At Nevada colleges, back-to-school jitters take on new meaning amid coronavirus

As the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the nation’s colleges and universities in a matter of days in mid-March, it scattered students and forced a chaotic switch to remote learning for the thousands now displaced by the virus. 

When weeks turned to months, the pandemic not only lingering but growing worse across the country, these institutions were faced with a question: What will higher education look like when the fall semester finally arrives?  

On Monday, that day finally arrived for Nevada’s eight higher education institutions, all of which are embracing a mix of online, hybrid and in-person instruction. With it came a new iteration of the back-to-school butterflies that accompany every new semester. 

“I’ve been teaching 13 years now, and the first day of school, I always have jitters still — happy jitters,” Alissa Surges, an English professor at UNR, said. “I love getting to know my students and knowing I’m not going to have that in the same way makes me kind of sad. I’m teaching remotely, so it already has kind of a pall over it. But especially reading the news — Notre Dame, UNC, Syracuse — it’s not looking good. I’m concerned. I’m really worried.”   

Those universities, most notably the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, were among roughly a half-dozen last week to revert to online-only instruction or severely limit in-person activity following an explosion in coronavirus infections on campus. 

The sudden U-turns have spurred questions over the efficacy of policies seeking to implement some sense of normalcy in the fall semester and unveiled a system with social, economic and health incentive structures that are deeply intertwined and often clearly opposed. 

For many institutions, there is often a binary choice: push for in-person returns in an effort to minimize financial losses at the risk of chancing viral clusters, or move operations entirely online, minimizing health risks while chancing the alienation of a student body opposed to paying tens of thousands of dollars for an online-only education. 

In Nevada, higher education institutions spent months crafting detailed plans for on-campus safety requirements, including mask mandates, cleaning regimes, reporting guidelines and online training — all as part of a new, transitional infrastructure meant to guide activity on campus as well as off-site learning in a pandemic era.

But for some, especially those in at-risk groups or those who still need to work in close proximity to students, the in-person measures fall short of the mark. 

“I run a research lab, and usually I have two undergraduates in the lab, and I watch them like hawks,” Dorothy Hudig, a professor at the UNR School of Medicine, said. “You show them, literally mano a mano, you're looking into a microscope together, you're working in the same room together. And I just look at it, and I go — I'm not really sure this is feasible.”

Hudig said guidelines requiring 200 square feet of lab space per student or 6-foot buffers between people severely limit the basics of normal lab instruction, from huddling around data-dense computer monitors to watching the correct technique to pipette fluids. 

“You just kind of wonder how long is this going to go, and what can you do except to try to meet with students by Zoom and try to be a human being and, maybe, adapt things?” Hudig said. 

Still, while Hudig and Surges are in a subset of UNR faculty who are the most concerned with the ultimate health, logistical and pedagogical effects of the virus on teaching, they are just a small sample of more than 1,100 teaching staff at UNR.

According to UNR administrators, a survey of students and faculty conducted this summer found roughly one-third of university employees favored some kind of hybrid or in-person return, with roughly another third ready to return to campus under the right circumstances. 

The final results of the survey have not yet been made public, and the precise nature of student and faculty responses remains unknown. 

Along with faculty members looking forward to a return to the classroom, many students have been hoping for the same. Dominique Hall, the student body president at UNR and a senior journalism major, said the classroom experience simply trumps the online experience. 

“Personally, I prefer being in class, in person, if we're going to be taught in the moment,” Hall said. 

With UNR’s journalism school among the smallest on campus, Hall has two fully in-person classes on her fall schedule. Still, she said the on-campus experience has become radically different under the ever-present risk of the coronavirus, with once-teeming sidewalks turned to a virtual ghost town. 

“It's weird to have campus be practically empty and it's weird to not have the rush of people, or saying hi to people as you walk through campus,” she said. “It's definitely an eerie feeling.”

Even so, a handful of hiccups kicked off instruction Monday. Most notably, a widespread outage of the video conferencing app Zoom knocked out some online classes for nearly three hours on Monday morning, and some UNR students complained of long lines for dining hall food over the weekend. 

But — considering the broader circumstances — some students said the day could have gone worse. Joshua Padilla, the UNLV student president and a civil engineering student, said some “hiccups” and “surprises” didn’t stop the day from running smoothly, all things considered. 

Padilla is taking an online-only class load, but still spending time on campus, where he says study-sessions at the library have been made easier with the drastic reduction in normal foot traffic. Even so, he said he expects a difficult online transition for his most complex upper-division classwork. 

“As much as professors do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to learning, a lot of the times especially when you get into those higher division, really difficult classes, you spend a lot of time with your peers in person, at the library, at a Starbucks somewhere, studying, teaching each other, helping each other,” Padilla said. “And this online system really limits that.”

But for both Padilla and Hall, and for many of the students who they serve, there remains a more serious latent frustration over the disconnect between the money paid into the college experience and the product students receive in return. 

In particular, Padilla said universities were caught in a tough position as they cut services without reducing costs, all while students and their families may be “obviously struggling” with the still-rippling economic effects of the virus. 

“That's a really tough pill to explain and swallow,” Padilla said.

As the coronavirus lockdowns crushed household incomes and triggered soaring unemployment, so too did they crater state budgets and with them, higher education spending. In Nevada alone, higher education institutions lost roughly $135 million in state money for the 2021 fiscal year, with even more money lost in and among individual institutions that have seen revenues dip and costs rise. 

It is under this backdrop that the Board of Regents voted earlier this year to raise student fees across every college and university, a move that irked some students already frustrated with the static cost of tuition and fees. 

There remains a pervasive sense that this semester’s attempt at normalcy is merely temporary, especially as high-profile campus reopenings at an increasingly large swath of American universities were summarily reversed as new coronavirus clusters emerged on campuses. 

For students, the whiplash of opening only to close days later generated widespread cynicism surrounding the incentives behind the reopening process, especially as university administrations took to blaming students for tanking the prospect of any supposed normalcy this fall. 

In Nevada, Padilla said some students he’s talked to see the upcoming Labor Day weekend as a fast-approaching test. What will students do when a few weeks have gone by, their guard has been lowered, and they’re handed a short vacation? 

“There's a lot of anxiety about that question,” Padilla said.

Institutions across the state have so-far touted their respective reopening plans as “nimble” and “flexible” in discussions with regents and the system’s chancellor — though precisely how flexible may yet be put to the test in the coming weeks and months.