Back to School, Ready or Not?
By Isabelle Lee and Toyloy Brown III
While you’re enjoying the summer fun, behind the scenes a school experience like no other is ramping up. Masks or no masks? In-person or Zoom? Vaccinations or masks, or just stay home altogether? These are some of the many choices students and parents alike are pondering over as the clock ticks down to the first day of school. Colleges and schools in the U.S., flush with federal funding, find themselves hard at work figuring out ways to facilitate productive and fun learning experiences in a post-COVID-19 world.
All the while, for many college students, the excitement of traveling to campus and finally seeing friends after 18 months away is building. International students are on the move again this summer. Sports tournaments, thankfully, are back.
In today’s Sunday Magazine we’re offering a window into what’s shaping up to be a transformed school ecosystem, the changes education institutions are facing, and the must-have safety gear for your backpack once class returns.
back to class
A Different Campus Life. A return to a semblance of normalcy is on the horizon at many college campuses across the U.S. New York is not obligating students who are vaccinated to wear masks outdoors or in classrooms. It has mandated, however, that the over 1 million students who attend the 64 schools that are part of the State University of New York System get inoculated. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, at least 583 colleges (and counting) have made vaccines a requirement for at least some cohorts of students or employees. Other institutions such as the University of New Mexico, which has a student body of more than 22,000 at its main campus, will not mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for students and has instead set the aspirational goal of achieving a 100% vaccination rate.
How Schools Are Keeping COVID Out. Clearly, the best way to stay COVID-free is to have everyone on campus fully inoculated. Many schools, from K-12 to third level, have set up vaccination clinics on site for optimal convenience. The University of Pennsylvania is requiring vaccinations and will continue testing its more than 26,000 students, who will also be expected to use a symptom monitor app called PennOpen Pass and abide by a student compact. Another way to keep school life safe is to ensure good ventilation, which can reduce the number of virus particles and the spread of disease. To this end, school administrators around the world have moved to install mobile air purifiers with tremendous success.
Nature Calls. One upside to the pandemic? More students are taking classes at outdoor learning institutions. Ethan Knight of the Gap Year Association, a nonprofit that encourages students to gain experiential learning before heading off to post-secondary school, told OZY last year: “As a benchmark for outdoors, we are seeing a boon of new programs that are largely filling quickly, as well as established programs now having to create waitlists.” The Eco-Institute at Pickards Mountain in North Carolina is one example of a learning community that provides outdoor and wilderness courses for people aged 18-28. For some students, these opportunities can often be more liberating and meaningful than classroom learning. Read more on OZY.
Campus Control. In this digital age, it’s no surprise that track and trace methods are being widely deployed to keep tabs on COVID-19 cases. However, this can compromise our privacy. A couple of weeks before students arrived to start the 2020 school year at Albion College, a small liberal arts school in Michigan, the school announced that all students would be required to install Aura, a contact tracing app that tracks students’ real-time locations 24/7. The college claimed the move was necessary to decrease the spread of COVID-19 but has since stopped using the app.
a new world for campus life
Community Colleges Hit Hard. It’s no secret that enrollment at many colleges and universities tanked during the pandemic. The biggest decreases occurred at community colleges, which are critical to serving lower-income families and students of color. Enrollment at those institutions declined by 9.5% this spring compared to the same period last year. More broadly, the percentage of high school graduates who went to college straight after graduating high school fell from 60.5% in 2019 to 56.5% last year.
But HBCU Enrollment Surged. While there has been a drop in applicants to most institutes of higher education, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are one of the few exceptions, with their application numbers on the rise. Howard University for the third consecutive year has seen a double-digit increase in applications and Morgan State University in Baltimore reported that it had received nearly 15,000 applications for undergrad programs this year, an all-time high. This may be partially due to increased exposure of these schools due to alumni such as Vice President Kamala Harris and NBA star Chris Paul, who has outwardly supported HBCUs through his fashion choices. Furthermore, the social uprisings of 2020 likely had a positive impact on application numbers, reminding some students that these schools can provide a greater sense of safety and comfort. Read more on OZY.
Has the Campus Experience Changed Forever? For most students and faculty, it’s starkly clear that fully remote learning has resulted in a suboptimal experience. In a study by Cengage of 1,469 college students and 1,286 faculty and administrators across 856 schools in the U.S., however, 73% of students polled said they would favor having some classes fully online after the pandemic. In a Survey Monkey poll from May, 48% of students polled said they were at least very comfortable showing up for in-person classes in the upcoming school year and 21% are extremely comfortable. And if given the option to take classes virtually, 43% said they would take very few or no online classes.
Straight From the Students’ Mouth. Susan Guo, a senior majoring in global business, tells OZY that she was initially unsure about returning to college in person at New York’s Fordham University this fall. But she’s decided to take the plunge. “I have a few safety concerns — the new COVID variants, anti-vaxxers and crowded classrooms. I’m also a commuter so public transportation during rush hour is also a concern,” she says. Mahlet Sugebo, a graduate student in public relations at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, says she is also apprehensive about returning to campus. “The fact that masks aren’t required makes me a little nervous to go back [because] vaxxed people can still transmit the virus.” David Hill, Quinnipiac University’s senior medical adviser to the college’s COVID-19 taskforce, tells OZY the university understands that students will have some anxiety, but with higher vaccination rates, a safe campus is achievable. Regarding the delta variant, now the most dominant strain in Connecticut, Hill says the university expects that transmission rates will be “far below” levels of the spring semester. “We will be proactive with case detection and response, so that the community remains protected,” Hill tells OZY.
your essential post-covid gear
Kill That Virus. Constantly wiping down your phone screen is an annoying but necessary measure — the average phone is, after all, much dirtier than a toilet. But never fear, companies such as OtterBox and Corning displayed cutting-edge bacteria killing screen protectors at CES 2020. Given that teens spend about seven hours a day on their phone, these tools are destined to be a hit. Another gadget shaping up to be a hit is the Kinsa Smart Ear thermometer that can sync with your phone and will alert you if you need medical care. You might also want to consider a UVC wand to help disinfect surfaces, but be careful because there have been warnings that cheaply made UVC products carry risks from ultraviolet exposure, such as skin damage.
Quarantine Kit. College students heading back to campus should be armed at all times with a quarantine kit, just in case. It might include anything from essentials like cozy blankets, Tylenol, or a thermometer to items to help them stay busy, such as a journal, coloring books, or even a needlepoint project. One can only watch so much Netflix, afterall. Of course, good snacks are also an essential part of the kit, as students will have to rely on college-provided meals, which range from decent to horrible, for the duration of any quarantine.
Friendship Facilitators. Making friends is always challenging, whether you’re a kindergartner, a freshman in high school, or a college freshman. But, being a college freshman is harder than ever when you’re trying to make friends through online classes or in accordance with your college’s distancing guidelines. Some students are turning to apps like Amigo, which launched at Stanford in December. Set up a bit like a dating app for friends, you can find fellow students’ profiles, and message them based on common interests. While apps work for some, others looking for a less-techy route to friendship can buy mini-projector to host movie nights. A mini-projector, a white sheet, some popcorn, plus a burgeoning group of friends equals a COVID safe and super fun night in.
Anxiety Busters. Anxiety is on the rise among college students, and it’s no wonder why, when you factor in the pervasive uncertainty of going back to school a full 18 months after this all kicked off. Students must preserve their mental health while facing an unprecedented challenge in managing the ebb and flow of COVID-19 regulations, paying for college without job security, and dealing with scary news and economic uncertainty. Experts recommend keeping a journal, seeing a mental health professional, and taking full advantage of school health resources. Encouraging your fellow students, colleagues or friends to get help might just be the best accessory of the 2021-2022 school year.
kappa to delta: lots of change
Hello, Goodbye. The pandemic has left the educational fate of thousands of international students up in the air. Those who are planning to enroll in an American university must attend at least one class in person, otherwise they won’t be allowed to enter the country. However, some students who otherwise cannot travel to the U.S. due to restrictions by either their home country or the U.S., but have already enrolled, may be exempt. For example, the University of Houston is allowing its international students to begin their semester online from their home country if they’re facing U.S.-imposed travel restrictions. The Biden administration in May made it easier for students from a host of countries to enter the U.S. to study. While citizens of China are banned from entering the U.S. due to the pandemic, Chinese students, who make up 35% of the international student body in America, have been allowed a special exemption to travel from August 1.
Colleges Cash In. This fall, colleges have found themselves flush with cash provided through federal COVID-19 relief measures. Tertiary institutions in California have received a massive $9.5 billion in federal aid (Michigan, for its part, received less than $2 billion). Where will it all go? Half to new scholarships and to provide supplemental assistance for students who were economically affected by the pandemic. The rest goes toward replacing lost revenue streams such as in-person sports programs, helping campuses become COVID-proof and salaries for faculty and staff.
Child care. Parents of children younger than 12, a cohort of the global population yet to be approved to receive any form of inoculation, are wrestling with whether or not to send their kids back to elementary school and day care (pre-pandemic, 60% of families relied on child care centers). Child care centers in the U.S. have been struggling for decades, and the pandemic has exacerbated their problems. If the delta variant continues to spread, parents who planned on returning to the office next month may well have to change their plans.