By CATHERINE McLAUGHLIN, InDepthNH.org
A spring semester rattled by interruption and adaptation behind them, students at colleges across New Hampshire are trying to manage their plans and expectations as their institutions release statements about the structure of the coming term.
Two of the most prominent schools in the state, the University of New Hampshire and Dartmouth College, released their plans in the last few weeks, June 22 and June 29 respectively. The possibility of a spike in cases come autumn, which Gov. Chris Sununu asserts is likely, casts a persistent shadow of uncertainty over the approaching semester.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow to know that at any moment we could be sent home and have to learn online again,” said Kendyl Paulik, a rising senior at the University of New Hampshire.
Paulik, a Connecticut native who majors in human development and family studies, said, after reading the plan, that she intends to attend UNH on campus in the fall. Though she feels that the school has provided adequate communication with students given the circumstances, she worries about the vagueness of their COVID-19 related guidelines.
“They are trying to make everyone happy, but they are not taking into account that this is just the first wave, and we will have to deal with a second wave,” she said.
Paulik said many of her peers are “very fifty-fifty” about whether or not they wish to return to school this fall. Some feel pressure from their parents to return to campus, take time off, or remain online. “A few friends close to me have been told by their parents, ‘I paid for an in-person education not an online education,’” Paulik said.
UNH Provost Wayne Jones told students in his letter announcing plans for the fall, “as we move toward this new normal, the keys to our success will continue to be flexibility, understanding and cooperation.” Classes will begin at their scheduled date, August 31st for undergraduate and 24th for graduate students, and run through Thanksgiving, eliminating fall holidays. The remaining days of classes and exams will be conducted remotely. All students will have the option to conduct the semester remotely if they want or need to.
The administration and faculty are weighing an array of options and strategies for how teaching will be conducted. Among those plans are new capacity numbers on classrooms, splitting classes into two sessions, rotating which students appear in person, and extending available scheduling hours to 9 p.m.
For Paulik, online classes after COVID-19 forced students off-campus in March were both challenging and frustrating. She noted that several of her professors were unprepared or ill-equipped to use the software needed to perform their courses online. “I didn’t even know my grades for a long time,” she said.
The value and quality of in-person instruction is the driving force behind her choice to return to campus. “We are putting out thousands of dollars to get a good education,” Paulik said. For many, online learning was an unsatisfactory substitute.
She wants professors and administrators to know that, as much as college students go to college seeking fun, many of those returning do so for the same reasons as professors: because they value the connections of in-person instruction.
Paulik’s biggest worry is that some of her peers do not take physical distancing and other COVID-19 guidelines seriously. She is concerned that their behavior could contribute to campus potentially re-closing.
“I see people on social media in enclosed spaces with their friends all the time,” Paulik said. She predicts that her school will have to tighten its precautionary rules and guidelines once classes resume.
According the provost’s announcement, UNH’s disciplinary structures and “students’ rules, rights and responsibilities” will be updated to include compliance with COVID-19 public health requirements and sanctions. Regular testing of all community members will be required, but the exact testing program and procedure was not outlined in the school’s announcement.
Housing details have not yet been released, and the process of “reconciling tuition inconsistencies” between online, hybrid, and in-person is ongoing.
At a June 25 press conference, just after UNH released its plan and just before Dartmouth did so, Gov. Sununu called the plans that he had seen “very solid” and commended them for working with public health officials and taking that guidance seriously.
When asked about whether students should be worried about being sent home prematurely again due to a second spike, Sununu said, “Yes it very well could happen.” He also said the likelihood of a second surge in COVID-19 cases should not necessarily keep students from returning.
“Because the universities have set up a lot of systems within their confines to deal with quarantining and to deal with students that may test positive… we feel very confident that if there were an outbreak, schools should be able to manage it and allow classes to proceed.”
Paulik is more skeptical. She said she would feel extreme disappointment if UNH students were again driven off-campus by the ongoing COVID-19 threat, and sees it as a constant possibility. Despite her concerns, she asserted that returning to in-person instruction and regaining some social aspects of college is worth the ever-present risk of being sent home and losing significant portions of her senior-year experience.
“I also am preparing myself for the fact that this is a pandemic: there’s nothing we can do to control it at the moment,” Paulik acknowledged. If the state does face a fall surge, she said that saving lives and preventing additional spread of the virus would be more important to her than remaining on campus.
UNH’s announcement can be found here. The provost office did not respond to requests for comment.
Dartmouth College President Philip Hanlon and Provost Joseph Helble echoed the sentiments of sensibility and resilience expressed by their UNH counterparts. “Our commitment to the excellence and distinctiveness of the Dartmouth experience continues, regardless of the form that experience may take,” they wrote to students.
For some Dartmouth students, their experience with the administration since the onset of COVID-19 has reflected more of the “regardless” and less of the “excellence.”
Abby Wiseman, a rising junior majoring in earth science and engineering, says that she and her peers have been frustrated by slow, vague, and incomplete communication. “They technically told us their plan about a week ago, but still no one really knows what’s going on,” she said.
Dartmouth, which runs a trimester system, with sophomores customarily spending a summer term on campus instead of a winter one, will not welcome students of all years back at the same time. For each of the four terms between now and the end of Summer 2021, each student will have the opportunity to spend “two terms enrolled on campus this academic year and to enroll via distance learning from home for one or both of the remaining two terms,” according to the letter to students.
For Wiseman, a Massachusetts native, Dartmouth’s announcement did not address the details and logistics of how this new set-up would alter Dartmouth’s already complicated term system. “People are confused about whether off-campus programs will still run, and if those will count as one of their two on-campus semesters,” Wiseman said. They also feel anxious and confused about “what being on campus will really even mean, what classes would be remote or in person, and what student life will look like.”
Dartmouth does have an FAQs page, where it directs students and families who have questions. Wiseman described it as “pretty bare-bones and pretty unhelpful.”
Wiseman is in the process of completing her sophomore year: sophomores typically take winter-term off, return in the spring, and stay on campus for their summer term. This arrangement is touted by the school as a hallmark of its uniqueness.
“Since I was off in the winter, I am basically going to lose most of my sophomore and junior year to this,” she said. Some of her friends, worried about losing an authentic college experience, plan to take time off.
Wiseman and some friends had signed a lease in Hanover for summer and fall 2020 terms before spring term was called off, and so she now is learning remotely very near the empty campus.
She has experienced similar frustrations to Paulik with professors and online teaching, especially, Wiseman said, those who were not teaching during spring term.
Wiseman’s coming semester may look a lot like her current one. The Ivy League school emphasized that strict social distancing guidelines will limit the options for in-person learning spaces in the fall, meaning that most courses would operate remotely, and that gatherings and activities of all types would be limited in accordance with safety protocols.
Everyone who lives on campus will sleep in a private room, and all Dartmouth students will be required to quarantine for fourteen days upon arrival at the beginning of each term. Everyone living or working on campus will be required to participate in daily online health screenings as well as virus testing after any significant departure from campus throughout the term.
For Wiseman, “it feels like students will essentially be on house arrest.” She is confused why the school will not implement more regular testing, a move that might allow for more relaxed safety guidelines and fewer barriers between students.
While she is concerned that students may not fully follow COVID-19 guidelines, Wiseman emphasized that she saw quality of life for all students, especially freshman, as an equally important issue.
Because of the limits on student activity, she said that Dartmouth is going to have to make monitoring and supporting student mental health a top priority. “It’s already been very taxing on my friends and me,” she said.
The full plan outlined to Dartmouth students can be found here. Administrative representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Students like Wiseman and Paulik face similar concerns and decisions at schools across the state.
On May 8, the University System of New Hampshire and the Community College System of New Hampshire announced jointly that they intended to bring students back on campus for the fall, and that they were working with state officials and health professionals to examine a spectrum of options for a safe fall semester. Individual schools were left to release their own detailed plans in time.
The University of New Hampshire, Southern New Hampshire University, Dartmouth College, and New England College have released full or partial plans, while Plymouth State University and Keene State College will make announcements later in July.
Southern New Hampshire University announced on June 10 that it would extend remote learning into the fall for all students and their online tuition rate would be offered to all except incoming freshmen who, it announced in late April, will have their first year tuition-free under a one-time “innovation scholarship” program.