Sarah Winters never thought about going anywhere but BYU for college. “My parents and four older siblings all attended or attend there,” she said. “There are so many opportunities there that excite me, like the choirs, the study abroad programs and the weekly devotionals.”
Winters graduates high school this year and plans on attending BYU in the fall. However, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Winters and many other students are questioning whether they will be taking classes in person or over Zoom this fall.
“I would honestly be devastated (if classes were all online),” Winters said. “One of the best college experiences is the freshman experience, and there’s pretty much no way I can get that online.”
Trends and decisions
Students are not the only ones feeling uncertain about what Fall Semester holds; university leaders and health officials are also struggling to make decisions while forecasts about the virus’s future change.
In a May 14 email to students, the university said BYU might not have a decision about Fall Semester until July because of the “uncertain conditions in Provo and elsewhere.”
“Ideally, the university would like for all of its students, faculty and staff to be on campus learning together, and we are working on plans that we hope can make that happen in some form,” states the announcement.
Plans for colleges and universities around the state are likely to be announced in the next few weeks. The Utah System of Higher Education (USHE) is developing a set of guidelines for fall for the eight public colleges and universities in Utah in conjunction with the state and Leavitt Partners, a health care intelligence business.
In a May 15 meeting, the USHE board said the official guidelines could be announced as soon as Tuesday, May 19. These guidelines are only for the colleges and universities under USHE — which do not include BYU — and would allow each school to make its own plans about reopening in the fall.
Commissioner David Woolstenhulme said USHE is pretty confident that its colleges and universities will hold classes on campus this fall as long as the virus behaves as predicted by health experts.
“We’re going to have actually multiple plans, depending on where COVID-19 is and depending on what happens,” he said. “It may be that we are good in August. But in the middle of November, we may have to transition everything back to online, so we’re planning accordingly.”
During the same meeting, UVU President Astrid S. Tuminez said the university could announce its plans for fall in about two weeks.
California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White announced on May 12 that classes taught at the system’s 23 campuses this fall would be held primarily online with a few exceptions for classes and research that can’t be offered online.
“This planning approach is necessary because a course that might begin in a face-to-face modality would likely have to be switched to a virtual format during the term if a serious second wave of the pandemic occurs, as forecast,” White said in a statement.
The California State University system is not alone in considering changes. A survey of 262 universities by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers showed that 58% have considered keeping all classes online this fall, and 62% have considered decreasing the amount of in-person classes.
Pros and cons of virtual classes
BYU has students from all 50 states and 105 countries, and many of these students returned home in March after classes moved online. If classes were held online like they were during Winter Semester, many students living at home would encounter issues with scheduling because of the difference in time zones.
BYU student Ethan Kitsell is from the U.K., which is seven hours ahead of Provo. “I moved back to the U.K. in the middle of Winter Semester and having to work and study with the time difference was hard,” he said. “I was busy in the evenings when other members of my household were free.”
Kitsell is currently enrolled in a physical science class during Spring Term. He said if he hadn’t passed the exemption exam that allows students to use the exam grade as the overall class grade, he would have class from 12:15–2:40 a.m. “I’d like to avoid having to do that if I can this fall.”
Kitsell said he hopes to move back to Provo in the fall — provided borders open and both governments allow international travel — regardless of the method classes are delivered.
Case counts in and around campus have been low, but the nature of a full-functioning college campus might increase the spread of the disease. As of May 14, there have been 1,435 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Utah County according to statistics from the Utah Department of Health, 27 of those cases have ties to the BYU campus community.
The New York Times created a 3-D simulation that shows how far respiratory droplets travel in different situations. The simulation shows why the CDC recommends people maintain social distancing in public.
Kim Weeden and Ben Cornwell, professors at Cornell University, wrote a working paper on how connected college students are to their peers through classes and how that connectedness might impact the spread of a disease through Cornell University if students returned to classes this fall.
Their study found that 89.6% of undergraduate student-pairs take a class with a third student who connects them indirectly. For example, student A and student C are not in the same class, but student B is in separate classes with both students A and C. While the study used data from Cornell University, Weeden said she would expect similar levels of connection at other universities.
In its research, the team also studied what effects different methods of conducting classes would have on the levels of connection and potential viral spread.
“Our research shows that if classes over 30 students, which at Cornell is about 15% of all classes, are taught online, connectivity in the network declines fairly substantially,” Weeden said. She also suggested block schedules where students take just one course per 3.5–4 week block, but meet every day for longer sessions.
Weeden acknowledged that the study only focused on student connections through the classes they take and not any connections outside of class like living situations and friend groups.
“University administrators can reduce the risk of exposure in classrooms by moving some courses or parts of courses online,” she said. “But all these efforts could be for nothing if a student decides to throw a coronavirus party and a superspreader — who may not even feel sick — shows up.”
USHE Commissioner Woolstenhulme said USHE is making plans for what its colleges and universities should do if COVID-19 cases do pop up on campus this fall. “We will have a plan in place to deal with those cases when they do come up, because we know they’re going to come up.”
While conducting classes virtually can help limit the spread of the virus, in many cases the quality of instruction may be diminished in online settings. “Even if everyone has excellent internet connections and no distractions at home and is in the same time zone, which are all big assumptions, it’s just much harder to read nonverbal cues over Zoom,” Weeden said.
Impact on students
In an informal poll on the Universe’s Instagram page, 53% of the 265 respondents said they would not sign up for classes this Fall Semester if classes were held solely online. Respondents said poor experiences during Winter Semester and the price of tuition influenced their decisions.
BYU student Emily Bass saw her grades plummet last semester after classes moved online. “When classes transitioned to online, I feel like every single teacher adjusted what was expected and so many deadlines changed that I had a really hard time staying on top of anything.”
Bass said she would not sign up for classes this fall if everything was still online.
BYU student Christian Brewerton said he would sign up for classes only because he wants to graduate on time, but online classes also made it difficult for him to learn.
“I really struggled to feel engaged in my classes and to feel like I was a student,” he said. “Homework and projects felt like more of a chore than a learning opportunity, and collaborating with group members and getting TA help was cumbersome and too difficult.”
Kitsell said he will sign up for fall classes to stay on track for graduation. “I’ve gotten to the point in my major where classes I need to take to graduate are only offered once a year and only have one section per semester,” he said. “This means that if I didn’t take the classes this upcoming semester, I’d have to wait until Fall 2021 to take them.”
Kitsell recognized why some students might want a tuition reduction, but he feels like that is not a good option for the university. “At the end of the day we’re blessed so much to have a world-class education that is subsidized as much as it is, and I don’t think we can realistically expect the university to subsidize costs further.”
Both Kitsell and Bass said a way that the university could help lighten the load for students would be allowing options for cheaper textbooks. “Efforts should be made to ensure that all textbooks needed for classes are available digitally and that their costs reflect that,” Kitsell said. “It’s not only the fact that physical textbooks cost a lot and cost more than their digital counterparts, but also that shipping costs add to that.”
On the other hand, some students feel the online experience wasn’t worth the full price of tuition. “I wouldn’t want to pay full tuition for an experience that’s less than what I know and love about BYU,” said BYU student Emma Gardner. “I felt like classes weren’t as difficult, but yet it was harder to focus.”
Gardner would consider not enrolling in fall classes if there were no negative consequences like pushing back graduation, but she would feel comfortable attending in-person classes this fall. “I’m not super at risk, and as much as illnesses suck, I’d rather take the risk to have a better education.”