As the Fall semester comes to close on college campuses, it’s a good time to reflect on and assess how the past semester went. Many universities went to almost exclusively virtual learning, but other schools tried to make Fall 2020 as normal as possible given the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.
My school, the University of Central Arkansas, chose the route of trying to have things as normal as possible — by which I mean students live on campus, classes are mostly in-person — while still accommodating students and faculty that preferred a more physically distant atmosphere. For example, UCA increased the number of fully online courses available, roughly trying to meet faculty and student demand. I normally teaching one online course per semester anyway, and I continued that this semester. Other faculty had more online classes than usual, or moved their class to be partially online.
So what was my experience?
First, the students, the most important part of the teaching process. Overall, I would say my students did very well. At least in the classroom, they complied with all the rules the University set forth: wearing masks, physical distancing in classrooms (seen in the image below), even the one-way entrances and exits to the building. There were only 3-4 times I can recall this semester when a student entered my classroom without a mask, and they immediately asked me for one upon realizing their mistake (I kept a pack of surgical masks with me).
As far as academic performance of students, I was very pleased with the students. For those students that were able to stick with the class and keep up, which was most students, they perform as well or better than previous semesters. Some students, due to personal circumstances, had trouble keeping up. I tried as much as possible to accommodate students in these situations, by being flexible with deadlines, offering additional resources, and generally just trying to listen to them and empathize. It was hard for everyone.
On my end, I tried to make the teaching atmosphere of the classroom as normal as possible. I usually do have some interactive aspects of the classroom, where students work in small groups, talk to their neighbors, etc. Most of those activities didn’t happen, unfortunately. But otherwise, the classroom atmosphere operated as usual.
As my students did, I also wore a mask in the classroom while I lectured. For students that had to miss class due to quarantine, isolation, or other reasons, we were asked to record every lecture and have an option for students to watch the lecture virtually if needed. Making sure that the video was properly recording and the I had set up the Zoom link for students that needed to be remote added an extra element to think about at the beginning of each class, but it was the kind of thing that once you get used to it, it just became normal.
I will say that I often felt very exhausted after teaching each day. The mental load of making sure everything was working right in the classroom, combined with the constant sense of doom in the world around us, made this a challenging semester mentally. I’m sure this was even more true for some of my students. But, we made it.
Finally, how about the administration of my University. I’ll bite my tongue a little here: I am up for tenure this year! But really, I don’t have anything major to complain about. Guidance was communicated well, although sometimes big changes were rolled out a bit more quickly than the faculty liked. UCA provided isolation and quarantine dorms for students, though these never came close to capacity. Weekly updates on testing, cases, and related data were provided to everyone (and made publicly available, so I’m not revealing any secrets here).
As you can see above, the general student body at UCA did report positive COVID cases every week. And some weeks the positive test rate was a little higher than I was comfortable with! But we never had a large spike in cases, and the University held firm to its commitment to offer in-person classes for everyone that wanted them, as long as the campus was generally safe.
All in all, I think it was the best semester we could have had under the circumstances. The only thing really weighing on my mind: we are going to do it all over in the Spring semester. And we’ll do it as well as we can.
It’s helpful to hear about another experience. One concern that we have had about recording lectures is that attendance during class time falls.
My strategy was that I recorded all lectures, but only made them available to students who missed because of COVID reasons. My attendance stayed pretty high all semester (lower than usual, but way higher than my colleagues who made the videos available to all students).