The pandemic has never been a good reason to switch to virtual learning
Recently, a teaching assistant I had for a class decided to skip our Friday chat section on Zoom because she tested positive for COVID-19 that Wednesday.
A week later, she made the section virtual again, because although she was feeling much better and shouldn’t have been contagious anymore, she was “still coughing a bit”. Keep in mind this was during the first few weeks of the semester when masks were still mandatory in class.
These two sections went as well as almost every Zoom class I’ve ever had. Everyone in the class seemed miserable, and no one was actively participating or paying attention. The virtual classroom’s flaws were especially noticeable, because unlike my entire freshman year when I had nothing to compare to online classes, this semester all of my classes are in-person.
For many students like me, it is much more difficult to focus on online courses. There are so many distractions that aren’t present in most classrooms, whether at home or on your computer. The lack of separation between school and home makes it difficult to mentally detach yourself from one or the other. The vast majority of students, including every student I have spoken to, have benefited very little from the courses they have taken in the past two years. This is evident in the massive learning losses experienced by students across the world. As anecdotes and studies tell us, online courses are simply not an adequate substitute for in-person learning.
The decision to make the majority of classes virtual is based on the belief that in-person classes would be hotbeds of COVID-19 transmission. The problem is that they are not. All studies conducted on the subject have shown that in-person learning is not as dangerous as expected. This has been common knowledge since the summer of 2020. Doctor Anthony Fauci, who was known to be on the more cautious side throughout the pandemic, has repeatedly supported in-person schooling, saying schools should be the last places to close and first places to open. Even before the vaccines were available, the CDC director said he would be absolutely comfortable send her grandchildren to school.
Looking back, the move didn’t even make logical sense. If stopping potential COVID-19 outbreaks was so important to the University of Massachusetts, why invite onto campus thousands of students who might violate social distancing rules at the first opportunity? Surely having hundreds of students living together in the same dorm poses a higher risk than masked students sitting a few feet apart in a classroom for an hour.
Throughout the 2020-21 academic year, UMass required its students (even those who lived off-campus) to get tested twice a week. I remember being pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to book tests and do them whenever I wanted during that time. This, of course, has proven extremely useful in stopping outbreaks before they start. Even the largest COVID-19 outbreak UMass has seen died down after less than a week.
Simply put, classrooms were safe before vaccines were even available, and we had a testing device that could nip any potential outbreak in the bud. I don’t see how it was necessary to waste an entire academic year.
Unfortunately, the problems with making the majority of classes virtual go beyond being unnecessary and inferior to in-person learning. Throughout the pandemic, students in the United States have faced an unprecedented mental health crisis. And no, it wasn’t due to the pandemic itself. Rather, it was months of deprivation of a social life, an essential component of adolescent mental health. Online learning greatly contributed to this – why is that?
In short, we can’t just blame Zoom fatigue. One likely explanation is that online learning has further eradicated what sociologists call “weak ties.” These are the low-stakes relationships with casual acquaintances you encounter while living in the same dorm or apartment complex, belonging to the same club or team, or in this case, following the same class. Simple social interactions with classmates have It has been proven to produce positive mental health results. Zoom classrooms, by their nature, made these interactions much more difficult, if not impossible. This helped to reinforce the feeling of isolation that was all too common among students.
Doing classes online because of COVID-19 doesn’t make sense now, and never did to begin with. In an ideal world, all classes that started in person would continue to be taught as such. The practice of unnecessary online learning must be abandoned once and for all.
Will Duffy can be reached at [email protected]