Last November, students left for winter break uncertain if they would return to campus. On Monday, they will be welcomed back for another semester of mostly online learning.
The spring will be a crucial period in the fight against COVID-19, and a pivotal moment for UB, which is now entering into its third consecutive semester of in-person classes and online instruction.
This semester, the university will resume classes with a nearly blank slate. As of Friday, the university had reported 33 positive on-campus COVID-19 cases between Jan. 16-29. This two-week metric will reset on Jan. 30. And on Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted Erie County’s “orange zone” designation, retracting micro-cluster restrictions across New York.
This stands in stark contrast to the fall.
By the final week of last semester, the university reported over 100 active cases of the virus on campus, warranting the suspension of in-person clubs and activities and forcing UB to limit dining options to takeout only. Additionally, Erie County had just received its “orange zone” designation by the state, which contained the second-most severe possible restrictions.
Students living or studying on campus will be greeted by many of the same restrictions as last semester, including mandatory face coverings both indoors and outdoors, physical distancing requirements and limitations to in-person activities.
The university has made some changes, though.
UB introduced some new safety measures for students’ return to campus, according to a UBNow article. Students will have to complete a seven-day quarantine before returning to campus and will also be required to provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 test before they return or by utilizing on-campus pooled testing within five days of arrival.
The university will also be administering weekly COVID-19 tests for in-person students and faculty, as per SUNY’s updated reopening guidelines.
UB students have mixed feelings about the upcoming semester.
Haven Nguyen, a junior business administration and media studies student, thinks the hybrid semester is the best option for students and “doesn’t mind” remote learning.
“There are students that prefer online classes such as out-of-state students, international students or those that live in-state but want to stay home during the pandemic,” Nguyen, an international student from Vietnam, said. “The hybrid format works well for these students because people’s situations vary a lot during this pandemic and [this format] provides more options to choose from.”
However, other students worry that online learning isn’t a comparable substitute for in-person learning.
Since last semester, some students have argued that online learning is detrimental to their grades and mental health, prompting a petition last November demanding that the administration adopt a satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading option. Despite having over 2,500 signatures, the petition failed.
Sarah Moreno, a freshman public health major, said the lack of in-person options is limiting.
“At least I had some classes in-person last semester,” Moreno said. “We get more work and no break. I feel that it’s not real learning. Social interaction is the core of learning.”
Katie Lovell, a junior geology major, said she feels optimistic for the spring semester, because she already has a semester of distance learning under her belt. But she also believes remote learning has significant disadvantages.
“After the fall semester I have a better understanding of how things work,” Lovell said. “I found it required a lot more accountability and organization than I expected, but I was luckily able to keep up with most assignments.”
Lovell said some professors are very inaccessible, making remote learning particularly challenging.
“It is an extremely hard time for everyone, but I knew of some professors who were very hard to access for questions and more help,” Lovell said. “Other professors were not sympathetic to students’ mental health and had harsh expectations that were not modified for these unprecedented times.”
Lovell hopes the university’s testing and quarantine protocols coupled with students’ vigilance will keep campus open through the end of the semester.
“I know living in an on-campus apartment with my roommates will be so much better for my mental health, so I’m hoping people make smart choices so the campus doesn’t have to shut down again,” Lovell said.
Virtual activities have proven possible, but on-campus activities remain heavily restricted. Without being able to resume full-capacity events, campus organizations have struggled to engage students.
Matthew Taboni, a business administration major and UB’s Residence Hall Association president, said the modified semester has dampened the once vibrant atmosphere of campus life.
“It is a very different atmosphere than it was at this time last year with most people not leaving their residence halls or apartment complexes,” Taboni said. “Virtual programming takes a toll on people and that can impact community building and general opportunities to students.”
In a university-wide email sent to students last Wednesday, UB President Satish Tripathi and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs A. Scott Weber urged students to continue to follow public health guidelines this semester in anticipation of resuming normal, in-person instruction in the fall of 2021.
“As has been the case throughout the pandemic, the health and safety of our university community are our first priorities,” Tripathi and Weber wrote.
Brendan Kelly is the assistant news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @bpkelly5