COVID-19 in Fall 2020: A Concerning Situation for Students

The following is based on a collection of graduate student experiences, focusing on the perspectives of students at U.S. institutions. Information on university reopening plans and COVID-19 is up-to-date as of early July 2020, but may have changed due to the quickly evolving nature of this pandemic. For medical information on COVID-19, please refer to the CDC and WHO.

A few months ago, the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 leapt to the forefront of our national consciousness. COVID-19, the highly infectious disease caused by this new coronavirus, began to spread in communities in the United States and across the globe. In response, entire countries shut down, advising citizens to stay in their homes to slow transmission and “flatten the curve” to avoid overwhelming healthcare systems. Universities scrambled to make changes, with many institutions transitioning to online learning in a matter of days or weeks. Many students were told to leave campuses, finishing out the school year in their family homes. 

Now, as we approach the fall term, universities are planning for what comes next. Some states have reopened their businesses and relaxed stay-at-home orders, leading to increased cases of COVID-19 across the country. Universities are considering how they, too, will reopen, and if/how they will safely bring students back on campus for Fall 2020. As graduate students we are deeply concerned with how universities will operate and how we (as students, researchers, and teaching assistants) will be impacted by COVID-19 this fall. In today’s Beyond bite, we will explore the variety of current university reopening plans and graduate student concerns surrounding those plans.

The State of COVID-19 in the United States

Before we jump into how universities are tackling this issue of reopening, it’s important to understand the current situation in the U.S. Although some countries like New Zealand have effectively halted the spread of COVID-19, the United States has seen cases rise dramatically (see Figure 1), currently holding the highest case counts in the world with over 3 million confirmed cases according to the WHO. (For context, as of 6/30/2020, the U.S. had 4% of the world’s population and 25% of its COVID-19 cases.) The fatality rate of COVID-19 is around 0.6-1% overall according to current studies, and the hospitalization rate is ~10-11%. The data have shown that people 65 and older, as well as people of color (particularly Native American, Black, and Latinx communities), are at higher risk for COVID-19. 

Figure 1: New COVID-19 cases over time in the United States, from March 2020 to July 2020. The U.S. has surpassed 50,000 new cases each day, with over 3 million cases total during this outbreak. (Figure from the New York Times COVID-19 statistics, as of 7/15/2020)

Even in cases where the patient survives and “recovers,” they have been left with life-changing effects, such as decreased lung capacity, strokes, and more. To make matters worse, cases that don’t show serious symptoms can still be left with long-term lung damage. Over 100,000 Americans have already died from this pandemic, and infection rates are spiking in many states. There is a lack of contact tracing, widespread testing, and other efforts that countries have used to control the spread. Current scientific consensus shows that the virus is transmitted by respiratory droplets, even by asymptomatic folks, and also possibly through the air. As a result, gatherings indoors are more risky due to a lack of space for distancing and less air flow. While mask wearing and washing your hands is useful (but not foolproof) in reducing the spread, isolation is the most surefire way to avoid infection. Maintaining distancing, implementing contact tracing and testing, and enforcing these safety protocols seems challenging in a university setting, where students often gather in groups to study and socialize. With these facts in mind, how are universities going to serve tens of thousands of students in the fall and keep everyone safe? 

A Patchwork of Reopening Plans

The United States has so far lacked cohesive national guidance during this pandemic, leaving decisions for reopening plans and public health guidance to the state (and even city) levels of government. For many people, there has been a large amount of uncertainty about what activities are “allowed” by their local rules, and, beyond that, what is actually safe. So far, it seems like universities are adding to this patchwork quilt of reopening plans, with a huge variance in what individual institutions are planning to do this fall (see Figure 2 for a summary). Most plans seem to offer some sort of hybrid in-person and virtual instruction, although the details of these plans vary wildly. Additionally, these plans were recently thrown into disarray by the ICE decision regarding international students, which has thankfully now been rescinded.

Figure 2: A breakdown of college and university reopening plans. (Figure from BuzzFeed News, published July 11, 2020)

Many universities have been committed to offering in-person instruction as much as possible. For example, Boston University stated in a memo to deans and department chairs that “any course that does not have a significant in-person component incrementally erodes the residential character of the BU experience.” Their plan, titled Learn from Anywhere (LfA), sets in-person instruction as the default for course delivery, with options for virtual teaching for students who cannot or do not wish to attend in-person. The University of Michigan stated that it will have an “in-person public health informed semester” without giving significant detail on what that means, only generally stating that “large classes will be held remotely, small classes will be held in-person, and medium-size classes will be a hybrid of the two.” The Chancellor of NC State University, in a memo sent to deans, directors, and department heads, requested an increase in the number face-to-face and hybrid courses being offered. The University is planning to have lecture classes of up to 100 students with a proposed classroom spacing of 4–6 feet. (Dr. Katie Mack, a physics professor there, wrote a response letter to this memo, detailing why this plan is a mistake.)

Another strategy has been shifting schedules to accommodate fractions of the campus population at different times. For example, Columbia University plans to have a three term schedule with freshman and sophomores on campus in fall, and juniors and seniors on campus in Spring. University of Massachusetts Amherst has shifted to start classes 2 weeks early, and a few schools are holding in-person classes until Thanksgiving, after which they’ll go entirely online. Some plans are intentionally vague and leave decisions up to departments, or even individual instructors, and some are a bit unconventional. A rare few schools have plans that seem possibly safe, such as UCLA, where they expect most classes to be online except those that petition for a need to be in-person, and have sent rigorous emails detailing plans for safety protocols (including contact tracing and widespread testing) on campus. The University of Vermont has adopted a model that gives students the choice to stay home and take virtual classes, allowing them to determine their own risk and comfort level about being physically on campus (however, only 40% of classes will be available online). Harvard has fully committed to 100% online courses.

Although there are many variations of university reopening plans, there are a few themes that appear frequently, listed below. 

  • Classes will be taught in a hybrid format, with some students in-person and some online. (Larger classes online, smaller classes maybe in-person.)
  • Students are being given choices and options as to how they want to learn. Many TAs have not been given a choice to opt-out of teaching in-person if they feel unsafe.
  • If TAs/workers do need an exemption from in-person activities, they must submit a “high-risk exemption” (sometimes even including proof from a doctor).
  • Student housing is much more scarce due to distancing requirements.
  • No plans to enforce safety protocols (masks, distance) even if suggested/required by the university.
  • No decrease in tuition despite significant changes in course delivery and campus services.
  • Many details of day-to-day operations are being left up to departments, or even to individual instructors. 
  • Plans are vague and/or changing rapidly, and often not being communicated effectively or clearly to students.

Student Concerns

The general consensus surrounding these plans seems to be that students are terrified and concerned that the results will be disastrous. Students are frustrated with the confusing, conflicting information they’ve been given about university reopening, and the sometimes convoluted new schedules and rules they’ve been given about what to expect next school year. 

For undergraduates, the scarcity of housing at some institutions (due to lower capacity to ensure social distancing) poses an issue for students. For those that would be living in the dorms, there are significant concerns about safety and maintaining distancing in such a tightly packed space. Many students have expressed that paying full tuition and campus fees when many campus services aren’t being offered seems unfair, even starting petitions for tuition reimbursement or reduction.

The major problem with current plans is that many of them simply aren’t realistic. Do we really expect all students to comply? In this pandemic, even one rogue infected person (particularly a super-spreader) can spread COVID-19 to classmates, dormmates, and friends without even knowing it. As a result, compliance is required for everyone in the community for anyone to stay safe. This is a problem when students have already been gathering more, spurred by the idea that as young people they’re lower risk, some going as far as having “COVID parties” which act as contests and sometimes offer money to the first person who gets the disease. Additionally, colleges are filled with high-risk areas for COVID-19, such as the crowded and high contact areas of dorms, dining halls, community bathrooms/facilities, and classrooms. In order to make these spaces safe, the measures that will have to be implemented significantly degrade the “residential experience” that colleges are desperately trying to cling to. If the importance of in-person classes is to have the quintessential college experience, these plans are missing the point; with rigorous distancing in classrooms, significantly reduced social activities and student group meetings, and strict quarantines in dorms, the “college experience” of close collaboration and intense social bonding just isn’t happening.

Given that most schools are attempting some “hybrid” format, this leads to the question: how do you coordinate students in-person and online simultaneously? Also, with infection rates rising in 46 states, it is definitely possible that schools will have to abruptly close again, leaving us in the same unprepared and haphazard state we found in March. Students may once again have to hurriedly leave campus, or at least return to fully online classes with no in-person contact. What happens then if classes have to switch to fully virtual again? Both these scenarios require significant extra labor on the part of the instructor and TAs and could cause disruption to the student learning experience. Abruptly switching to online or wrangling both Zoom participants and students in a “distanced” classroom is a logistical nightmare, and also seems like it would be an all-around lower quality education than if instructors were allowed to dive in to making solid online curricula. It’s also very difficult for instructors to plan for classes when schools haven’t made decisions on schedules and course delivery methods; university leadership is acting as if they can make a last minute decision and faculty can accommodate anything, whereas in reality, it takes time to create an excellent online course.

All around, students are not being well served by many current university plans. This leads to the question of who benefits from these convoluted reopening schemes. University budgets, like other economic sectors, are hurting from the pandemic. However, leading students to feel like they’re being exploited and put at risk for their tuition dollars is unacceptable. On the other hand, a handful of universities (such as the University of Vermont) are genuinely trying to have a conversation with their communities and find what options will best support students, an example that more institutions should follow.

What About Graduate Students?

Many of the university plans give information on what undergraduate students can expect for fall and how they will be offered the courses they need to finish their degree. However, these same plans often leave out graduate students, especially student workers (e.g. teaching assistants (TAs) and graduate researchers). Graduate students are in a unique position of being not quite just a student, but not quite an employee either; as a result, university plans are uniquely hard to navigate for graduate students. For example, West Virginia University has a FAQs page for faculty and one for students—where would grad students fall in that categorization? 

One of the biggest issues facing graduate students is TAs being forced to teach in-person classes, face-to-face with many students, unless they have a specific medical exemption. Given the power dynamics of graduate school, even under normal circumstances it’s often difficult for students to challenge departmental decisions without risk of hurting their futures in academia; now, it’s literally life or death, as some universities will rescind pay and healthcare benefits from TAs not willing to risk teaching or holding office hours in-person

For those who do end up teaching in campus classrooms, it’s unclear how much of the burden of safety enforcement will fall on instructors. With no clear plans for how mask wearing, social distancing, and symptom monitoring will be enforced, there is a risk that these responsibilities will fall to those, especially TAs, who are already vulnerable in classrooms and don’t have a lot of power to ensure compliance. Some universities omitted detailed guidance for graduate student researchers, expecting them to return to campus and make safety plans with their individual departments or even their individual advisors. Although allowing departments and research groups to make their own safety decisions allows for flexibility to fit each individual situation, it also leaves graduate student researchers without important protections for their health and job security.

For graduate students in particular, there’s the additional stress of not only being an employee, but also having to make progress towards a degree. Qualifying and comprehensive exams and PhD defenses, extremely stressful exams even in normal times, are now being moved online, forcing students to prepare for and take these exams while dealing with the additional hurdles of working-from-home and stresses from dealing with the pandemic. Students are working with overburdened advisors who are juggling their usual responsibilities while being at home with their families, plus having more faculty meetings than usual to plan for the uncertain future. The additional stress of the pandemic has impacted student mental health, especially for graduate students who already face a multitude of mental health problems. A few departments, like WVU’s Physics department, have made adjustments to degree schedules, essentially “stopping the clock” on qualifying exam timelines to acknowledge that we are in a unique time and should not try to proceed as usual given the circumstances. Similarly, UCLA’s Astronomy Division delayed comprehensive exams to accommodate how students needed extra time to prepare due to the effects of the pandemic. 

Overall, graduate students are grappling with uncertainty on all fronts—in the courses they’re taking, their research work, the classes they teach, their degree milestones, their health in this pandemic, and even their future career prospects.

Undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty and staff have been (or will be) negatively affected by many of the policies laid out by universities attempting to bring us back to a state of pre-pandemic “normalcy.” The authors of this piece strongly believe we would all be better off if we acknowledged our current situation and adapted to it instead of forcing things to resemble the pre-pandemic world, a world which simply no longer exists. Universities must do better, and create realistic plans based on the safety and wellbeing of their undergraduates, grad students, faculty, and staff.

Information on school plans for Fall 2020, when not otherwise linked, was sourced from communication with graduate students who wish to remain anonymous.

“Beyond astro-ph” articles are not necessarily intended to be representative of the views of the entire Astrobites collaboration, nor do they represent the views of the AAS or all astronomers. While AAS supports Astrobites, Astrobites is editorially independent and content that appears on Astrobites is not reviewed or approved by the AAS.

Thank you to the other members of the Astrobites team who helped make this piece possible—especially Haley Wahl, Sanjana Curtis, Ellis Avallone, and Jenny Calahan!

About Briley Lewis

Briley Lewis is a second-year graduate student and NSF Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles studying Astronomy & Astrophysics. Her research interests are primarily in planetary systems – both exoplanets and objects in our own solar system, how they form, and how we can create instruments to learn more about them. She has previously pursued her research at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, and also at Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD. Outside of research, she is passionate about teaching and public outreach, and spends her free time bringing together her love of science with her loves of crafting and writing.

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