Throughout the summer, JMU faculty and administration sent numerous updates about how they were preparing for a safe in-person learning environment for when students came back to campus. Despite its efforts, students were left feeling unsatisfied in classrooms and voiced concerns over how the safety plans were executed.
On Tuesday, Sept.1, the university announced its move to online instruction until Oct. 5, when they’ll then reassess holding in-person classes for the remainder of the semester. In an effort to reduce the number of people on campus, the administration also sent on-campus residents home unless they submitted an exemption to stay.
Jacob Seefried, a freshman computer science and business double major, was among the many students who walked into crowded classrooms on the first day of class. One of his classes in particular didn’t have enough seats for the students, and he said he had to sit in a crowded corner of the Festival Ballroom with a group of other students.
“I saw, like, 20 students on each corner sitting within an 8-by-8-foot radius, huddled together on the ground because there were no seats left,” Seefried said.
While the professor offered the class online, Seefried said that the majority of students still showed up to the classroom on the first day.
In another of his classes, Seefried said that there was no online option until the university switched to online instruction last week.
“We had an in-person lab on Fridays that has absolutely no online option available,” Seefried said. “There were also Wednesday lectures, and if you didn't come to the lecture or the lab, you would be penalized and it would be a hit to your participation grade.”
Seefried said he would’ve liked some of his classes to be held safely in person, such as the classes for his majors, but he said he didn’t feel the need to have in-person classes for non-major classes, especially when they’re not up to safety standards set by JMU and the state.
Lauren Simmons, a junior public policy and administration major, also said that in one of her classes, her grade could be penalized for not attending in-person class. The class was held in person and she had in-class assignments that couldn’t be made up outside of class.
“We’re advised not to go to class if we’re feeling sick,” Simmons said. “But the pressure to perform well as an upperclassmen, grade wise, put me in a predicament where if I get sick, I’m not sure what I would do.”
Simmons said that in a few of her classes, it didn’t seem like the professor even anticipated online classes and didn’t have the same online information available to the in-person class attendees.
Along with online options being limited, students also said they felt that classrooms weren’t as safe as the university assured they’d be over the summer.
Corryn Aronhalt, a senior psychology major, said that some students in her class weren’t wearing masks.
“I saw a student not even wearing a mask to class and that was something that we had to sign before we got here that we would do,” Aronhalt said. “He was looking right at the professor and the professor didn't say anything. I feel like they’re putting it on [the students] to police the campus when that should be the administrator’s job.”
Aronhalt also said that in one of her lecture classes, seating wasn’t spread out as much as the university said it would be and that she felt uncomfortable attending class.
“You’re literally surrounded by people and you have to climb over other people to get to your seat,” Aronhalt said. “That was uncomfortable before corona [sic], and it’s obviously even more uncomfortable now.”
Facing a similar situation, Simmons said her classes were crowded and that she didn’t think there was enough space. She said that in a lecture class, every other seat was taped off, but it still only allowed about 2 feet between students.
“I could’ve reached out and easily been able to touch the person next to me if they also reached out their arm,” Simmons said.
Simmons said she would’ve liked for there to have been smaller class sizes and more sanitation supplies available. Over the summer, she said she wasn’t nervous about coming back because the university kept updating students on safety measures, but after the initial spike the first week, she became concerned.
“I feel like they didn’t do quite as much as they said they would from the start,” Simmons said.
In the classroom, Aronhalt said she felt like the professors and administration expected the students to hold each other accountable and keep the classroom clean rather than putting more responsibility on themselves. She recalled that in one of her classes, they were expected to clean the desks before and after class, but only two communal rags were provided, so no one felt comfortable sanitizing the desks. She was especially disappointed seeing students in class without masks on.
“I would’ve liked JMU to enforce their policies from the start,” Aronhalt said. “I was kind of angry because if you don’t want to wear a mask in a restaurant, it’s different because everyone who is there is choosing to be there. I’m not choosing to be in class, I have to be here.”
Contact Eleanor Weber at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.