Just five days into this semester, JMU announced that classes would go online until at least Oct. 5 following an increase in COVID-19 cases and a sharp decline in the number of available quarantine beds. All professors adapted online class formats and have made decisions about whether to resume in-person instruction, hybrid or stick with virtual instruction.
After making adjustments to dining programs and obtaining additional space for students needing to quarantine, the university announced that select in-person classes may resume for a month and on-campus students can return Friday Oct. 2.
According to an email sent to students Sept. 25, all classrooms will have a maximum capacity of 50 people, giving some professors the option to continue in-person instruction.
In an email from Caitlyn Read, university spokesperson and director of communications, she said that 1,470 of classes will go back to a fully in-person format, 1,920 will remain fully online, 917 will adapt a hybrid option and 46 will be “mostly in person.”
Hugo Moreira, a Spanish professor at JMU, said that he started the fall semester with in-person classes since language learning involves interactive group work and practice. However, he said the in-person experience was challenging at times with social distancing guidelines.
“I began teaching in person, and it was OK,” Moreira said. “I give students tasks to develop conversational skills, but that was hard to do because of masks and physical separation of six feet.”
When classes were temporarily moved online on Sept.1, Moreira said he was initially concerned about the potential decrease in student engagement levels. However, he said he was pleasantly surprised by his experiences with the online format.
“I was really concerned about participation, which is key when you are taking a language, but it seems that the students are motivated,” Moreira said. “I was surprised to see how willing my students are to use breakout rooms and practice conversations. I visit every room as they work and they are doing fantastically well.”
Moreira has secured permission to continue teaching his classes online for the remainder of the semester. He said that when he asked his students about how they felt, the majority were worried about having the class in person and wished to stay online.
Other professors are also shifting from an in-person to online format for the rest of the semester, citing student health concerns.
Mike Brislen, a religious studies professor, teaches larger REL101 sections of between 40 and 80 students as well as a smaller REL250 section with only 12 students. At the beginning of the fall semester, the larger courses were hybrid per JMU’s social distancing guidelines, while the smaller section was entirely in person.
Brislen said the hybrid format of the general education sections proved challenging at times. For class he had to, like many other professors, simultaneously address students on a computer and in the classroom.
“The hybrid was awkward — you forget about the ones at home sometimes,” Brislen said. “I would forget and walk out of camera or mic range. [The online students] would say ‘We can’t see you or hear you’ in the chat.”
After hearing concerns from both students and his own family members, Brislen decided to keep all of his classes online for the rest of the semester.
“I was surprised at how many students requested to stay online if we went back in person,” Brislen said. “I also have older kids, roughly 30 [years old], and they keep begging me to do it online because I am in the at-risk category.”
While some professors, such as Brislen, have made the same decision for all of their classes, others, including health sciences professor Margaret Stickney, have made different choices depending on the nature of their courses.
Stickney teaches a few general education health courses along with a smaller, more specialized course on chronic illness. Since the general education courses were rather large with between 140 and 160 students each, Stickney said they’ll stay online for the rest of the semester. However, for HTH255, the smaller course of 37 students will resume in-person instruction in October as Stickney said she believes the class will be better in person.
“They do group presentations that they can do with masks, and we can get more out of that than recorded Zoom presentations,” Stickney said. “I feel good and safe about precautions and said if anyone had reservations about returning in person, they could talk to me about it.”
COVID-19 has created a variety of challenges for both students and educators trying to engage in learning experiences in the safest and high quality ways possible.
“We are all learning,” Stickney said. “Although it’s frustrating and stressful, we can’t change COVID[-19] right now, so we will do the best we can. Think of it as an adventure instead of a challenge.”
Contact Sydney Dudley at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.