As classes started Aug. 26, many students returned to a campus they’ve never seen before — a campus filled with hand sanitizer stations in every classroom, plastic dividers in front of every podium and alternate seats roped off.
This is a campus that has stickers on the floor where lines form, marked 6 feet apart. This is a campus where every student, professor and staff member wears a mask as far as the eye can see.
Months of planning and precautions led to the start of in-person classes at JMU. Five days into the semester, JMU announced that the majority of classes would transition to an online or hybrid format, sending most on-campus students home. After an interrupted spring semester and a hopeful launch into the fall semester, many students may feel upset or disappointed about the transition.
Here’s how students viewed the news.
Parker Boggs, a freshman political science major, said he was shocked when he received the email and that he’d expected to go online at some point, but not this quickly.
“I understand where they’re coming from, but obviously it’s going to impact a lot of students negatively,” Boggs said. “I think we should have known a lot earlier than what was already given.”
Boggs said that he’d been taking multiple precautions like wearing his mask, washing his hands and socially distancing, and that he felt safe in his dorm by doing those things. He would’ve felt “completely petrified,” he said, if he hadn’t been taking protective measures.
Elizabeth Marcheschi, a freshman elementary education major, said campus safety rules weren’t being enforced. She said she’s known of parties that have gotten off with warnings and some people who’ve received more than one warning but no corrective action. When she got the announcement, she said she felt like JMU hadn’t been clear about how safety precautions would work on campus.
“I was very upset and, like, frustrated more so than anything,” Marcheschi said. “I think they made it seem like they had everything under control before we got onto campus, but, being on campus, it seems like they really haven’t.”
She also said that going home would create a difficult situation in terms of finding suitable study space. With parents, siblings and pets, she said she’s worried about a distracting environment.
“This is, like, the time where you’re supposed to understand your studying habits and get used to the whole transition of not being at home,” Marcheschi said. “Now … we won’t have that transition going into our later years and, like, next semester.”
Professors have been preparing for the inevitable transition
Javier Calleja, an adjunct professor in the Spanish department, said he thought JMU had enacted thoughtful precautions.
“The leadership is strong,” Calleja said. “I can’t imagine that any decision ever has been made without taking the students and the community into account.”
However, Calleja said, he has been preparing for most of the summer to transition to online classes and is ready for anything. His class is hybrid, meaning the class is split in half — one group attends the class in person while the other joins through WebEx. Then, the groups switch for the next class so that everyone has a chance to safely come to the classroom.
He said he values the physical presence of students in a classroom and the quality of communication that can happen in person. However, Calleja must now transition the entirety of his class to the WebEx format.
“It just ruined my whole day.”
Nick Russell, a freshman history major, said he was exercising at UREC when his dad called him, shocking him with the news of the transition to online courses.
“I was very upset and distraught … I was like, are you serious?” Russell said. “It just ruined my whole day.”
He’d expected this announcement from JMU, he said, but he had no idea it would happen this early in the semester. He also said he felt that the dining areas on campus were overcrowded and not monitored enough. He suggested that JMU should’ve closed on-campus dining options to people who live off campus, making the dining halls a safer area for on-campus residents to eat.
Russell said that he personally learns better in a classroom and is upset that he won’t be able to participate in physical classes during his freshman year.
“It’s just gonna be way harder and, like, not a good experience,” Russell said. “I feel like we shouldn’t be paying full tuition for online classes at home.”
Insight from an alumnus
Alumnus Matt Bosek (’18) expressed his worries about students returning to campus. He said he’s encouraging his undergraduate friends to take a semester or a year off.
“Why are people putting themselves in danger just for an education?” Bosek said. “There are workers’ rights. Why aren’t there more, I don’t know, students’ rights? I’m just very angry that my friends are having to make tough choices that they shouldn’t be having to make in the first place.”
Bosek also said he thinks JMU has a “vested interest” in students returning physically to campus because the school makes more money that way. He said JMU has been building up its athletics, food choices and other aspects of the in-person experience to attract students to the campus, but if the school can function with remote classes for a sustained period of time, people may realize they don’t need all the attractions.
“I think it shatters the illusion that you need all this stuff and that it’s worth something for an American education,” Bosek said. “With the rising cost of education, it’s getting harder and harder to justify this … I think they’re seeing you more like nickels and dimes than actual people, and that, kind of, really pisses me off because my friends are way more than that to me.”
As of Sept. 7, students will be going online — Bosek’s wish came true.
Thwarted opportunities for social life on campus
“When I first heard about it, I was like, this isn’t real,” Kurt Jacoby, a freshman health sciences major, said when he first heard the news. “I went through all the emotions: shocked, sad, surprised, mad, all of it.”
He said he feels like everyone on campus is angry, from freshmen who just moved in to seniors who’re seeing their remaining time at college slip away. He was excited to get involved with social life on campus in his first year, he said, but he feels like that hope has been crushed now that classes are moving online.
“I, like, wanted to get involved into, like, clubs, sports, fraternities, Greek life, all that fun stuff,” he said. “Now, I can’t, because that’s taken away from me.”
Jacoby said he has no plan of how to get home on such short notice and will need to figure out packing and transportation on the fly.
Some may feel relieved about the transition
Kriszten Szakal, a senior industrial design major, said she wasn’t thrilled to be back on campus. She said personally, she’s afraid of getting the virus and struggles with anxiety about her own safety as well as that of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities.
She said she doesn’t believe JMU has been forthcoming or transparent about the situation and what it would take to move classes online.
Now, she has her answer.
Szakal also said she felt it was careless on JMU’s part to bring the student population back to Harrisonburg, a small town with over 1,000 cases already. A COVID-19 outbreak is inevitable, she said, and many students will be forced to go home when courses move online.
“[Harrisonburg residents] can’t leave the same way we can,” Szakal said. “I think it’s really irresponsible … not listening to a lot of students’ and parents’ concerns about the pandemic.”
A confused RA sympathizes with freshmen
Adrianna Rippon, a sophomore media arts and design major, said she was attending a class in The Breeze’s TV studio when she heard the news, and the class erupted into nervous excitement. She said that as an RA, she wishes she could comfort and inform her residents, but she’s equally as confused and shocked as they are.
She said she believes JMU will ask RAs to remain on campus but will be given an opportunity to leave if they feel unsafe. She hopes to stay in her dorm, she said, and interact with her residents as often as she can over Zoom.
“I’m only a sophomore,” Rippon said. “So, I definitely understand what it’s like to be in your freshman year and have it ripped away from you. And, [to] have it be your first semester, I think that’s even worse.”
She said she thinks her freshmen residents will be disappointed and that the news will “shake things up a bit.” However, she also spoke of the resilience of the students.
“I know it’s not ideal for anybody,” she said. “But, yeah, I know they’re strong. They’ll get through it.”
JMU’s response to community concerns
In an interview with The Breeze last week before the transition to online learning was announced, JMU’s university spokesperson and director of communications, Caitlyn Read, responded to some of the concerns held by students like Szakal. She said JMU was continuing to do everything possible to make this semester safe and beneficial for the entire community.
“We recognize that there are people who feel all kinds of ways about this pandemic,” Read said. “There are students who are thrilled to be back in a residential environment. This is the most secure home they’ve ever known.”
She said JMU has worked closely with local authorities and healthcare facilities to monitor the situation. The administration is doing the best they can, Read said, but there are many factors the university is unable to oversee.
“We want our students to feel safe,” Read said. “We want our employees to feel safe. But there’s only so many variables in our equation that we can control, and we are controlling all of the variables that we can.”
With COVID-19, there have proven to be too many unknown, unpredictable and uncontrollable variables in the way of safely reopening JMU, no matter how many precautions are enacted and enforced.
With 627 coronavirus cases and only 54 remaining quarantine beds, JMU has made the decision to transfer to online courses — at least, until Oct. 5 when students may be able to return to campus if the situation improves.
In an interview with Breeze TV on Tuesday, Read said the administration had been planning and preparing all summer, but after enacting those plans and seeing cases spike regardless, they will take the coming four weeks to reevaluate and regroup in hopes of bringing students back to campus next month.
“We saw so many students on campus that were doing all the right things,” Read said. “We just really appreciate those students. This was a really hard announcement for us to make. There are so many of us who are rooting so hard for in-person instruction … We love our students. We’re proud of them, and we’re going to get through this together.”
Contact Charlotte Matherly at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.