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Pity the Poor College Frosh: “Definitely Weird”

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Pity the Poor College Frosh: “Definitely Weird”

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The Wall Street Journal ran an article today on the travails afflicting college frosh, The College Freshman’s Life This Fall: ‘Definitely Weird’.

Roughly 1,300 colleges and universities are operating primarily or fully online this fall, while about 800 are primarily or fully in person, according to College Crisis Initiative, a tally of schools by Davidson College. Another 650 or so set out to offer hybrid instruction.

Given the state of the pandemic in the U.S., I’m surprised the numbers for in-person or hybrid instruction are so high.

Well, maybe not. As they’re no doubt largely driven by the tremendous economic pressures on colleges. How can they continue to justify their high fees – and accrue revenue from overpriced ancillary services such as dorm rooms and mandatory meal plans – unless students meet in person? And as we’ve discussed at length before, the pandemic is straining revenues throughout he collegiate system, from the elite to the bottom-end.

For anyone who might choose to look closely, it’s shameful that pressure for revenues is leading college administrators to put so many young people at risk of infection – not to mention their communities – by allowing in-person classes.Ofeven when these have web cancelled, students continue to live in dorms and other central living facilities. In fact, the best way to quell the pandemic is not to allow students to meet at state u – short-term pain would be reduced relative to long-term gain and we’d have the greatest chance that “normal” would emerge again.

The Washington Post has also run a piece on colleges reopening, The fall opening of colleges: Upheaval, pandemic weirdness and a fragile stability.

From the WaPo:

Arizona State President Michael M. Crow is cautiously optimistic about the fall term. But he knows the virus isn’t going to vanish any time soon.

“We’re operating under the assumption that covid is a permanent partner to the human ecosystem that we have to manage for the foreseeable future,” Crow said. “And we’re operating under that very, very daunting notion because it affects so many things that we do.”

The reopening of colleges amid a deadly pandemic has brought upheaval and uncertainty to campuses from coast to coast, with a staggering academic and emotional toll for students. But the chaos is not uniform.

Variations in testing protocols, campus locations and student housing patterns from school to school can play a huge role in success or failure. So do school culture, state politics and luck. Pauses and delays  of in-person teaching can shape the outcome. Geography is critical: The pandemic waxes in some regions as it wanes in others.

A degree of stability, perhaps tenuous, has taken hold at many schools that brought students to campus. It is a remarkable turn after the spring crisis that forced students nationwide to evacuate and professors to pivot practically overnight from classrooms to remote instruction. Leaders of these schools say they are gaining confidence they can keep campuses on track with research, teaching and learning. Students are settling into the strangeness.

Differences in approach reflect the contrasting political  approaches towards the virus that is playing out across the country:

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, sees a pattern that reflects regional differences over the need for pandemic restrictions. Schools in the South and Midwest, he said, tend to be opening more fully in person than those in the Northeast and on the West Coast. “It pretty much mirrors what you’re seeing in the politics of the country,” he said.

I realize that asking college students to do zoom study while remaining under the roof of Mom & Dad is a bit of a hard sell. What 18 years old, eager for the limited emancipation going away to college provides, wishes to surrender their newfound freedom to practice social distancing at home?: From the WSJ:

Dahlia Low, 18, had fallen in love with Barnard College during a campus visit. “The minute I got on campus, I was like, ‘This is the school I have to be at,’ ” she said. “Everything about it felt like me and felt safe and felt welcoming.”

When it admitted her in the spring, she screamed with joy. Then in August, five days before she was supposed to head to Connecticut from her California home to quarantine at her aunt’s house before moving onto campus, as perNew York state rules, Barnard notified students fall term would be online only.

Ms. Low outfitted the small guesthouse in her family’s Los Angeles yard with gear she had planned to use at her dorm, so she could at least move out of her bedroom. She spends her days on Zoom, with classes including psychology, American literature and European history.

Nearly all her high-school friends have moved away to be at or near their colleges. “Jonathan, my 4-year-old brother, is currently my best friend,” Ms. Low said, laughing. “It’s definitely weird.”

But life at college is anything but what it’s cracked up to be either. According to the WSJ::

Some schools that intended to bring students back have retreated to online instruction amid Covid-19 outbreaks. Others are pushing through despite case counts topping 1,000 in the first weeks of classes.

To move into dorms, some students had to sign pledges they wouldn’t be around anyone besides their roommates without a mask on. Orientation and activity fairs went online. Intramural sports, and some varsity programs, are sidelined. Serendipitous dining-hall meetings are out.

Some who had dreamed of finding independence at school are transitioning into adulthood from their teenage bedrooms.

“Literally every single thing about attending a university is different this year,” said Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

Her campus greeted students with welcome kits including masks and a thermometer and is testing them for Covid-19 at least once a week. It doesn’t allow visitors in residence halls, and students are taking classes in-person and online, limiting opportunities for social interactions.

And it’s only going to worsen, this experiment in continued communal living during the era of COVID-19.  Especially if this news from Tulane is in any way representative of common practice, as per the WSJ:

Luke Halverstadt, 18, started college by flying from New York to New Orleans and spending two days alone in a hotel room awaiting Covid-19 test results.

He moved into a Tulane University dorm, where he and a roommate share a bathroom with a student who has a single room. He isn’t allowed to enter other residence halls; he and his roommate are each allowed one guest, for a total of four people in the room. The school said they are supposed to wear their masks when there are others present.

Half of Mr. Halverstadt’s classes are in person, the other half online.

“I was really excited to meet lots of new people and go out on the weekends,” he said. “That’s really difficult now, and kind of irresponsible.”

His social circle is limited mainly to people from his dorm floor. They have hit up local restaurants and took a kayak trip. He has played volleyball, masked. He said he has seen beer-pong games at a nearby park, students crowding together unmasked.

Tulane said it has disciplined some students for breaking school rules, including gathering in groups of more than a half-dozen in dorm rooms.

“Anything other than sitting in my dorm room carries varying levels of health risks for myself and my community,” Mr. Halverstadt said, “and the weight of that always being on my mind makes it hard to feel as free or independent as I would like.”

Alas, unlike places such as Hong Kong, which have to some extent quelled the pandemic, many places in the U.S. continues to maintain a cavalier attitude to the virus. And that, as my friend Sarah Borwein, a Canadian doctor practicing in Hong Kong says, you cannot do. This is disease that will exploit any opening you provide.

Contrast the prevailing practice at Duke University, which remains open, to that of two nearby schools in the Research Triangle, the flagship University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University, both of which have had to send students home. As reported by the Washington Post:

One lesson from Duke: Density matters. While Duke tested students more aggressively than UNC-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State, it also brought fewer to campus. Only freshmen, sophomores and a few others moved into dorms — 3,000 in all. Everyone has a single room, and traffic is much reduced in bathrooms and hallways.

Those who live nearby in Durham are only allowed on campus when they have a class. They can’t go to the dining halls, dorms or other places students would normally gather.
Duke officials are acutely aware that conditions could change at any moment. “Our mantra has been like a tournament: Survive and advance,” said Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld, who knows exactly how many days are left in the semester. “We want to get there. But we also want to get to Thursday.”

Now, I can remember those initial heady days of living away from home, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news. But given how many people have been sick in the U.S., I can’t help but think that if colleges had stayed locked down longer, the chances of stopping the pandemic,ic would be greater.

That of course has not proved true in many cases. And regular readers won’t be surprised that there’s a lot of money is at stake.

The difficulties at large public universities have tended to be greater than those at smaller private  institutions. Consider the situation at the University of Tennessess. According to the Washington Post:

Instructors scrambled to adapt. Idil Issak, a graduate teaching assistant in anthropology, began the semester with an in-person course that met twice a week. But after six of her students were forced to isolate, Issak added online instruction to ensure no one would be left out.

Issak said students should not bear the brunt of blame for spikes in cases. The situation, she said, is Tennessee’s responsibility. “If they’re really being honest with themselves,” Issak said, university officials know “it’s their fault. They’re just wanting to make money off these kids.”

 

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