Coronavirus Impacts on Students and Online Learning

COVID-19 Updates

Coronavirus Impacts on Students and Online Learning
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on February 12, 2021

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Before places of worship, restaurants, and shops began to close in response to the coronavirus pandemic, college campuses sent students home. The dominoes started to fall last spring.

On March 6, the University of Washington in Seattle became the first major American college to shut down campus operations. Ten days later, over 250 U.S. colleges and universities followed suit.

Many schools held out hope of resuming at least some on-campus classes and operations by fall. But over the summer, a growing number of colleges adopted online or hybrid learning models. According to The College Crisis Initiative, over half of U.S. colleges were partly or primarily online in the fall.

Neither colleges nor students were prepared for prolonged campus closures. Both face a variety of challenges going forward.

Neither colleges nor students were prepared for prolonged campus closures. Both face a variety of challenges going forward. Due to subsequent coronavirus outbreaks, some institutions have already been forced to close a second time.

Across the board, college leaders say plans for the coming semesters are written in pencil.

COVID-19's Impact on College Students

Students Confront Coronavirus and Campus Closures

College students — most of whom are under 29 years of age — are among the least vulnerable to COVID-19. The China Center for Disease Control found that the COVID-19 fatality rate for the 10-39 age bracket was just 0.2%. The coronavirus poses the greatest threat to older faculty and staff, nontraditional students, and those with immunodeficiencies.

In addition to protecting high-risk campus members, campus closures aimed to protect the local community. Before any students tested positive for COVID-19, models showed that college campuses could be hotbeds for virus transmission.

Data shows a looser correlation between open campuses and rising COVID-19 case numbers than predicted.

Schools' diverse and active populations number in the thousands, all living in close proximity to one another. And as the surge in college disciplinary action suggests, social distancing measures can be difficult to enforce.

Data shows a looser correlation between open campuses and rising case numbers than predicted. Some areas experienced short-term spikes in case numbers after the local campus welcomed students back. But counties with college campuses actually logged fewer new COVID-19 cases per day than counties without campuses.

Most campus closures were enacted out of an abundance of caution rather than in response to confirmed cases. Now, many colleges have set a hard limit for how many positive cases their campuses can support before shutting down again.

College students, already a vulnerable group in regard to mental health, have been profoundly destabilized by the pandemic. Surveys show a massive surge in stress and anxiety among students. For many, pandemic concerns revolve less around getting sick and more around the loss of grade points, college credits, and income.

Students Anxious About Internet Access and Housing

For students figuring out where to go and how to get there, campus closures were like an eviction notice. The forced migration from in-person to online learning also deepened the digital divide — the gap between those who have access to the internet and technology at home, and those who do not.

While over 88% of Americans are internet users, the share of Americans with computers hovers around 74%, according to Statista. Smartphones can get you online, but they aren't machine enough for video conferences, online quizzes, and essay-writing.

Students who depend on campus operations for both resources and their livelihood dealt with extra repercussions. Many students worked on campus and struggled with loss of income when campuses closed. And those who called on-campus housing their permanent address were forced to patch together new plans, with many now facing homelessness.

Out-of-state students without local support networks had to reckon with these challenges alone. International students remain particularly vulnerable: First travel bans compounded the difficulties of campus closures, then came the news that international students would not be able to stay in the U.S. to take online college courses.

The Shift to Online Education Has Been Accelerated

The coronavirus pandemic has spurred the adoption of distance learning at all education levels. Thousands of colleges and universities, as well as hundreds of thousands of K-12 institutions, closed nationwide. The mass transition will be a proving ground for online education.

Until this year, colleges' shift online had been steady but slow. While student enrollment in online education increases year over year, the newest BestColleges Online Education Trends Report found that more than half of the colleges surveyed did not plan to raise their online education budgets.

“There aren’t enough instructional designers and other learning support specialists to go around right now. These offices have not been a priority at all colleges and universities.”. Source: — Melissa Venable, Ph.D., Online Education Advisor for BestColleges

With the pandemic, schools rushed to fill gaps in their online infrastructures. Finding the money and experts to make those upgrades presented a hurdle, though. According to Melissa Venable, an online education advisor for BestColleges, "There aren't enough instructional designers and other learning support specialists to go around right now. These offices have not been a priority at all colleges and universities."

If ad hoc digital solutions don't work for students and teachers, the experience could stymie online education's future growth. "This quick and mandatory shift may reinforce the most challenging aspects, leading some instructors to be less likely to adopt online education in the future," Venable said.

Ramping up online education under present circumstances may not be ideal, but as Venable notes, "The focus is not about experimenting with technology, but an emergency response." The digital systems that colleges build to support students now will outlast the coronavirus and inform the digital approach to higher education going forward. Successes could even galvanize colleges to expand online offerings.

What Will the Spring Term Look Like?

The previous administration did not issue any national standards for how colleges should respond to COVID-19. President Joe Biden has made the first steps toward issuing such top-down guidance, directing the departments of Education and Health and Human Services to collaborate on best practices.

While safety measures may become standardized, the learning models and calendars that institutions follow could look different from university to university — even from campus to campus within a university. Still, certain decisions, like that initial choice to close up last March, reverberate throughout the country.

As for this spring, dozens of colleges have already announced a marked change: no spring break. Much like Thanksgiving break, spring break has been deemed too risky, potentially launching campus-bred infections out into the world and opening up campuses to infections once students return. Most of the colleges that will remove spring break from their academic calendars planned to start the winter term in late January or early February.

Dozens of colleges have already announced a marked change for spring 2021: no spring break.

Beyond shifting start and end dates, few institutions plan to change their approach for spring. In other words, most colleges that selected face-to-face, remote, or hybrid learning in the fall will stick to that same plan this spring. That includes the large California State University system, whose 23 campuses will remain virtual for the rest of the academic year.

Some schools have already announced virtual commencements for the class of 2021, while others are holding out hope of graduating their students in person — a hope that hinges on low infection rates and vaccine rollouts.

Feature Image: Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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