Students express frustration with online classes and University’s spring plan ahead of return to in-person instruction

Two students walk through the largely empty University of Washington campus in January (Curran Neenan | Student Life)

Two weeks at the University of Washington switch to online education due to the omicron variant was widely disappointed – as well as understanding – by students who were hesitant to attend classes virtually again and, for many, not returning to campus until the very end of January.

Jen Smith, vice provost for educational initiatives, explained in a statement to Student Life earlier this month that since many experts expect omicron cases to peak in January, administrators hope prevent this peak from overwhelming the University’s resources. Many students understand the need to avoid an omicron surge on campus, but are still frustrated by the predicament.

Student reactions to the spring plan varied depending on their personal circumstances, but generally included disappointment at more lost in-person schooling, appreciation for the health measures taken by the University, concerns about health mental and confusion over the details of the plan.

For Elizabeth Girling, a sophomore from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the University’s decision meant that just attending virtual classes would be a struggle.

“When I first read that email, I started crying,” she said. “I knew being online was going to be a big deal for me because, of course, living in Wyoming, my WiFi connection is so bad, incredibly bad.”

Girling’s parents pushed her to take a gap semester and consider taking a course at the University of Wyoming this semester. She said the way her parents and other parents she heard about framed the decision as, “Why pay $40,000 a semester for an online class when you can go to a state college? and take a course in person for two thousand?” Still, Girling decided to continue her classes this semester.

Second-year Cindy Wang was less concerned about how the plan would affect her personally, although she felt the plan lacked specificity and was announced later than it should have been.

“Personally, I’m fine with a two-week pushback,” she said. “I am in a good family situation, financially, I can stay at home and take online courses. I know for some people that situation might be different, which is why I guess the University said they would have exceptions to come back on the 28th.”

However, Wang criticized the University’s timing and communications strategy for the announcement. She said some universities announced their delays in person a week earlier than the University of Washington, so she “already felt like we were going to be in person,” and ended up having to cancel her flight and change the plans she had made in St. Louis. She also said the University “should have been more thorough about what they mean by partial refunds. [for housing and dining services that students would be unable to access while learning remotely].”

The University’s Spring Plan FAQ states that “Students living in residential living accommodation who do not return by January 28, the university will offer a partial accommodation cost credit. Partial food and beverage reimbursement will also be offered to students who live in residential living accommodation and have meal plans, but not to students with off-campus meal plans.

Financial reimbursement was also a major priority for Cochise Burrows’ second year.

“I think they should refund all the students for their tickets, plane tickets, train tickets, whatever, that the students won’t be able to use anymore,” Burrows said. “And when it comes to textbooks, I think they should reimburse students for each textbook because textbooks are expensive.”

The students also detailed various preventive health measures that they would like to see adopted in the spring.

Alexandra Weiss, first year thought the University would have mandated weekly recall and testing, as at many other major universities, before moving the school online.

“In my mind, I thought they would go through those two steps first instead of pushing us in line,” Weiss said, “but they skipped those two steps and then went straight to putting us in line.

Weiss also discussed changes she thinks the University should implement to campus life once students return.

“I feel like WashU has one hundred percent the resources to bring back weekly testing, and I feel like for all waves of COVID, it’s most needed for omicron given how badly it’s contagious and how mild the symptoms are for most people,” Weiss says.

According to Vice-Chancellor for Marketing and Communications Julie Flory, the University will continue to provide free diagnostic tests to all students, faculty and staff, but will not mandate surveillance tests for those vaccinated.

Burrows also addressed the generally milder symptoms of the omicron variant, claiming that since 98% of students and faculty staff are fully vaccinated, the University should have remained open.

While he doesn’t think people should “completely ignore the dangers” of COVID-19, “the symptoms are comparable to the flu,” Burrows said. “I don’t think that poses a big enough threat to close the school.”

Burrows’ point is part of a larger discourse that is gaining global momentum about how to address threats to the health of populations at different levels of risk. He answered a supplementary question from Student Life on how a return to in-person classes might affect immunocompromised people, saying there should be “some sort of accommodation for those particular students, but I think those students are definitely not the majority.”

“I mean, we are students, we are young. We are, for the most part, at least, in good health,” Burrows said. “And you know, [to] remove it specifically from COVID; there will always be risks particular to a certain group of people,” Burrows said. “And I think my question is, are you closing the whole college, which for the most part is not at risk, for the sake of those people who might be at risk?”

Wang pushed back against the idea that the benefits of returning to in-person classes immediately outweigh the risk to students who might be at higher risk for omicron.

“I know some people were complaining that online classes…will be mentally and academically horrendous, and…I totally agree,” Wang said. “But at the same time, I think it’s safety first, one hundred percent.”

Weiss added that the needs of immunocompromised students often end up being overlooked, but absolutely should not be ignored.

“I think people forget…there are a lot of students at WashU who are immunocompromised or at risk for long-term COVID…I feel like everyone should just be a little more aware of that,” she said.

However, Weiss also stressed the need to be considerate of students whose mental health may suffer as a result of online classes.

“The second half of my senior year, I was in my apartment doing online school and it just didn’t work out,” she said. “It’s definitely going to have an impact on the mental health of WashU students that they won’t be working to address.”

Girling said that in addition to mental health, online learning will also impact the academic performance of students, especially those with limited internet access.

“I can’t tell you how hard it is to watch an organic chemistry lecture online and pick up the material,” she said.

Although the two-week period presented a variety of different challenges for students, depending on their personal circumstances, University leaders said they have no reason to believe that distance learning will would extend beyond those first two weeks. In-person classes are scheduled to resume on Monday, January 31, when students will be able, in the words of a December 31 email to engineering students from Aaron Bobick, the dean of the school of engineering, ” back to the new fashion normal.”