When the COVID-19 shelter-at-home orders started to come down to Coastside students away at college. And they were busy.
Zach Zioncheck, a second-year student at University of Colorado, Boulder, was dissecting a pig in his biology lab. Jack Hebb, a senior at Clark University in Wooster, Mass., was looking forward to two important Model UN competitions in Chicago and New York as captain of his school’s team. Sophia Padua, a junior at the University of Oregon, Eugene, was loving her first year as a transfer student and had a paid marketing internship at an “amazing” spa/resort.
And here on the Coastside, Emely Vazquez, a senior at Pescadero High School, was a finalist for a prestigious scholarship and was on the cusp of choosing between Cal Poly and the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Now they and others are trying to determine what it means to their daily lives as colleges and universities nationwide are trying to determine what the fall – and beyond – will look like. Many universities began to move courses online and encourage students to return home around the time the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on March 11. But to what degree they decided to close and when varied widely.
As things began to unfold, Zach Zioncheck was planning to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Boulder with some friends from Half Moon Bay who had come to visit. The University of Colorado by then had told students they would be making some courses available online.
“That week they said if you weren’t comfortable coming to class, they’d record them. Then that Friday before St. Patrick’s Day, they announced that on Monday we’d all be online for the rest of the year,” he said. He and others at CU began to wonder if they should stay or go but it didn’t initially interfere with the party plans.
“[We] ended up actually still going out – probably not the smartest thing,” he said. “And it wasn’t the typical St. Pat weekend at all. A ton of people decided to go home. The streets were empty. It had an eerie feeling.” His friends went home early, and Zach started packing up his apartment.
Drew Zioncheck, Zach’s twin brother and a second year student at San Diego State University, didn’t expect the full effect of the pandemic to be felt until after spring break, scheduled to begin March 27.
“By March 9 or 10, they were saying we don’t have any [COVID-19] cases,” Drew said. “Then we got the word that somebody studying abroad was sent home. [Then] it was up to the teachers’ discretion to move fully online or still have students come into class.” Two of his classes converted to online and two smaller courses were still being taught in person. As more news came out and a friend who is an EMT in San Mateo County said a shelter-in-place order was likely, Drew made the decision to leave San Diego.
“I just packed up all my stuff, got in my car and drove up, and my twin brother, Zach, flew out and we came home March 24,” Drew Zioncheck said.
Padua, who transferred in the fall to the University of Oregon as a junior, said she had already heard from friends whose schools were being closed well before her university made its decision. “All of us at UO were sitting around wondering, do we go to class,” she said. “I remember in the beginning, at the end of the February even, most of my professors had emailed and said if you don’t feel like coming to class, by all means you didn’t have to.”
Then, within a one-week period, events began to be canceled. “Finals were being moved online, and we were being told to go home and that spring break would be a little longer and hold on tight until we could make a decision,” she said. She made her own decision to leave, canceling plans for friends to come home with her to El Granada for spring break.
“I packed up my [art supplies] and my books that would entertain me and came home,” she said.
Hebb, the Clark University senior, had already been home for spring break and was back in Massachusetts when his mother warned him COVID-19 would hit the United States. “Sure, Mom, sure,” he said. He thought she was overreacting.
“I think things got really real for me when the Bay Area went on lockdown,” said Hebb, who is studying economics and comparative political science. “Then things really sped up. We have Gov. Charlie Baker, who was intent on not shutting down the economy. Then he totally shut it down.” Instead of returning to Half Moon Bay, he opted to stay in Wooster, where he shares a flat with three others.
All four college students – the Zioncheck brothers, Padua and Hebb – now are doing all of their coursework online from home, much of it via Zoom. Online courses can be synchronous (live) or asynchronous (recorded lectures) or some combination. Even before the shelter-at-home orders came, professors and administrators realized they would need to make the shift, including professors who had never taught an online course. Universities scrambled to get their courses online, often in less than a week, and the results have been uneven -- for example, Zach Zioncheck’s biology lab.
“A couple of weeks ago I was dissecting a pig. Now I’m at home scrolling through images of a lab, which is annoying,” he said.
Drew Zioncheck recognizes the challenge professors and institutions face migrating to in-person classes online. “Some of these classes that weren’t fully prepared to go online – it’s nowhere near the quality of education,” he said. “No way you can take these teachers that have never had a class online and have it be sufficient for their students.”
How successful the courses are is partly dependent on the nature of the course itself. “I found that all the professors that had to transition online, it started a bit rocky, but I got lucky. I’m taking two classes that are computer science and graphics related that would have been online-based anyway,” Padua said. “The other two courses, my professors have been amazing. We go into Zoom twice a week. ... It’s felt like a good workload.”
Hebb is taking four courses this term, all smaller seminars. “You do a lot of reading and then discuss for three hours. It’s not as awkward as you’d think it’d be,” he said. Bigger classes, however, are not as effective. “In larger lectures, people tend to turn off their webcams. In seminar classes, where there are only about 10 of us, everyone has their camera on. It’s kind of like regular school, but not as fun,” he said
Some students are tuning out. Zach Zioncheck's environmental studies class online was "Zoombombed" – disrupted by an intruder hacking into the online class – by an individual who used a racist phrase as a user name and “started blasting porn all over the screen, shouting the N word,” he said. He and his classmates went silent in shock. For a time afterward, the professor used recorded lectures instead of live instruction until security measures could be implemented to go live again.
Staying motivated for online classes can be challenging. Kathryn Payne-Gray of Half Moon Bay, associate director at Stanford’s Schwab Learning Center, works with students at Stanford who face learning challenges even in ordinary times. Her students now face more challenges, which many more students are encountering now.
“It’s difficult being organized with their time, being motivated. There is something about the social aspect of being in classes in person that they’re really missing now,” she said. “Those who do well have internal structure, they’re taking showers, putting on make-up or dressing up for class, eating regularly, exercising regularly.”
To get her day started, Padua takes the family dog for a walk each morning and keeps a planner and to-do list. Drew Zioncheck confessed to struggling with motivation at times, largely because he’s at home with family.
“It’s almost like the school is in the back of my mind – not because I want it to be, but because I’m here and have other projects I could work on around the house and be with my family,” he said. “I find it’s harder to take classes seriously, too, because I feel we’re getting half the amount of instruction we should be getting in person, sitting in a classroom and having that concentration.”
The challenges in shifting to online classes also have a financial component. Students at some universities are pressuring their institutions to reimburse tuition or at least some fees. The universities themselves also are navigating the financial hit. Although a handful of well-known research universities have enormous endowments that can help cushion the impact, many more universities and especially smaller colleges are dependent on the revenue they derive from tuition and some additional programming that makes use of their campuses. High-profile stories about Stanford and Harvard returning federal stimulus money are the exception.
University leaders nationwide are scrambling to retain students, continue to employ staff and faculty and provide quality education. For individual students and their families, however, it is difficult to justify paying for an education feels less robust. Many universities are considering reimbursing some fees or reducing others, such as room and board.
“Because we’re all online, there should be some kind of price difference – a reduction in tuition because it’s nowhere near the instruction we’d been getting in school or that we’re paying for,” said Drew Zioncheck, a business major, whose meal plan fees were halted. Padua said students at UO have signed petitions to try to recoup fees, and as a California resident, she is paying out-of-state tuition.
Whether universities are prepared to open in the fall remains in question. Today, the California State University system announced almost all of its instruction in the fall would be remote.
Local students say they have received varying levels of communication from their schools, and they are trying to understand what it means and where they will be in the fall. A survey of more than 500 institutions by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers the week of April 20 found that 16 to 21 percent of semester- and quarter-based institutions have or are considering delaying the start of the fall term.
Meanwhile, students are deciding whether to return to campus for the fall term, stay planted at home, or even take the term off.
Padua and her roommates have already made a down payment on their apartment for fall, so she plans to go back. “My roommates and I talked and said we would still honor our lease even if [school] is all online,” she said.
Hebb is struggling to make a decision about his fall term. As a senior on track to graduate in December, he faces the unappealing possibility of completing his college career online. “I have to take one more semester. I would like to not pay full tuition for ‘Zoom’ university. I’m considering returning in the spring [instead].”
Payne-Gray, the Stanford learning specialist, is also the mother of a college student, Max, who is a junior at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. She said the university sends weekly email updates and has indicated it hopes to resume classes in the fall. “I am really hoping he’ll go back in the fall,” she said.
“We’ll make it work either way," she said. "Online is not optimal, though. I don’t love the fact that we’d be spending this money for an online experience at all, frankly.”
For Emely Vazquez, the Pescadero High School senior, the question is not of whether to return to college but whether she should begin her college career at one of the four-year universities that have accepted her and risk her first term being spent online. Making the decision more difficult was that she was a finalist for a scholarship that requires its recipients to attend a four-year school. She also had not settled on her top choice of schools because she was waiting to visit campus for an admitted student tour.
“I was definitely looking forward to attending these events with my family, but it just isn’t possible,” she said. “I did the online [tour], but I felt quite disconnected. Without feeling the atmosphere and exploring the environment – if I’m going to spend the next four years of my life there without seeing how it makes me feel being there – I don’t think I can make that decision.”
She was also focused on the wisdom of spending money on a school sight unseen: “Would you buy a really expensive house just by looking at it online,” she asked.
In the end, she relinquished her spot in the scholarship competition and decided to study at the College of San Mateo, where she is already taking calculus and other courses online and hopes to be part of the Promise Scholar program. “Education is so expensive,” she said. If studying on campus at a four-year college is not possible because of the pandemic, “I would rather spend my money to do online at a community college.”
Those hoping to return to their campuses recognize doing so will not be without difficulty as long as social distancing guidelines are in place.
“I don’t know what that would look like. If we do go back, there is no way they’d even allow parties. There’ll still be social distancing. There won’t be a cure yet. I get the ‘want to’ [go back], but it’s tough,” said Zach Zioncheck. His brother had a more direct assessment: “Telling college kids you can’t get together? I don’t see that working unless it’s strictly enforced.”
Whatever comes in the fall, there are benefits to being back on the Coastside sheltering at home.
“As a 20-year-old I would never have had this time with my family,” Drew Zioncheck said. “I get great meals, good, healthy meals. And being able to talk to them about all of this, getting help from them mentally, to get an older person’s view on this is good.” Zach Zioncheck said he values the daily walks he takes with their father.
Padua said she is glad to spend time with her family. “Usually I’m only home a week or two. This is kind of nice because we can spend little chunks of the day together, and I can fold into their routine as well. Spending extra time with my mom is nice. And my dad taught me how to play backgammon. These are things that wouldn’t have happened if I was still at school,” she said.
Being close to old high school friends has advantages and disadvantages. “It’s weird because we’re so close yet so far because we can’t really see each other,” Drew Zioncheck said. “Sometimes we’ll put on [face]masks and go hike on Montara Mountain and keep our six-feet of distance.” Zach Zioncheck said, “Hugs and kisses are turning into weapons now. Even when I see my friends I want to give them a high-five or a handshake or bring it in, but you have to respect the six feet.”
Padua just celebrated her 22nd birthday, and her friends joined her for a Zoom birthday party, all logging in within just miles of each other. “My friends from home are my family. It’s weird to be back in town and in the vicinity but we can’t see each other. We’ve been really good about following the rules.”
Still, she has tried to step back and look at the full picture. There are things to be upset about and things to be grateful for and, ultimately, things that cannot be changed.
"The whole thing has been an internal battle for me," she said. "I’m upset that we’re paying out-of-state tuition, that I can’t be with my friends and in class lectures with professors, but the fact that I even have the option for this and am in higher education – I am really lucky. I have to be grateful for it.
“I woke up today and thought I don’t think I can say anything positive. I want to hug my friends so bad, and I can’t. It’s easy to be upset," she said. "But it’s out of my control, and I don’t want to be sad anymore.”