This story is part 1 of FCAN’s “College in the age of COVID-19″ series, which will follow seven college students from around the state as they navigate school, work, and family life this fall.
This semester, over 17 million students are navigating college life upended by COVID-19. National studies show that college students are reporting increased anxiety and depression symptoms, and over 40% have attempted to seek mental health care during the COVID-19 pandemic. Unstable finances are a prominent source of anxiety: 66% of students report the pandemic has caused them more financial stress, and nearly 3 in 5 college students are struggling to meet their basic needs.
Students are also balancing concerns for their safety, as well as the health of their loved ones. Nearly 90% of students report concerns about their personal safety and security, and about 4 in 5 lack trust in their school’s on-campus health facility to provide quality care. These fears are well-founded: an October analysis of more than 1,400 institutions found only about a quarter of colleges are doing widespread coronavirus testing.
Meanwhile, many students are experiencing online learning for the first time, and it has received mixed reviews. Some students are thriving, with increased flexibility to learn at one’s own pace. Yet other students miss the connection with their professors and are struggling to stay engaged and motivated. Other issues that come with online learning: in August, 57% of college students said that having access to a stable, high-speed internet connection has been difficult. However, students generally give their institutions and professors positive reviews, with the vast majority reporting that their institutions and professors are supportive.
In this new series, FCAN will follow seven Floridians throughout the fall semester as they share how they are struggling, growing, and learning to cope with the challenges of being a college student during a pandemic.
Online instruction leaves some students “unfulfilled, unexcited, unmotivated”
Schools across the state are handling instruction differently this semester. The majority are operating under a hybrid format, with a mixture of online and face-to-face, socially distanced, classes. Most of the students we are following are taking majority online classes, with a few in-person options. Some of these online classes are held virtually at a set day and time, while others are asynchronous, where students learn at their own pace. For in-person classes, schools have set up rigorous safety measures, such as a maximum number of students in a room, assigned seats to ensure distancing, and glass partitions between students.
Carlos, a junior studying finance at the University of North Florida (UNF), acknowledges that online learning is “amazing for the student that just wants a degree and to be done with college,” but for students who want to learn, it’s “terrible.” For Victoria, a senior studying communications and dance at Florida International University (FIU), she shares that online instruction has been going well for her, and she’s “been able to be on time with all of my assignments and keep a connection with my professor.” However, specific courses are more difficult to take online than others, and Victoria acknowledges that online dance classes are “weird,” particularly when she has to practice ballet at home.
Scottie, pursuing his A.A. at Valencia College, also acknowledges that online instruction has its benefits, like doing “things at my own speed,” which means “[I can] manage to teach myself the material so I’m never behind on my work.” But his connection with his professors is not replicated online. Even though he sometimes emails his professors questions or joins zoom tutoring sessions, “having to explain the questions that I already don’t understand via zoom or email is difficult within itself.”
Ally, a senior at UNF, has experience with online classes and always enjoyed them. Because she often works a 9-5 job, online classes have allowed her to have more flexibility with her time. However, she acknowledges many students keep their cameras and microphones off, and it is easy to “completely zone out.” She feels that for some students, the benefit of flexibility may be in addition to “sacrificing effective learning.”
Nearly all our respondents miss the personal connection they had with teachers and classmates in a classroom. This feeling is particularly exacerbated for first-year college students unfamiliar with college-style teaching and without an established community. Briana, a freshman at the University of Central Florida (UCF), moved from Miami to Orlando in August, only to stay confined to her dorm the majority of the time. She learns and studies in her dorm room and even though she feels fortunate to have roommates, she finds it challenging to be “unable to build connections with your teachers, unable to meet your peers, and have a support system in the classroom.” In all, while she loves learning and feels her professors are eager to help, she feels she is “missing out on really important social and academic growth.”
Tracey, a senior at Florida A&M University, agrees that something is missing with the online instruction. She is grateful for her single in-person class because she is learning to physically use camera equipment and produce films for her journalism major. But the rest of her classes are online, and she notes that some teachers are still adjusting to the online format themselves. In particular, “participation amongst the class is slim to none,” which is a change from what she is used to with in-person classes. Because of this, Tracey — like many of our participants — often struggles with motivation.
Remote learning is not going away anytime soon — after the coronavirus, it is likely to be a fixture of higher education. Online learning can offer great opportunities for students who are already self-starters or work best while learning on their own time. Some professors are incredibly prepared to invoke the community-building and interactivity that in-person courses provide. But most of our participants report they thrive off in-person engagement, interaction with an instructor, and the motivation from in-class discussion. Although all of our participants feel like they are doing okay academically, each of them identified they are missing out on deeper learning. In the words of Andrea, a junior at the University of Miami, “online instruction leaves me unfulfilled, unexcited, unmotivated.”
On-campus safety measures: mobile apps, quarantine dorms, and the honor system
While online instruction has gotten mixed reviews, students are generally supportive of their campuses’ actions to keep them safe. At UNF, Ally serves as president of the student government. She is also Chair of the Florida Student Association and sits on the Board of Governors, where she represents the voice of UNF and all State University System (SUS) schools in Florida. From her unique perspective and knowledge of 11 other campuses, she believes SUS institutions have done the best they can in this difficult situation. Ally reports each of the SUS schools require masks, have conduct offices that enforce distancing measures, and have enacted quarantine dorms. She relays that most of the other SUS student body presidents are generally satisfied with their school’s response.
At FAMU, Tracey feels particularly supported by her university’s efforts. Tracey appreciates the university care packages delivered to students with hand sanitizers and masks, constant communication, and clear distancing measures inside buildings “to enforce social distancing while still allowing the use of study rooms, desktops, and printers.” Having access to university resources like computer labs is essential to many students, including those who struggle to afford home internet access or a reliable computer.
When libraries are closed or feel unsafe, students also feel behind. Carlos at UNF acknowledges that he used to do his best work in quiet, on-campus libraries, but now does all his homework at home. While he shares his home with his parents and two brothers, he is fortunate he has his own quiet space, a desk, and a reliable internet connection. Even still, it does not provide the same atmosphere. Scottie lives with his mom and two sisters while attending Valencia, and he agrees: “I have a lot of distractions at home.” At some schools, the libraries are open, but some students don’t feel safe enough to use them.
Many students are worried about interactions with other students in classrooms, dorm rooms, and limited social settings. Andrea is glad she has an in-person class at the University of Miami, which gives her a sense of normalcy and community. But she acknowledges she is a little more conscientious on Mondays, not knowing where the other fifteen students in the classroom have been over the weekend. Andrea avoids staying after class to ask the instructor questions because she wants to get out of the closed room as soon as possible. She sometimes meets with her friends distanced and outdoors, and even yet, “I can’t help but wonder if there is still a chance that by walking around, chatting over coffee, or simply by being with others I am putting myself in great risk or have come in contact with a positive person or the virus itself.”
When FIU shut down in March, Victoria had to stay by herself on campus because her family felt it was too risky for her to come home. This was hard for her since she is used to seeing her parents and grandparents often, but she is fearful of infecting vulnerable loved ones. Even though FIU requires students to fill out a COVID safety questionnaire on an app before coming to campus, Victoria mostly stays in. “How am I going to get back out without making it a hazard, or something where I can catch COVID?”
Some students feel frustrated when they try to stay safe but see a friend or classmate with a more relaxed understanding of health measures during COVID-19. At UCF, Briana’s roommate contracted COVID-19 after attending a party. In response, Briana self-quarantined in a hotel for several days until she could move to a quarantine dorm while her original room was being cleaned and disinfected. Because she had to leave suddenly, Briana paid for multiple nights at a hotel, food and drink, and basic supplies like a toothbrush that she did not have while the school disinfected her room. When she was allowed to come back to her dorm room, Briana had significant anxiety: “I felt so unsafe in my room even though it was disinfected… I was afraid to touch anything.” These feelings have gotten in the way of making friends her first year living away from home. She shares it is “nearly impossible to meet new people, and if you have the chance to, it is nerve-wracking as you don’t know how they are personally protecting themselves from the virus.”
Ultimately, students have various feelings that are sometimes contradictory. Many students have anxiety about going on-campus and the risks involved, but they also want to feel a sense of normalcy that comes with campus life and being a college student. Every student acknowledges how their school has pivoted online — like creating virtual social events, career fairs, and tutoring sessions — but it is not quite the same for most of them.
Look for the next installment in our series in November, where students will describe their personal experiences with financial aid and share how their career trajectories have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
College in the age of COVID-19 — Part 2, Part 3
Key takeaways from “Students Speak: Florida Students Share Their Stories of College in the Age of COVID-19”