Opinion: The return to in-person education was (and still is) in need of fine-tuning
When Willamette’s “quiet period” of online classes, events, and limited on-campus social activity was announced on January 14th, I breathed a sigh of relief: daily COVID-19 cases in Oregon were [spiking at a rate] exponentially higher than any previous rise due to the Omicron variant, and the thought of returning to class during such a spike terrified me for the safety of our greater campus community. I was even more relieved when the quiet period was extended by a week, after witnessing more friends coming down with the virus than at any other point in the pandemic, and the [frightening spike of Salem campus cases following the return from winter break]. Fast forward to week three of the quiet period. Cases were still peaking, with daily COVID-19 numbers in Oregon averaging between 7,900-8,100 on a daily basis, yet we were still cleared for a return to in-person classes the following week. A question nagged in my head: why? How is returning to in-person education any safer now than it was a week ago? Despite the fact that daily cases began to drop by the very end of January, and that the on-campus spike as observed in the community COVID-19 [dashboard] declined significantly the further we got from winter break, the metric for “safe learning” was still incredibly confusing to me when the end of the quiet period was announced. The average number of Oregonians testing positive for COVID-19 still surpassed the daily average of any given day from the previous semester by a [hefty range of several thousand]. It didn't feel like there was a solid metric by which the period was extended, and the insistence on a hard return to in-person education regardless of cases left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Returning to virtual learning after my first semester of fully in-person schooling in nearly two years was jarring to say the least. I found it more difficult than ever to focus on class sitting in a favorite living room chair with my phone in hand, while other household chores needed to be done. WU student Grace Goodyear (‘22) expressed that “Zoom classes are harder to stay present in” which had adverse effects on their mental health, saying that they tend “to be harder on myself during online classes because I recognize that I get distracted.” Not only did the lack of structure offered by virtual education restrict the ability of myself and others to focus on coursework, but it stifled social opportunities as well, as being an off-campus student made it difficult to reconnect with friends I would have typically run into around campus. Yet, the quiet period also created something of a grace period to readjust to school in a more relaxed environment, with minimized pressure on me, knowing that the school’s decision to limit social interaction and abiding by those guidelines by staying home were the right things to do for the protection of Willamette’s student body. Goodyear seconded that the quiet period was a good idea, stressing that they are “willing to be adaptable to whatever will be best for me and my peers” and that they thought the period was “a good length,” wanting to be able to trust that the university “gave us the right amount of time.” I second Goodyear’s notion— I wanted to be hopeful that the return was a well thought out move, but when considering the data and lack of transparency from the university about why the change was safe, I remained unconvinced and felt like perhaps another week would have been beneficial for campus public health— especially now that I had settled into a routine with online classes.
The other thought that entered my mind when I heard news of the quiet period’s extension was a worry: would the period be perpetually extended throughout the spring, remaining online for my final semester in college? Nat Felten (‘22) shared this anxiety, as after the week extension was announced, his “first thought was that we were going to go online all semester.” News of teacher shortages, universities across the nation pivoting to virtual learning and rumors of off-campus weekend parties stirred this anxiety when considering the high transmissibility rate of the Omicron variant. Part of me felt it logical to extend the quiet period by just another week or two past the Feb. 1 deadline for student booster shot confirmation, ensuring that the vaccine fully settled into the immune systems of any community member who may have gotten their third dose freshly before this date for maximal protection of student and faculty health. Further, it was important for Willamette to consider the impact of the quiet period’s isolatory nature on student mental health. Felten echoed that he has “friends with mental health issues that are exacerbated by the isolation” of the quiet period, and suggested that “a push to organize group activities over Zoom to give people something to do and look forward to” would have been beneficial for student mental health during the quiet period, saying that he felt as if “the amount of those types of events dropped off” in comparison to what was being offered last year. Though there were a smattering of school-sponsored virtual events, more could have been done during this time to engage with the community and keep students connected, as with their inherent restrictions and the fact that many of us are exhausted by screen fatigue, Zoom events are not enough to scratch everyone’s social itch. Though these are all important factors to consider, the safety of my community remained paramount, and after two years of living in a pandemic, the request to stay in our homes or dorm rooms for three was certainly not an unreasonable one and to anybody who protested the quiet period, I would ask why they haven’t found ways to adapt to these circumstances yet, and why an insistence on “returning to normal” is more important than protecting our peers.
Curious for the perspective that could be offered by a faculty member, I interviewed Assistant Professor of Computer Science Calvin Deutschbein for their insights on the quiet period. They informed me that the faculty played an instrumental role in fighting for the quiet period through unstructured labor organization because many “professors were really reluctant to perform forms of in-person teaching to protect ourselves first” since “as faculty, a lot of us have young children or health conditions and are at higher risk.” This isn’t to say that faculty were not dually concerned for the safety of their students, but it’s more difficult for professors to “advocate for the students because we don’t know exactly what you want,” with Deutschbein communicating that they are still unsure whether students “want campus fully open in-person or not.” After several semesters of professors teaching online, offering hybrid options when not required, and moving classes online when students get sick, the faculty have “created an atmosphere where it's difficult for administration to enforce hard re-opens especially during really big surges like Omicron.” In Deutschbein’s understanding of the issue, once the “aggression of the surge subsided, more and more faculty “started getting worried about keeping their jobs rather than keeping themselves safe” and that while school administration “got everything they wanted” and completely achieved an intended goal of the quiet period to “break down resistance to in-person education,” the quiet period was only “somewhat successful for faculty” because they only received a few of the COVID-19 precautions they were advocating for. In terms of length, they told me that for best results in curbing case numbers, the quiet period should have been given “at least another week” but that the duration was irrelevant if administration were serious about carrying out in-person education safely— a condition that Deutschbein “fundamentally doesn’t believe” is being met. With regard to changes that could be executed to do this safely, Deutschbein suggested “having free KN95s delivered to student dorm rooms,” and bemoaned how the classroom still doesn’t feel safe: “I’m supplying my own PPE and stuff like that, it doesn’t feel good. I don’t think the student body has been convinced to wear masks over both nose and mouth in class, which is something that would make me feel a lot better.” Deutschbein’s perspective was illuminating— if faculty had been advocating for online classes, and even felt uneasy teaching in-person, and were forced to take their own measures to ensure in-class COVID safety under the impression that WU was not doing enough to protect them, then surely the return to the classroom was rushed and failed to consider all necessary public health precautions.
At the bottom line, the first-year professor believes that “we rushed to reopen and did not put systems in place to reopen safely.” Goodyear offered additional input in fostering a safe in-person learning environment, voicing the importance of “professors at the beginning of courses actively discussing how the class as a community would like COVID protocols in regards to keeping everyone comfortable.” I endorse all these suggestions in forging a path towards pandemic-era education that protects both the mental and physical health of its students. I also uphold that the quiet period should have been extended further — though current case counts on Willamette’s COVID-19 [dashboard] have steeply declined, it is impossible to verify the accurate amount of students carrying the virus due to asymptomatic cases and the fact that COVID-positive students may have abstained from testing, unaware of their transmissibility. Either way, one thing can hopefully be agreed upon about the quiet period despite its limitations and drawbacks: that the quiet period was a necessary precaution — a rare instance in which the university put the health of its students above the generated revenue that comes with in-person campus life and a tired pedagogical insistence of the classroom as the be-all, end-all norm for effective collegiate education. Most importantly, the quiet period was (mostly) successful in its goal of curbing an explosive COVID-19 outbreak at the offset of the semester.