A campus filled with students was deserted in a matter of days last March as online learning took over as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, 17 months later, classes have finally returned to campus amid rising coronavirus cases in the District.
The University will resume in-person learning Monday, wrenching students free from the isolation and online-centered education that became the standard over the past year. More than 10 students said they are “concerned” about coronavirus outbreaks spreading in the classroom, but they are also “comforted” by University regulations like the vaccine requirement and indoor mask mandate.
Eliza Weidner, a junior majoring in political science and criminal justice, said she is nervous to attend in-person classes due to the spread of the coronavirus and the Delta variant, which can infect people who have been fully vaccinated. Coronavirus case positivity rates on campus have remained below 1 percent throughout the majority of the past month as orientation activities enter full swing and students get ready for the first week of classes.
“I’m definitely a bit nervous,” she said. “I am excited, of course, to be back on campus because I haven’t been on campus since last March. But I feel like I’m glad that people are required to be vaccinated and wear masks when indoors and everything. But I definitely feel anxious about the rates being as high as they are.”
The number of coronavirus cases in D.C. has surged since July when the pandemic’s toll seemed to stall – cases and COVID-19 deaths in the DMV had dropped to all-time lows, with just two daily positive tests per 100,000. Case rates currently average about 173 new positive tests per day.
Officials announced last spring that all students, faculty and staff would be required to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus to return to campus this fall. Nearly 90 percent of the GW community was fully vaccinated earlier this month, with hundreds of students and faculty missing the Aug. 1 deadline to submit vaccine documentation to the University.
Officials also reinstated the University’s indoor mask mandate earlier this month to comply with Mayor Muriel Bowser’s citywide order.
Weidner said GW should offer an option to take classes remotely to accommodate students who prefer to ease into in-person learning more slowly. She said two of her professors will teach their classes remotely in the fall while they’re out of D.C. for the next semester.
“It makes sense to have a virtual option offered – I feel like that just makes things more accessible to everybody,” she said.
Samantha Lewis, a freshman majoring in political science, said taking exams and attending in-person classes will be a tough adjustment because she has gotten accustomed to learning online for nearly two years. She said she used fewer critical thinking skills in the virtual learning environment than she would have in person because she was able to lean on resources like her notes or online browsing during class.
“The switch from a year and a half online to now in person is very stressful because it hasn’t been like real school, as half my high school career was on a computer,” Lewis said.
Lewis said she feels safer going to classes this fall because of the vaccine requirement and mask mandate, but she’s also concerned that officials will be reluctant to reduce class sizes to limit the potential spread of the coronavirus.
“I haven’t heard anything about classes, limiting how many of our students are going to be within each classroom and in the building, so that’s a little concerning,” she said.
Freshman Allee Herron, who has not declared a major, said she is excited to return to the classroom because she felt “disconnected” learning online. She said she had difficulty growing as a student without interacting with classmates and professors in person.
She said online classes were “terrible” and failed to engage students who struggled to keep up with new technology – problems that can be solved this fall with face-to-face interaction with professors.
Herron said students do not receive the same quality of education while attending virtual classes because it’s more difficult to absorb information in front of a computer at home, where students are less engaged and surrounded by distractions.
“It was very disorienting to attend class every day but leave feeling like you haven’t grown any,” Herron said. “In-person events on campus so far already feel like I’m growing as a person again, which is very comforting and very exciting.”
Cradler Volmar, a sophomore majoring in political science and psychology, said he will struggle to start practicing study skills – like handwriting notes – that he hasn’t used for in-person classes since the start of the pandemic.
“For me personally, the LockDown Browser was so much more stressful than taking a class in person,” he said. “And it’s I think building social skills. I have social anxiety and my whole thing is, ‘hey, talk to your teacher, talk to your people around you, don’t get in a crutch again and really work your way into saying hi to everyone.’”
Volmar said while officials have taken steps to keep the GW community safe, students should make sure they wear their masks properly indoors in hopes of reducing the spread of the coronavirus and maintaining in-person learning throughout the semester.
“I definitely want to get the most out of my college experience but still be careful because the fun can end there anytime,” he said.
This article appeared in the August 30, 2021 issue of the Hatchet.