The COVID-19 pandemic plunged the world into strange and unprecedented circumstances that have demanded immense changes, including the radical transition to online learning. Given the lack of a COVID-19 cure or vaccine and the seemingly indefinite nature of the crisis, uncertainty surrounds the future, including the upcoming fall semester and prospects of returning to campus.
We appreciate the Tufts administration and faculty’s work to carry out the transition to online learning and professors’ empathetic understanding of students’ needs. However, after a month of online classes, it is clear that virtual learning is not comparable to in-person classes and cannot be the preferred long-term solution; vital aspects of classroom learning such as student collaboration, class discussions and hands-on experiments simply cannot translate through a screen. Further, this online space compounds many students’ struggles with the transition to home life for reasons including unstable internet access, less-than-ideal study settings, technology problems and conflicting schedules among family members. Without the resources and study spaces found on campus, many students experience difficulty focusing, and without the social aspects of a university setting, some experience isolation and decreased motivation.
These concerns surrounding online learning run in tandem with the uncertainty about the fall semester’s continuation. On April 16, University President Anthony Monaco sent an email addressing these concerns, stating that the university is actively preparing for several possible scenarios and will continue to meet full financial need. Among these scenarios, we seek to address an extreme possibility — not returning to campus for any portion of the fall semester. Given the radical nature of the crisis, we propose a similarly unprecedented solution: As an alternative to another online semester, we urge Tufts to delay the fall semester until it can occur on campus in January 2021 and subsequently hold the second semester during the summer as already suggested by Boston University.
The benefits of deferring the fall semester far outweigh potential disruptions, for having access to a physical learning environment and a social college experience promotes productivity and wellness. Specifically for STEM students who require laboratories and physical resources, hands-on experience and graduate school preparedness can only occur to the ideal level in an in-person setting. For all students, however, college is a temporary and uniquely valuable experience; students can only maximize their four years with the robust connections, learning, activities and opportunities that an on-campus education yields. This proves especially applicable for first-years, who cannot possibly transition to college life with the same ease without being on-campus. They miss out on the traditional orientation week, eating with new peers in the dining halls, decorating their first dormitory rooms and countless other vital experiences, leading to increased risk of isolation and negative impressions of the college experience. Due to these uniquely on-campus experiences, many students and families consider online education not worth a yearly $79,000 financial strain and would likely defer a semester as a result, placing a greater financial burden on the university and providing further inconsistency to an already uncertain time.
We acknowledge that these changes would significantly alter the traditional academic schedule and may present challenges revolving around work and internships; however, the fall semester would act as an effective replacement for the summer during which students can partake in work and internships, either online or likely in-person given the virus’ expected peak much earlier than the fall. Working during the fall would prove vital for some students, allowing them to recuperate finances and cover the immediate financial impact of the pandemic sooner rather than later. For those concerned about the academic disruption a deferred fall semester would present, Tufts should offer a range of optional online classes in the fall, similar to the variety of offerings this summer. This option would also afford students the opportunity to take classes online in the summer and fall, giving them enough credits to remain home during the summer semester if needed. Additionally, as this plan involves students staying on campus for the majority of the 2021 calendar year, the university could provide one to four weeks off in between each of the three consecutive semesters, allowing students to take a break from academics and visit their families.
In the end, this plan’s strength hinges on the effectiveness and vitality of the on-campus experience. In tandem with this, online learning cannot continue to make up our semesters. Tufts must not propose a month of online learning with plans of returning to campus later in the semester; this option would overwhelm even more of the college experience, and it could easily fall into a full online semester.
However, as the spring/summer plan would only occur if the entire on-campus fall semester proves unsafe, we also suggest a one month delay of classes if it is possible to return to campus safely. In this version, classes would run on an October-to-June schedule, similar to those of quarter system schools. This would limit online learning and provide malleability within the academic schedule: If after the month passed, we still could not return to campus, the university would then move to the aforementioned spring/summer semester system.
By implementing this plan, the university not only remains open with its students but also recognizes the isolation and dissatisfaction surrounding online learning, pervasive throughout the student body. While virtual classes were necessary this semester, the university has a unique chance to give students back their college experience by adopting this plan; ultimately, we want to remember Tufts by the laughs, sledding down President’s Lawn and the interconnected growth diffused throughout the Hill, not by staring at a screen with our families cooking in the kitchen behind us. We only get four years, and we must be on campus to create the connections, memories and learning that makes this time count.