For students attending the University of Utah this fall, only one thing is clear: The semester won’t start with the traditional big opening assembly at Kingsbury Hall. The 2019-2020 school year dribbled to an end in COVID chaos—graduation ceremonies were held online or in car parades, classroom time was cancelled before school was officially over and summer classes and plans were scrambled. For schools everywhere, from kindergarten to graduate programs, Fall 2020 looks just as confusing. With COVID-19 raging across the country, whether or not—and most especially, how—to resume classes is a question. Even after school starts, things may change.

According to the midsummer statement from the University of Utah, the plan was for classes to resume in a mixture of in-person and hybrid form on August 24th. Safety measures will be in place, including mandatory mask-wearing, amended class sizes and daily body temperature checks. As a hybrid semester, in-person classes will finish by Thanksgiving and after that all instruction including exams will be online.

“This is more labor for everyone—to learn about additional resources, rent out laptops, supply wifi, Bluetooth. It’s a cultural shift for many, sharing information, not overloading them with too much, and it will require from us as faculty a different level of care,” explains Annie Isabel Fukushima, assistant professor at the School for Cultural and Social Transformation at the University of Utah. With a hybrid model, laboratory or other classes that require one to be physically present will be hard or impossible to replicate online. Fukushima says to adjust to the lack of in-person instruction during the Spring semester, she met more frequently with students one-on-one virtually, but of course, for larger classes, that wouldn’t be possible, “As faculty, we will have to connect and find new ways to reach out to students, via Canvas (a software platform designed to facilitate teaching and learning), emails and virtual meetings.”

From a student’s perspective, Merry Joseph, U of U undergraduate senior studying Biomedical Engineering & Psychology says, “I’m prepared to go to fewer on-campus events in person and am training myself to feel comfortable wearing a mask for longer durations so that I can wear it during lectures and whenever I’m in common areas at the U.” During the transition to online learning in the Spring, Joseph found it difficult to stay motivated, but having successfully gotten through the Spring 2020 semester she feels more prepared and comfortable for taking online classes in the fall.

What is the cost of college this fall?

Pandemic issues bleed into economic ones, as higher education institutions are figuring out who will receive tuition discounts with on-campus, off-campus or hybrid models. If students must return to campus only to get sent home a few weeks later, how can schools justify charging regular tuition? And if they finish remotely, it seems like students are going to not only want, but will demand, a discount.

Some universities and colleges are weighing out tuition pricing alternatives like a reset, earn-up points, “pandemic” rebates (a free semester encouraging students to stay enrolled) or a la carte pricing course options.

What about cheating?

With more classes, quizzes and exams going virtual, the question arises, how do you ensure students are keeping their eyes on their own papers?

“As educators our surveillance must shift. We have to look at different kinds of assignments to better monitor what students are learning, such as through discussion boards, fostering open virtual discussions, and communicating through video responses. This requires us to think differently about how we assess learning,” says Fukushima.

“We will all have to adjust our expectations.”

“This is going to change the way people learn. We are learning how online mechanisms can work with teacher and peers. Until we have a vaccine and a cure, physical distancing is necessary for public health reasons—going forward this definitely will change how people learn.”

“All the uncertainty surrounding this pandemic has been overwhelming at times,” says Joseph, “With cases increasing in Utah, I’m worried how things will be once school re-opens and students are on campus. But it’s reassuring to know that the U has a team that’s monitoring this pandemic and is prepared to change plans if necessary.” By the time you read this, plans will likely have changed.

“Right now, everything feels up in the air. I know the university is in the process of rebuilding the course schedule to try to make in-person classes possible, but with the recent spike in cases, this feels less likely by the day,” says Matt Potolsky, English professor at University of Utah. With a household member who has compromised immunity, Potolsky has asked that all his classes be virtual this term. “I commend the university for giving faculty lots of lead time to adapt to changing circumstances, but the trend line in Utah is not promising. I really don’t know what’s going to happen—that’s the biggest challenge.”


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