Return to Campus: College students going back to the classroom amid COVID-19

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ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) – Remote learning is challenging at any grade level, but for college students looking for an experience away from home, completing their studies online was unexpected.

Remote learning has taken a toll on many college students during the pandemic, but the institutions were faced with several challenging decisions. They had to balance the student experience with student safety.

“One of the hallmarks of our entire approach is really to be led by the science. We always had in the back of our minds this confidence that if we’re sticking with the science will do the right things,” Vice President for University Relations at Cornell University Joel Malina said.

At Elmira College and Cornell University, they went to remote instruction very quickly. Cornell University was hoping to make it to their scheduled spring break before sending students home, but they ultimately were forced to clear their campus early. Elmira College made the switch to remote instruction over just a few days.

“Suddenly, we had to go to remote education. Fortunately, our faculty was able to make that transition just over a weekend ever the previous change,” Elmira College President Charles Lindsay added.

The transition looked very different at different schools. Before the pandemic, some schools had a very advanced online education system, while others did not. It was a combination of increasing online infrastructure and adapting hands-on classes to the online space. For students, the transition was abrupt, but they had to adapt quickly.

“That was a little rough. Also, it was a new thing for everyone,” Anna Lares, a junior at SUNY Geneseo, said.

Some students said the remote learning environment was more difficult than in person because they did not have access to their classmates and professors. On top of this, some said the work load increased dramatically.

“You don’t really get that personal connection with other students like you would in the classroom,” Corning Community College Freshman Taylor Van Dine added.

Lares added that it was easier to be remote last year because she spent half of the semester in the classroom, learning the basics. She was able to finish the semester with that foundation she built in person, but the fall semester looked differently. She said it was more difficult to learn because she had to teach herself some of the material due to the remote learning environment.

“Now you’re jumping from assignment to assignment just trying to push through them really. Not really learning the material, but just trying to turn one into the next,” Lares said.

Colleges and universities had to weigh the risks and rewards in order to decide if they should bring students back or keep them online. At Cornell, they used a modeling system to decide if they should bring students back. Their modeling team was led by a group of researchers and professors, which ultimately helped them shape their protocol.

“We found that not having an in person semester was the greater risk,” Malina said.

At Cornell, many students live off campus in Ithaca. Through their research, Cornell found a majority of their students would be returning to the Ithaca area anyway. Without an in-person semester, they would have not been able to create a rigorous testing program for students to participate it, which would have put the Ithaca community at risk.

At Elmira College, they also brought their students back to campus in a hybrid environment so they could be tested regularly.

“We made a big investment in testing because we knew that was the foundation for making sure that things were truly going to work,” President Lindsay said.

Even though it is not the four years they hoped for, most students say their colleges are doing everything they can to make it a positive experience.

“I think it’s easy for us to complain. We don’t see the decisions they have to make,” Lares said.

“CCC is doing an amazing job handling COVID. If students can be in the classroom or not, I think they’re doing an amazing job,” Van Dine concluded.

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