LACEY — On a hot, dry day where air quality was worsening from record wildfires, students at St. Martin’s University walked around campus, either to their next class or to their dorm, with masks over their faces and several feet of distance between them.
Hardly the way many of them would prefer their school year begin, as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has complicated seemingly every aspect of day-to-day life for months, creates still more hurdles for students and faculty beginning the academic year.
Shane Hill, a senior studying business, is graduating at the end of this semester. The fact that the pandemic is eliminating any chance of the pomp and circumstance of his graduation suits him just fine, he said. But he admitted: “I miss face-to-face.”
Hill was a residential assistant in the student dorms last year, and the orientation process for new students living on campus has changed a lot, he said. Rather than getting the chance to meet with residential assistants and other students in the dorms, the process was stripped down to saying a quick hello. Students cannot have more than one other person in their dorm at a time, which makes it difficult for freshmen to socialize and meet new people, Hill said.
St. Martin’s started the fall semester Aug. 31. It was a tough decision to reopen with in-person classes, said Genevieve Chan, vice president of the office of marketing and communication at the university, in an e-mail to The JOLT News. Currently, roughly one-third of classes are in-person, one-third are online and one-third are a hybrid of both.
School administration took several things into account when deciding how to approach the school year, Chan said. One was what considering what students wanted. Chan said a survey at the end of the spring semester and another one in the summer largely concluded that students wanted to come back to campus for in-person classes.
“We are a close-knit college community, about 1,300 undergraduate students and 250 graduate students, and our students value the connection they have with our faculty and staff,” Chan wrote in an e-mail.
Gov. Jay Inslee permitted higher education institutes to resume in-person classes on Aug. 1, prompting St. Martin’s administration to begin their plans to resume classes. Chan said they consulted on-campus emergency response, the Thurston County Department of Public Health and Social Services and the governor’s recommendations before deciding how to proceed.
“All faculty were asked to prepare and make accommodations for students who need or request to take classes remotely,” Chan wrote.
Dr. Lisa Power, who teaches in St. Martin’s School of Business, said it’s been a while since she felt anxious about teaching, but this semester made her anxious about teaching classes for the first time in a long time. Power said she served on two separate committees dedicated to strategizing on how to make the semester work out.
Teaching online is a specific skill, she said, and it’s one that most of the faculty hadn’t had to develop. Before the pandemic, only about 5 percent of St. Martin’s classes were taught online. The professors who did know how to conduct an effective online class taught the others.
“All of us feel energized when we are in the presence of each other, so we needed to either figure out a way to recreate that energy or create some kind of a social environment online,” Power said. The system of teaching that was developed is called a flex model “where students can choose whether they want to be on campus or whether they want to be learning remotely.”
Students can make that decision on a daily basis, which can make things complicated.
Power said she’s learning how to provide a quality learning experience for two groups of students: the ones in the classroom and the ones tuning in on Zoom. A professor can’t monitor the Zoom chat option — where users can type up a question which is visible to other users — and teach the class at the same time.
“The first day, I said it’s like trying to do the dishes and vacuum the house at the same time. You can do it, but you’re not going to do it well. So, I said after that first week, I just can’t do both of these classes at the same time,” Power said.
So now, she records all of her classes and makes them available to all of her students once class is over. Students can watch the lecture and e-mail her with questions after the fact, giving her the chance to respond meaningfully. This system helps international students who are taking the class from other time zones. It also works for some students weren’t able to travel back to the campus due to various coronavirus-related complications.
One of Power’s students, Emily Gooding, said she took one online class before the pandemic, but has found the new online classes are more hands-on than the one she took before. It is a bit complicated, however, for professors and students to adapt to an entirely new way of going to class, Gooding said.
Power said there have been plenty of glitches so far, but none out of the ordinary. There have been some poor audio levels, the wrong screen appearing on Zoom or difficulty sharing a virtual document. She said her students have been understanding throughout.
For students taking the class in-person, their desks are spread apart and everyone is required to wear a mask.
“I have to be able to figure out if a student understands what I’m talking about by looking at their eyes instead of seeing a smile or puzzled look,” said Power. She’s learning to know students by their voices rather than their faces, since it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s asking a question since everyone’s mouths are covered.
Before the semester started Power and her husband — who also teaches at St. Martin’s — weighed the risk of possibly getting the virus on-the-job. In the end, though, she said they decided they trusted their students to be safe.
“I don’t want to say we took our students for granted, because we never do. But now, they just mean that much more to us. Just being together in community is a wonderful thing,” Power said.