Back to school

Gilmore said she’s missed the social aspects of having in-person classes and is looking forward to that being a possibility during her senior year.

An announcement sent out March 31 by President Jonathan Alger informed the JMU community that the university will be returning in person for the fall 2021 semester after a decision-making process by administration. In the announcement, Alger said he anticipates a safe return in the fall after seeing a decrease in COVID-19 cases and an increase in vaccine availability. 

“We know that the heart of the JMU experience involves interpersonal interactions in and outside of the classroom,” Alger said in the announcement. “We want to maximize those opportunities for all of our students.”

Mary-Hope Vass, director of communications and university spokesperson, said the university is making decisions to return based on guidance outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) in the coming weeks and months. 

“The entire university community is eager to return to [the] pre-pandemic campus environment and with appropriate health precautions that is unfolding this fall,” Vass said. “So much of what JMU is known for is in-person instruction, collaboration and support between faculty and students. While innovations have been made during the pandemic, we are all eager to begin in-person classes and interactions that are done in a safe manner.”

Vass also said isolation space and testing will continue to be available into the fall semester as the campus returns to an in-person atmosphere. 

Olivia Gilmore, junior elementary education major, said she saw the news as a positive after reading the announcement. 

“I’m really excited for in-person classes,” Gilmore said. “It will be a way to get outside instead of sitting in the house all day looking at a computer screen. It’ll be a way for people to get some exercise by walking to class as well.”

Gilmore also said she’s missed the social aspects of having in-person classes and is looking forward to that being a possibility during her senior year. 

“I think I’ll be able to make more relationships with my professors and students while in the classroom,” Gilmore said. “It’s been a lot harder to do that over Zoom.”

While some are excited about the news, some faculty have concerns about JMU’s plans to return in person. Adrienne Hooker, assistant professor in the School of Media Arts and Design, said she’s waiting to see how the administration plans on handling the return to campus. 

“I knew they’d go back,” Hooker said. “It was expected — they tried to go back this past fall. We are a university built on relationships and that undergrad experience, so the in-person [format] makes sense. It’s part of what we do well.” 

Hooker said she sees the transition to in-person classes going better this time because of vaccines, and she wants to see the administration do more in making sure faculty and students get vaccines before returning. She said she’s in support of the faculty senate resolution that outlines a plan requiring everyone to be vaccinated before returning in the fall. 

“I’m frustrated as a faculty member on how they are helping get vaccinations to faculty, staff and, ultimately students,” Hooker said. 

The usual slump that’s seen during this time every year has only gotten worse, Hooker said. The lack of a solid break for not only students, Hooker said, but also faculty and staff has created harmful impacts like burnout and lowered morale. Faculty hardly got a break over the summer of 2020 while dealing with teaching during a pandemic, Hooker said. 

“I love my job, and I love what I do,” Hooker said. “I have a passion for this, but when you feel like your administration sees you as a cog in the system, it’s disappointing.”

Hooker said she knows students are struggling right now, but so are faculty and staff who often aren’t considered a priority in decision making. When looking forward to the fall, Hooker said she expects an adjustment while faculty and students begin working in person again.

“There’s going to be an adjustment period, of course,” Hooker said. “Remembering that you need to have time to get dressed, find parking and get to the physical place will take some getting used to. It’s the realization of, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s how we usually operate.’”

Hooker said that the social and emotional interactions between people transitioning back to in-person education will be challenging and needs to be approached carefully and directly. She said that in-person classes will likely improve morale overall, but she urged the administration to take better steps to ensure a safe and smart return. 

Hooker said that the administration needs to communicate better with its faculty and staff, and to consider other people in the JMU “family” rather than just the students. She said it could be beneficial to consider which classes would work better in a “2D” virtual world next fall, and which classes need a “3D” in-person format. 

“It’s a tough situation, but it can be handled better,” Hooker said. “There’s no good way back [to going in-person], but I want to see the administration at least make more effort in trying to go back a good way.”

Contact Eleanor Weber at weberea@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.