As students return to campus at the College of William and Mary amid the COVID-19 pandemic, their concerns about this upcoming semester largely fall into two areas: getting sick and the need to switch to fully remote classes.
According to data from W&M&You — a text app that surveys students at the College — 36.2 percent of respondents responded July 9 that their top fall concern was getting sick, which was followed by 33.7 percent who said the need to switch to fully remote classes was their largest concern.
The Provost’s Office, Student Affairs and Information Technology at the College launched the W&M&You app June 18 to gauge concerns and receive student feedback in the months preceding the fall semester. Students were able to opt-in to the app anonymously to answer questions for the College to review in aggregate.
When exploring what specifically concerned students about getting sick, W&M&You’s survey issued July 15 found that “getting others sick” was slightly higher than concern for a student’s own health (34.2 percent vs. 31.5 percent respectively). College Provost Peggy Agouris said that this survey finding was a testament to the College’s strong sense of community.
Associate Vice President for Health and Wellness Kelly Crace said that the compassionate communities present at all levels of the College make him confident about reopening plans for the fall semester.
“The level of deep caring and thoughtfulness at all organizational levels and the degree of collaboration that has occurred leaves me both inspired and confident in our approach to the Fall,” Crace said in an email. “There is inherent risk in any plan that involves a cultural commitment of looking out for ourselves and each other. It’s much easier to fall back on common stereotypes about college students, academic faculty and university culture. But since when has it been our mission to be guided by such stereotypes?”
Crace said student and community members’ individual choices will determine how well community health protocols are upheld.
“The health protocols are sound and follow best practice guidelines,” Crace said. “The key comes down to how well our individual choices create a shared integrity of health and safety.”
In addition to initial testing conducted by Kallaco, the College will also employ prevalence testing, where samples of students and employees will be selected for testing every two weeks. This practice aims to allow the College and health experts to examine positive cases and trends of COVID-19.
However, biology professor Kurt Williamson — the College’s only virologist — said that prevalence testing is not an effective measure of stopping the virus from spreading.
“The incubation period for this coronavirus is anywhere between 4 and 14 days,” Williamson said in an email. “So, with testing at two-week intervals, anyone who tested positive in that first batch will have had more than enough time to infect several other people, who will likely turn up positive in the next batch. You can watch the numbers go up but you can’t really do anything about it.”
A recent study by the Yale School of Public Health claims that the only way to safely reopen is to test students every two days. Williamson explained that by using the rapid same-day antigen testing described in the study, the College could implement effective contact tracing and containment measures.
“If you are able to test every 2 days AND implement an aggressive contact tracing program, this approach allows you to get ahead of the spread,” Williamson said. “Now you’ve gone from passively watching the numbers go up to determining who, exactly, is an infection risk and reducing, if not stopping, new infections. You had asked about a perfect response: this is it.”
However, due to cost and availability constraints, Williamson said that this response may not be realistic.
Williamson recently sent an open letter to College President Katherine Rowe wherein he opposed the fall semester’s reopening plans, pointing to the potential for exponential increases in COVID-19 cases among students, faculty and staff.
Another one of the health protocols implemented by the College is its “Healthy Together Community Commitment.” This pledge requires all members of the campus community to adhere to public health protocols such as mask wearing and social distancing.
When students were asked July 29 how positively the Healthy Together agreement would impact adherence to public health guidelines, most responded by saying it would “somewhat” positively impact adherence to guidelines (51.6 percent). About a quarter of respondents said the Commitment would “not at all” impact community adherence (26.7 percent).
Williamson stressed the importance of following health protocols and adapting behavior.
“The best way to avoid getting sick is to follow all of the guidelines you have already been given regarding hand washing, mask use, social distancing, and limiting group size and interactions outside of your household or family group,” Williamson said. “Those are all effective practices to keep you healthy and safe.”
However, he said that just washing your hands and wearing a mask is not enough. People will need to adapt to the new reality of living through a pandemic.
“The most important thing I can add is probably this: you simply cannot go about your normal business, only now you’re wearing a mask,” Williamson said in an email. “That’s not going to solve this. You have to modify your behavior. We have to limit our interactions with people outside our household groups. Please don’t hold gatherings or parties – we have already seen from summer programs on other campuses that this WILL lead to outbreaks.”
“The most important thing I can add is probably this: you simply cannot go about your normal business, only now you’re wearing a mask. That’s not going to solve this. You have to modify your behavior. We have to limit our interactions with people outside our household groups. Please don’t hold gatherings or parties – we have already seen from summer programs on other campuses that this WILL lead to outbreaks.”
Some college campuses, such as the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have already seen spikes in COVID-19 cases as a result of reopening. Cases have caused these universities to shift to fully remote learning.
W&M&You also polled students July 15 on the potential for a fully remote semester. When asked about the greatest concern of moving to fully online classes, most respondents cited “course quality” as their top concern (32.9 percent) followed by “academic/life disruption” (29.6 percent).
Agouris said that each school within the College and every dean is focused on course quality for the fall semester with the intention of making online learning interactive. She said that courses will emphasize student-instructor interaction and individual attention, and she emphasized the role that the College’s Studio for Teaching and Learning will play in supporting faculty looking to improve online instruction.
“Our Studio for Teaching & Learning has offered multiple trainings and hundreds of faculty (literally, more than 500) have taken advantage of that,” Agouris said. “This will help them enhance in-person, remote and on-line teaching.”
Agouris also said that her office has allocated funds and resources to improve the delivery of remote classes. These resources include funds for webcams, microphones and student partners to help faculty with virtual teaching.
According to Agouris, the Studio for Teaching and Learning launched an online course for faculty July 20 to navigate blended online and in-person instruction. Faculty taking the course could work together with other participants planning to teach in the same modality as them this semester or work individually.
The Studio’s efforts to assist faculty with technology and introduce them to creative technological solutions for their classes is also aimed to address one major concern among community members that arose from the spring: improving proficiency in virtual teaching.
“There was a sense — among students as well as faculty — that faculty needed to become more adept at teaching in a virtual modality,” Agouris said. “The faculty themselves noted challenges and expressed the strong desire to advance their skills and knowledge. As I previously mentioned, they have been working together in each of the Schools and also across the university to expand their ‘toolkits’ to become more effective in this new environment. It is a process, and will take time, but I am impressed by and grateful for their commitment.”
However, the biggest point of criticism received by the Provost’s Office last spring about online learning was the sense of a loss of community.
“The number one criticism from the survey completed right at the end of the semester was that students and faculty missed being together,” Agouris said in an email. “While I know the sudden move to remote instruction posed a hardship for many, what this input shows us is just how valuable the W&M model of learning and teaching is — for students and for faculty.”
Williamson said that the transition to online learning this past spring semester was hard for faculty to adapt to as well.
“This past spring was tough,” Williamson said in an email. “What we got, no one signed up for that. Students and instructors alike were struggling to adapt to doing everything online, when many courses were designed assuming in-person instruction, and individual and group interactions.”
Williamson has opted to teach all online courses for the fall semester. He said that with the learning experience of the past spring semester and the ability to plan an online course, remote classes can be taught effectively.
“Two large advantages online courses will have this fall are advance planning and the setting of clear expectations,” Williamson said in an email. “For instructors planning to teach online, they can design a course that is formatted to work well in that modicum. And students taking an online course (or a course with online components) will have clear expectations of how the course will run from the beginning of the semester.”
Methods: The Flat Hat analyzed data from four survey questions collected by the W&M&You app. The W&M&You working group provided the data to The Flat Hat. The group tallied opt-in, anonymous responses from students via text to review in aggregate.