BOG initiative and student feedback lead to exclusively in-person classes this spring

The ACE academic plaza used to be full of classes, but due to COVID ACE hasn’t seen the same amount of students.

With the fall semester finally drawing to a close, mid-semester progress reports indicated that students have faced significant academic struggles due to isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Students and faculty alike have both been feeling scattered and literally scattered on and off campus. For faculty, attempting to replicate the typical New College learning experience while balancing in-person and remote students has proven difficult. However, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Suzanne Sherman confirmed that some exclusively in-person classes will be offered in the spring semester, due in part to student and faculty feedback and in response to the Florida Board of Governors (BOG) initiative to have colleges provide more in-person opportunities.

Sherman affirmed that all of the same safety precautions will still be upheld in the spring: masks and a physical distance of six feet or greater will be required and so will cleaning the classroom space both on entry and departure.

Sherman also said that by giving non-remote faculty the option to hold exclusively in-person classes again, the challenges and dislocation created by running a hybrid class schedule will hopefully be resolved.

“Teaching a course so that it is a strong one for both an in-person group of students and a remote group of students is very challenging,” Sherman said. “I have heard that it is difficult for remote students to participate in class discussions because they can’t hear their [in-person] classmates speaking and that the professor can be distracted by making sure the remote students are getting what they need. The alternative may be teaching two courses—one course in person, and the other course remotely. But this approach doubles the workload for a faculty member.”

Teaching fully online would also eliminate these issues, but Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Emily Carr—who taught hybrid courses this fall—argues that the mediums through which courses are taught and how effective they are “really depends on not just the discipline, but also within the discipline the kind of class that you’re teaching.” In Carr’s case, she said that she feels as though her courses would be best received and create the most connection between students when taught in-person.

“I didn’t want to lead class sessions in which some students were face-to-face and some were online,” Carr said, looking back on this semester. “I feel like that was the best solution that I could come up with given the constraints of the situation and the decisions that were made about how instruction was going to be offered at New College in the fall.”

In addition, other faculty members struggled with technology problems or with managing classroom spaces this semester while running hybrid classes. Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Kathleen Casto struggled to connect her in-person students with her remote students through Zoom and Interim Dean of Studies and Associate Professor of Biology Emily Heffernan said that she felt as though her physical classroom was not being used to its best ability.

“You’re trying to get the students that are in the cloud connected to students that are in the classroom, and the biggest challenge is getting them to hear each other,” Casto said. “There’s not really a great solution with Zoom.”

“It’s hard because sometimes I’ll be in a big lecture hall and there’s only three students there and there will be, like, 25 online,” Heffernan said. “It’s tricky and I don’t always think it’s the best use for the room in case someone else could teach there with more students.”

Alongside faculty complaints, Sherman also refers to the results of the survey she developed alongside Casto and New College Student Alliance (NCSA) President and Catalyst co-Copy Editor Sofia Lombardi. The survey was sent to the student email list on Oct. 29 to gauge students’ academic preferences for the spring. 

Out of the 176 students that participated, 167 students answered a question about their upcoming course preferences. For the spring, 49.7% of those 167 students want a mix of in-person and online classes, 29.3% want online classes only and 20.1% want in-person classes. However, 73.2% of students agreed or strongly agreed with the phrase “I struggled to stay motivated in online courses,” 79.8% of students agreed or strongly agreed that “In-person classes are best for my academic growth” and 53.0% of students agreed or strongly agreed that “I want more in-person options in spring.”

“[Considering] the fact that we have evidence from mid-semester progress reports that more students are struggling academically than usual, it is important to increase or at least maintain the availability of in-person courses,” Sherman said.

Casto also created a faculty survey before the fall semester in order to determine what teaching options faculty desired in the 2020–2021 academic year. Former Provost Barbara Feldman determined over the summer that whether faculty members teach in-person or not would be up to the individuals and not administration, and this sentiment has carried over into the spring. Even so, Casto said that she knows online learning is “not a long-term solution for most of our students.”

“I’ve got some students that are doing just fine, but I have some students that are really struggling with the online setup,” Casto said. “They really miss connecting in the classroom and their academics and motivation are struggling. Some of them are thinking of taking the semester off and coming back when things are better.” 

While spring classes are still currently being developed, exclusively in-person classes could take a few different forms. Carr, for example, is having two in-person classes in the spring but also offering a separate online tutorial for each, meant to be “more independent and less interactive.”

“The face-to-face classes and the online tutorials will cover the same material and themes, but they will be designed differently,” Carr explained. “I am not attempting to replicate a classroom experience online. I am designing a different experience.”

Sherman added that all faculty members holding in-person classes in the spring can and will be able to make exceptions if a student needs to transition to remote learning part-way through the semester, especially if they need to go into quarantine or if the class is required for that student’s area of concentration.

“Options can be an alternate course to replace the needed course, or creating a distance-learning tutorial that meets the needs of the student,” Sherman said.

Individual student and faculty needs aside, the Florida BOG has also been pushing for increased in-person courses and opportunities, which has sparked contention at institutions like University of Florida (UF) and University of Central Florida (UCF) in the past month. For larger, more traditional universities, failing to fully reopen could mean cuts from state funding. It is currently unclear how much these BOG decisions impact New College, as no faculty member is being instructed to teach in-person or otherwise for the spring.

“We’re still trying to get specifics because the things that the legislature says don’t always apply to New College because of our size,” Heffernan said. “That’s a tricky thing, because if they say, ‘If you offer a remote section you also have to offer a fully in-person section,’ we don’t have multiple sections of classes [like] UCF which has, like, six freshman writing sections. In some ways, it’s good that we’re so small because we can kind of cruise by.”

Casto said that so far, the BOG call for more in-person classes has not affected New College much—and in fact only heard about the BOG decision through ties to broader state unions—and attributes this to the college’s administration.

“I think faculty at other [universities] have much more beefy authoritarian administration,” Casto said. “They’re under a lot more pressure. I think our administration has done a lot to try to protect us and to reserve our right to choose what feels safe and comfortable for us, while encouraging and thinking about potentially—if you feel comfortable—what you could do in person.”

Other professors, such as Professor of Physical Chemistry and President of the New College United Faculty of Florida (NCUFF), Steven Shipman, have a clearer picture of how the BOG initiative affects other universities. Shipman said that they are in regular contact with the chapters at other state institutions and that those universities are receiving more strict instructions on how many students need to be in physical classrooms in the spring. Shipman also said that one institution has exempted faculty over 70 from teaching in-person, even though the CDC guidelines state that adults over 65 are at a higher risk, creating confusion and worry among those faculty.

“Here, we’re being told that faculty get to choose what they feel most comfortable with,” Shipman said. “That’s not 100% true. I’ve heard of a couple of cases where people are being strongly encouraged to teach in person. But for the most part, people are getting to do what makes the most sense for them. I’ve heard Provost Sherman say that no one who feels unsafe teaching in-person should have to do so.”

Heffernan declined to comment on whether any faculty members were “being strongly encouraged to teach in person.”

There is one definite downside to exclusively in-person classes: there will be less options for students who can only learn remotely as opposed to students who are able and willing to be on campus and in person.

“If you need to be a remote student, you will have options of classes to take,” Heffernan said. “You’ll have a lot of them. They might not be the exact ones that you wanted this semester, but you’ll have those options. It’s the same if you want to be in-person with classes, you’ll have a lot of options.” 

Academic plans for the spring are cautiously optimistic. There is no guarantee that in-person classes will be able to be held through the entire spring semester, depending on COVID-19 developments. Some professors such as Casto plan to continue holding hybrid classes, but some others will be taking the leap this spring.

“I trust [that] the people who are making the decisions are making those decisions with the best information available,” Carr said, “that they have more information than I do and that they’re thinking much more broadly about a bigger picture than even I can see. I trust that that’s the decision making that happens, and then my job within that is to make the best choices I can.”

Others remain wary, but still feel that New College is well-equipped to handle COVID-19 developments in the upcoming months.

“Unfortunately, I am pessimistic about what COVID-19 numbers are going to look like after Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Shipman said. “One thing I am pleased about is because we have that ISP month, that gives us kind of an extra buffer that some of the other schools don’t [have]. Things may have died down a bit more by February.”

The spring course schedule is still being updated and does not currently specify whether individual classes will be exclusively in-person, remote or hybrid. Sherman said that students can expect an email from her with more information and further updates of the spring course schedule soon.

“In the meantime, students can email professors of primarily classroom or hybrid courses if they cannot find this information,” Sherman said.

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