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by Kaitlin McManus | July 22, 2020

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Is it safe to go back to school? This is the question that lawmakers, parents, students, and educators alike have had on their minds for weeks. There are issues of safety, childhood development, politics, and money that come into play and often contradict one another. The issue, like so many, has become highly politicized, with disagreement across the aisle as well as within parties. College students face particular struggles in this decision given the massive expense higher education presents. To completely understate it, deciding how to go back to school in the fall is an extremely difficult decision that many people rightfully feel strongly about.

To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about the question. Of course, I think it’s important that students of all ages go back to school in some capacity, but choosing the best approach raises significant questions of safety, risks, and optimal learning environments. Remote learning—and, I think, especially remote college—is so different from in-person classes. There are so many things that students lose when they can’t properly go to school, including the following:

Access to Their Professors

Professors differ in how they handle remote learning, but one thing is certain: Getting in touch with professors has changed significantly since college moved online. So many professors have really stepped up to make themselves completely available to their students—which, while draining, is an amazing dedication to teaching. But we’ve all had those professors who are basically impossible to reach by email. It was much more direct and useful talking to them in person, whether that was at their office hours or catching them after class. Now, professors are being stretched thin trying to keep everyone engaged over Zoom and email, but there’s no substitute for being able to meet professors in person to ask questions.

Any In-Person Resources

Some majors translate fairly well to remote learning—a lot of the liberal arts, for example. But students with other majors, like hard sciences and fine arts, need access to school materials to succeed in their studies. How can someone be expected to learn organic chemistry without access to labs; how are photographers supposed to develop photos without dark rooms; and how are graphic designers or computer scientists supposed to work without specialty software or programs that students often can’t afford? Virtual learning may limit access to resources that students used to be able to count on to complete their programs. This has led to professors altering curriculums to adjust, but there’s only so much you can adjust before students aren’t learning the things they need to learn because of a lack of resources—which is inherently frustrating for all involved.

Independence

For many people, college is the first time that they are really “on their own.” It’s the first time we live with people that aren’t our families, the first time that no one makes sure we’re doing what we were supposed to. College students make their own choices—some of them great, some of them not so much. And that’s part of the experience. This past semester, a lot of college students lost that independence. Many students moved back in with their families, which is a completely different dynamic than living on campus. There’s a significant loss of independence when returning home for virtual college, which is such an important part of the college experience.

Socialization with Peers

I can just hear the voices of my professors, parents, and other authority figures from my past telling me, “College is not about partying.” And it’s not. But to discount the importance of college’s social aspect—which, yes, includes partying—is to ignore reality. Humans are social creatures, and socializing is crucial to collegiate success. You make lifelong friends in college, and you can meet them anywhere: in classes, through clubs, at parties, through Greek life, or in your dorm. These are all things that have been either cancelled or severely hampered by remote learning. And frankly, it stinks—college is work, but it’s also supposed to be fun. And this past semester, fun is something that students really missed out on.

Soft Skills Development

Soft skills get jobs. Hard skills also get jobs, but so-called soft skills like leadership ability, work ethic, and teamwork should never be downplayed. Soft skills are tough to outright teach: Work ethic, for example, is something you have to develop on your own. You can’t just go to a seminar for it. Certain soft skills, like work ethic and time management, are all important for remote learning. But paring down the college experience, as remote learning inherently does, also pares down the skills students learn from being on campus.

I’d like to be clear: I’m not outlining all of these points to convince anyone to usher students back into classrooms prematurely. I think student safety should always be the primary objective for educators, and if we’re not in a place where we can safely bring students back in August/September, then it shouldn’t be done. However, it’s important to note that despite the efforts of students, professors, and administrations, remote learning leaves more than a little to be desired—which also means that there’s plenty we can all do to improve the remote learning experience for everyone. It’s important that we’re smart, think ahead, and consider what’s best for everyone going into this fall.

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