Back to School: A COVID-19 Education in 2020

Back-to-school is hectic in the best of times, but during a pandemic, it's downright stressful. Here's what the semester is looking like for college students.

Back-to-school season is always hectic as you adjust to new classes, teachers with different expectations, and inevitable changes within friend groups. However, until 2020, one thing that remained a constant was that you would be going to school in the fall. As our country continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant number of high schools, colleges, and universities are preparing for another online semester—much like the one we faced unexpectedly in the spring—with all schools having to make drastic changes to their plans to accommodate precautionary steps no matter what form of learning they’re planning to pursue. Let’s take a look at what schools are doing, how students are feeling, and what you can expect classes to look like this year, whether you’re in high school or college.

What schools are doing

According to a CNBC survey, 65% of colleges in the US are preparing for in-person classes at some level. However, this survey was taken over the summer; since then, several colleges have walked back their plans to start the year in person. Notable examples include Clemson University, which has postponed in-person classes and campus move-in until September 21 in an effort to increase preparation time and in the hopes that the case count in South Carolina will have lessened by then; the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Charlotte is taking a similar approach. Postponements aside, many college students and faculty are wary of universities’ ability to stay open amid the challenges posed by the pandemic, especially after the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill decided after just one week of classes to transition to an all-online semester. This decision has since had numerous other universities in the area and around the country following suit, such as Michigan State University, North Carolina State University, and East Carolina University. Other schools, like the University of Notre Dame, temporarily suspended in-person classes for a few weeks in an effort to reduce COVID-19 clusters on campus.

Related: What Are Schools Doing About COVID-19?

How students are feeling

Students are having mixed feelings regarding the decisions made and steps taken by their schools. There’s no clear-cut way that students should feel about their upcoming semester, of course—college is still exciting, but the dream of that perfect college experience has been tarnished this year. Here’s what just a few students had to say about the specific situations they’re facing with their colleges.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

UNC Chapel Hill made the decision to move to all online classes after just one week of in-person instruction due to several clusters of COVID-19 emerging around campus, adding up to 130 new cases in a week, according to USA Today. Madeline Gossett, a sophomore at UNC, says “UNC’s response to COVID-19 has definitely been disappointing.” She appreciates that professors have been “extremely gracious in allowing students dealing with COVID to have more time for assignments,” but she’s “disappointed that the University’s plan was not adequate for students.” 

Gossett lives in an apartment off campus, so she was not personally affected by the required departure of students from the dorms. However, like all UNC students, she’s adjusting to taking all her classes online for the rest of the semester. She’s glad the change will inhibit further spread of COVID-19 but regrets the choices that were made and the chaos that ensued almost immediately after students arrived on campus.

North Carolina State University

NC State took the step of moving classes online a few days after UNC but isn’t requiring students to leave campus (at least for now), unlike UNC Chapel Hill, which required all students to move out of housing unless they had a special reason to stay. Emma Grace Barnes, a freshman at North Carolina State University, is feeling more confused than anything, saying “NC State just switched to fully online classes with the opportunity to continue to live on campus. With the number of COVID-19 cases continuing to rise, I’m a little nervous and feel very in the dark about how the rest of the semester is going to look. Most everyone I know is either moving to an off-campus apartment or moving home, so campus feels very empty.”

Related: COVID-19: How to Cope With Anxiety

Georgia Institute of Technology

Despite having reported over 250 coronavirus cases as of August 22, according to Business Insider, Georgia Institute of Technology is continuing to hold a limited number of classes in person as well as allowing students to remain on campus. Susanna Greiner, a sophomore living on campus, says she’s been pleased with Georgia Tech’s response. She emphasizes that “multiple testing centers [have opened on campus] offering the saliva test to try and catch those who are asymptomatic.” She also notes there’s a requirement to wear masks on campus, and changes have been made in indoor areas such as dining halls, lecture halls, and buses to allow for social distancing. Since she doesn’t have any in-person classes this semester, Greiner says, “[I only leave my] on-campus apartment about once a day to catch up with a friend or go on a run or walk.”

Anderson University

My own school, Anderson University in South Carolina, is continuing to offer a mix of in-person, online, and hybrid classes while taking precautions to keep students living on campus safe. Many classes are split into two groups that rotate in-person class time in order to accommodate social distancing in the classrooms, and masks are required indoors at all times. Anderson is a significantly smaller university—with about 3,000 students—than any previously mentioned school, which many Anderson students believe has contributed to its success in minimizing community spread so far. According to its COVID-19 Dashboard, last updated on August 28, there are only a total of eight active cases on campus.

Related: COVID-19: Why Is Social Distancing Important?

What your school year will look like

The one consistency through all the various reopening plans is the uncertainty. For the first time, college students en masse are unsure if they’ll remain on campus for the entire semester, what the format of their classes will look like, and what the current standards from their school are. Piled on top of ordinary concerns like coursework, part-time jobs, health, and relationships, it can quickly get overwhelming. Here are a few tips that both high school and college students can use to adapt to whatever new learning format they’re facing this fall.

All-online classes

One of the biggest difficulties of online classes is the lack of interaction that we’re accustomed to with in-person classes. Additionally, time management has become more valuable, and yet more challenging, than ever before. It can be hard to stay focused when you’re glued to a computer screen sitting through Zoom class after Zoom class. One of the best things you can do is create a schedule for when you’ll work, on each class. Don’t forget to add time for the things you would normally do outside of school: eating, sleeping, exercising, and spending time with friends (in a safe, socially distant way).

It can also be difficult to tune out your roommates or family members, especially when this isn’t the setup you’re accustomed to. It’s worth it to find a quiet nook where you can study and set up do-not-disturb periods during the day, especially if you don’t feel like you get more than 15 uninterrupted minutes to yourself. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries! Additionally, at least once every 20 minutes of screen time, look away from your screen for roughly 20 seconds to give your eyes a rest. It’s also important to be in a well-lit area and not only rely on the blue light coming from your computer. Trust me, your eyes will thank you. 

Related: Video: Adjusting to Online Learning

In-person classes

This is supposed to be the normal option, right? Well, chances are things look a lot different than you remember them. Everyone is wearing a mask, keeping their distance, and giving judging looks if anyone so much as coughs. If you’re more of an individualist, the moratorium on traditional group work may be your dream come true. Beyond that, it can be tough to adjust to all the new regulations at school even though you know they’re meant to keep you and everyone else safe. The most important thing is to take the precautions you’re being asked to! Don’t try to flout the rules by sneaking your mask below your nose or waiting until the teacher turns away to hug a friend. That’s the fastest way to get your school back to an online format and get people sick (which we all agree isn’t ideal).

Hybrid classes

This may be the most confusing option. Remembering which classes are meeting in person, which are online, and which just assigned individual work can get dicey fast. As always, I’m a huge advocate of using a planner—and this is no exception to that. Flexibility is a key aspect here, and while that’s a hard skill to develop, it’s a worthwhile one. Go with the flow, and don’t be upset when changes happen (this really goes for everything that’s happening these days). The tips for in-person and online classes also apply here because you’re getting the best (or worst) of both worlds of a COVID-19 education, depending on how you look at it.

Related: How to Get Motivated and Back in the School Mindset This Fall 

More back-to-school insight

CollegeXpress student vloggers Mackenzie from Florida State University and Isabella from Florida Southern College are sharing what going back to school looks like for them as well. Check out their videos below! 

Ultimately, the most important thing this school year—that goes for everything and everyone—is making sure you maintain social connections and prioritize your mental health. Take time for self-care, find ways to safely socialize, and continue to invest in yourself, which includes giving your best in school, even if it’s not an ideal situation. This is an extremely stressful time, but we can all stay hopeful! It isn’t going to last forever, and you can still find joy even in these strange times.

For more information and advice on the coronavirus pandemic, visit our COVID-19 student resources page.

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High School Class of 2023

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