The Not-So-New Normal

The University should prioritize in-person instruction.


By Emma Weber

On December 23, UChicago students opened their emails to an early Christmas present—or a lump of coal, depending on whom you ask. Instead of Saint Nick, however, it was Ka Yee Lee and Katie Callow-Wright who announced the surprise of an extra week of winter break, followed by at least two weeks of Zoom University, all wrapped up neatly under a catchall subject line: “Delayed Start of Winter Quarter.”

These measures, a response to the Omicron variant of COVID-19 that is ravaging the country, were met with mixed reactions. Some celebrated the remote weeks as extended vacation time, but many, like me, dreaded the return to online learning, something we thought we had left behind in 2021. The shift back to Zoom would supposedly reduce, per the email, “case counts in the on-campus populations” and “disruptions to instruction,” yet given the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and the infectiousness of the Omicron strain, it is more likely that the University was delaying the inevitable: an outbreak on campus. The toll remote learning takes on academics and mental health is worse than the result of such an outbreak, which would be the risk of mild sickness for students thanks to the vaccine mandate UChicago has in place. I therefore believe that the two-week delay to in-person instruction was illogical and that any further delays will be damaging to the already fragile well-being of students. As we shift from pandemic to endemic, the University should instead seek to adapt its current policies to maintain a safe and fulfilling in-person college experience for students.

The changes to the quarter are twofold: a later start date and a two-week return to online school. The former policy I agree with. Though I think the delay in announcing such a major change was imprudent, the additional week gave students who contracted COVID-19 over the holiday period a chance to recover and those who didn’t time to take precautions and get tested before classes start. This policy would have been especially fitting were the quarter in person.

A two-week return to online school marked a return to the burnout and Zoom fatigue that characterized the last academic year, the effects of which some students are still recovering from. Even worse, starting the quarter online opened the door to the entire quarter going remote. The mid-January projected peak of Omicron is just that: a projection. It would be contradictory, given the reasons stated for reverting to Zoom in the first place, for the University to begin in-person classes on the 24th if the case count in Hyde Park were higher than it was when the administration announced the changes in December. It would also be poor optics to resume in-person instruction only for there to be a major outbreak anyway, which is almost inevitable given how contagious the Omicron variant is. While two weeks of online classes wasn't too bad, another quarter of it would be devastating for many. Having in-person instruction this fall made me realize how much easier it is to concentrate when your lecturer is sitting in front of you, how much easier it is to study with others keeping you accountable, and how much easier it is to take care of yourself when your bedroom is not also your workspace. The toll an online quarter would take on student well-being and the quality of both learning and instruction would be far greater than the worst-case scenario of a large portion of the student body getting mildly sick.

The University should therefore have made a commitment to offering this high-quality learning environment for its students by resuming in-person instruction from day one of winter quarter. While Lee and Callow-Wright’s email stated that the University “greatly values in-person instruction” and is “committed to returning to it as soon as conditions allow,” it is not clear why early January's conditions did not allow us to take classes on campus. Though case counts are at record levels, the social nature of campus life means that outbreaks will occur even if we wait for them to wane slightly—it takes just one student with the virus for everyone to be at risk. The email even acknowledged the inevitability of an outbreak, saying that “there will still be high numbers of positive cases of COVID-19 among our students and employees once we resume in person on January 24.” What, then, were we waiting for? Increased pressure on the University’s medical and other COVID-related services will occur no matter when we return to campus. Given that UChicago students were mandated to be fully vaccinated this past fall and to receive the booster before returning to campus this winter, the effects of an outbreak will be largely muted, and the benefits students will garner from in-person interactions and learning in a classroom setting justify taking on such a risk.

Certain schools agree. Northeastern University, which is also located in a major U.S. city, chose to stick with in-person instruction, stating, “As we move into this endemic phase of the pandemic, our job is to continue to control COVID effectively, not let COVID control us.” We are moving from COVID-19 being a novel disease to it being a fact of life. This means that it is time to stop putting “normal” life on hold and to adapt instead. The US government is already taking such measures toward normality by reducing isolation periods for those infected with or exposed to COVID-19. Our university can, and should, take further measures to make the in-person student experience as seamless as possible during the endemic era. These should focus on creating a flexible learning experience. For sick students, previously recorded lectures should be made available, or even better, livestreaming in-person lectures should become the norm. Accommodations should be made when it comes to deadlines and exam times. To ensure efficacy and consistency, these changes should be made clear on a University-wide and departmental level.

This is not to say that we should give in to COVID-19, but rather that the procedures we use to combat it should not define the student experience in the way that online learning does. The vaccine mandate and testing schemes the University already has in place are great examples of this. UChicago should also educate students on the reasoning behind specific measures put in place for their safety. This will make measures feel less arbitrary, leading, in turn, to more students complying and holding each other accountable.

When COVID-19 was taking its baby steps around the globe, the University extended spring break by a week before shifting to remote learning. Sound familiar? Almost two years have passed, during which enormous breakthroughs have ensured that most of us could be fully vaccinated and boosted, yet from the approach that our university and many others are taking to Omicron, it would seem as if we were still in March 2020. In order to fulfill the goal of providing the best quality of education to their students, these institutions should be using lessons from the pandemic years to adapt their campuses to the endemic we are facing. The first step is logging off of Zoom—and staying off.

Emma Weber is a third-year in the College.