantine.
“[WashU] told my roommate that because she’s not immunocompromised, they couldn’t do anything for her and [that] she’ll just have to wear a mask,” the freshman said. “I felt like it wasn’t a good policy to have — I just went home because my parents were able to pick me up.”
They explained that some professors quickly developed solutions.
“My professors did a really good job of getting back to me and stuff like that,” the freshman said. “One of my teachers didn’t really believe in technology; he ended up recording the lecture, but it was only an audio recording, which was kind of annoying.”
Irene Herrmann, another freshman, tested positive for COVID during the first week of classes, and said that it was challenging for her to keep up.
“It was hard to get an accurate feel for the class without being physically present,” Herrmann said. “Reading-assignments can be misleading, and the environment of a classroom — not only the professor but also the other students — can make a huge difference [in] how much someone enjoys a class.”
Herrmann also stated that she was experiencing fatigue due to COVID, which made it even more difficult for her to stay up-to-date.
“Keeping up with work when you’re sick is also really difficult,” Herrmann said, “I’m really grateful for the professors who were understanding and the friends who checked in on me and took care of me from a distance.”
The anonymous freshman student emphasized a similar point, saying that they felt as though they got lucky because their professors were kind, but that there was no policy to make sure that they were getting class materials.
“No one’s enforcing anything, and it feels like the university should be doing better about making sure that professors are being good with their COVID policies,” the freshman said. “It feels weird for a major university to be so casual about something that is such a big deal and that affects so many people.”
Considering WashU’s reputation as a prestigious and competitive university, many students feel anxious about maintaining a high level of performance. While Kidder understands why students place significant weight on their academics, he argues that it is important for health to be a priority.
“I know you guys are concerned about your grades — you’re spending a lot of money on the academic experience,” Kidder said. “We don’t want you to feel compelled to come back to class and be around me or anyone else until you’re healthy, and the incentive structure ought to be built around that.”