First two weeks online: Students talk about pandemic changes, online courses

Illustrated by Katherine Chui

By Nithya Shenoy 01/18/22 11:10 PM

The fall 2021 semester began with online classes amid an increase in COVID-19 cases in the Houston area, attributed to the Delta variant. As the semester progressed, however, the restrictions were gradually lifted, allowing for an almost normal semester. Now, given the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, classes are back online for the first two weeks of the semester. This change, along with the administration’s request for students to delay their return to campus, has prompted some students to change their plans for the start of the semester.

Gabriel Bolanos, a freshman at Wiess College who has a room on campus, was following news about the spike in COVID cases and expected Rice to go online after winter break. Bolanos, from the Houston suburb of Cyprus, opted to stay at home for the first two weeks.

“I wasn’t very surprised,” Bolanos said. “I thought in this case it was the right choice… [Still,] it was incredibly hard to swallow.

Bolanos said his plans hinge on whether classes are going to be in-person or virtual.

“[Since I am in] Cyprus, travel would be rather difficult… It would depend heavily on traffic,” he said. “Yes [classes] were in person, I probably would have gone to campus.

Tess Roark, a sophomore at Sid Richardson College, decided to stay at home in Germany after learning that Rice would start the semester remotely. Roark said she immediately changed her departure date from Jan. 6 to Jan. 21.

“At first I was relieved,” Roark said. “Coming back internationally is a bit of a nightmare; I have to take a PCR test within 24 hours [of departure] to return to the United States. Also, it is worrying because [Rice is] are already experiencing an increase [COVID-19] number of cases with a limited population on campus.

Roark, who studied remotely his freshman year, said the current situation felt familiar.

“It’s kind of like going to Rice is study abroad,” Roark said. “Now I feel like I’m in my natural habitat.”

Roark said she wants Rice to do more for students who have been away for most of their college experience. She said she didn’t consider clubs her freshman year due to jet lag and initially thought she would only be away for a semester.

“I wish there were more [of an effort] to acclimatize remote people,” Roark said. “I wish there was something specifically for people who aren’t freshmen but are coming to campus for the first time and then learning how to get involved while being in person.”

Now that she’s home for the first two weeks of the semester, Roark said she feels disconnected from campus.

“It’s nice to be able to spend more time with my family, [but] at the same time, I don’t use a lot of that time,” Roark said. “I will start classes just as my family starts dinner. [Then,] with Zoom, it’s hard to strike up a conversation in breakout rooms. I prefer meeting people in person and working face to face because it’s less difficult.

Bolanos said he also felt disconnected from campus. Half of her group of friends decided to stay home, while the other half chose to return to campus.

“It seems a bit strange,” Bolanos said. “They say [in a group chat], “Let’s go eat outside on the quad”, and I will say: “I’m not here”. In many ways it’s like previous years [like in high school]. It can be quite isolating.

Keerthi Bhoda, a second-year student at Wiess College, returned to campus on January 9. Bhoda said online classes make it harder to stay connected.

“The campus is half empty and uncrowded,” Bhoda said. “We are not allowed to dine indoors, so there are usually not many people in the commons. I think it looks more like the fall 2020 semester or the start of the spring 2021 semester.”

Andrew Graziano, senior and current chief justice at Sid Richardson College, returned to campus on January 9. Graziano said his plans did not change after distance learning was announced.

“I expected that, because so many other schools were reacting the same way,” Graziano said. “I don’t really have an opinion on that anymore. Before, I was more passionate about how the university was responding to COVID, but now I think it’s become pretty normal.

Graziano said he was lucky to be able to take a few of his classes in person, and the online classes were going well for him.

“There are pros and cons to online classes, so I stay positive in acknowledging the pros,” Graziano said. “My teachers work hard to make online classes accessible and I really appreciate that. Even though these online classes are not the same as in-person classes [classes], online courses have this dynamic where everyone is in the same boat, which is good because everyone is empathetic and engaged.

Roark also said she appreciates the efforts of her teachers. She currently has a class that is asynchronous and says she appreciates its flexibility.

“I can choose where to fit it into my schedule,” Roark said. “[The professors are] really does a good job considering the circumstances.

Bhoda said the move to online classes means she can spend more time in class.

“Online classes are going well,” Bhoda said. “With no other extracurricular activities right now, having classes online has given me more flexibility in my schedule and allowed me to focus more on school.”

Bolanos said he’s encouraged that Rice appears to be changing his stance on the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent announcement from the president and provost said the university would be changing its policies “towards a posture that recognizes COVID-19 as endemic.”

“I think they announced their change of mindset in their email, which was pretty reassuring to me. At least to me, I felt like they were chasing something impossible to do, which is to keep COVID completely out of Rice,” Bolanos said. “I really appreciate that they are very committed to protecting our students, especially compared to other colleges in the area.”