Education in the age of corona

 

Being early-July, usually school would be the last thing on anyone’s mind. Who wants to return to 8 hours a day of mindless busy work, lectures and lessons, and campus food, after all? Since March, though, when schools around the globe shut down to switch to online learning, so as to protect students, staff, and faculty alike, one question that has loomed over students, educators, and parents is the possibility of a fall semester, and what it would look like. The answers, like most in regards to COVID-19, are more hypothetical than concrete, and are still largely in the works, as administrators across the country monitor the progress of the novel coronavirus and plan for the most safe and appropriate course of action, which might include mandating N95 respirators. So here’s what some of those plans might look like, as well as an exploration of how the novel virus SARS-CoV-2 has impacted schools across the United States.

 

The most recent and widely-felt impact of the age of corona in education perhaps has to do less with education and more with immigration. On July 8, 2020, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (or ICE) announced a new visa rule that applies to international students. According to the new regulation, international students studying in the U.S. with a study visa will be unable to remain in the country legally while taking an entirely online course load. While many schools are hoping for a return to at least partial in-person instruction in the coming fall semester of 2020, none have yet been able to guarantee this return, and some have even gone so far as to already announce that the fall semester will be continued with entirely virtual instruction.

 

This poses an issue for international students, who will now be unable to stay in the U.S. with legal status, for several reasons. Firstly, many are now faced with a difficult choice: to either leave the U.S. to go home, or to transfer schools to stay in the country and acquire their education. For many international students, they first sought out education in the United States for more opportunities, whether those be social and cultural education, academic advantages, or networking opportunities they were unable to access in their home country. Additionally, some may now be faced with the harsh reality of international travel amid a pandemic, which is not only difficult with additional imposed restrictions on travel, but may also be a health and safety hazard. Time zone differences make virtual classes difficult while abroad, too. And, furthermore, many international students have already secured housing for the upcoming year, having signed leases as far back as last August, and now will have to either find a subletter or face the consequences of terminating or breaking a lease agreement.

 

And while this may all seem like it wouldn’t pose a wide-spread problem, it is important to remember that more than 360,000 students have been affected by the new ICE regulation, and that at many universities, international students make up to 25% of the student population. Moreover, international students often pay premium rates for their education in the United States, meaning that the new law will affect not only individuals now unable to access the education they wanted, but also the universities they attend, which will suffer a massive cut in tuition profits.


Some schools, like Harvard, have already announced that their fall semester will be delivered in an online-only format. Others, like Cloumbia and NYU, who had originally planned for online only, are now creating a single in-person class for international students to attend, so as to work around the new ICE announcement.

 

Meanwhile, others still, such as Northwestern, are planning to move toward a hybrid model, offering large lecture classes in which social distancing is impossible via virtual format, and other, smaller classes in person. The hybrid model offers its own drawbacks, though, as students who suffer from underlying health conditions may be exposed to the virus simply by attending class -- the very same safety concerns that forced schools to close in March. Therefore, many schools are looking to offer an optional return to campuses, saying that those from high-risk areas, those for whom staying at home doesn’t impose a financial burden on their families, and those who are immunocompromised can do online-only instruction. However, any return to campus will be different from other fall semesters. Classes will require the wear of face coverings like masks, face shields, and respirators, social life will be significantly diminished due to strict prohibitions on gatherings and adherence to social distancing, and dorm life will be certainly altered to account for the unprecedented times and circumstances that have become so pervasive in everyday life since the outbreak of COVID-19. Screenings for symptoms may be required upon students’ return to campus, or even admittance to classes. Many schools are also planning an altered calendar, with some taking away Fall Breaks and reducing the length of Thanksgiving, or planning to return earlier or later from summer or Winter break, dependent upon university preparation and discretion.

 

Regardless of the course of action pursued, Fall 2020 will not be a regular semester, as universities move with an abundance of caution. So many colleges and student bodies were not prepared for the gravity of the situation when it hit, and were forced to scramble to alter academics in the spring, and many are still scrambling to come up with an adequate plan for a fall semester, preferably one in which students can be on campus, but also protected from the coronavirus epidemic. As we move toward autumn, students will need to plan to go with the flow and adapt to new learning, in whatever form it may take dependent on their home institution.


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