Zoom meetings have officially become the norm as COVID-19 lockdown orders across the world have affected the daily lives of millions, forcing many to stay indoors and turn to technology to reconnect with the outside world. The U.S. has now surpassed five million coronavirus cases—the largest number reported in comparison to other countries—and is still struggling with its pandemic response. Students especially are experiencing the adverse effects of the worldwide pandemic and are grappling with a new age of learning through technology.
In March of this year, when many Americans began to acknowledge the emergent circumstances of the virus and schools closed their doors, Vivian Shin, a high school senior in Georgia, recalled thinking that she would return to school after a few weeks of spring break. But that wasn’t the case, as Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed an executive order on April 1 declaring that schools would remain closed for the remainder of the academic year after extending the closure multiple times and matching similar guidance by governors in almost all 50 states. The pandemic upended the school year and left many students, parents, and faculty unprepared for months of remote learning.
Some, like Melissa Tamarkin ‘24, had trouble transitioning to online school, as the ability to access the Internet grew to become a necessity. Tamarkin, who lives in a rural part of San Diego, depended on going to school for WiFi. In an interview with The Politic, she described that, as a result of San Diego’s school closures on March 13, she “would drive to school and sit in [her] car for hours doing school work,” because “the only other option were hotspots, but good ones that can actually run applications like Zoom are very expensive.”
The virus forced many to reflect on pressing issues within the education system. Shawn Clybor, a Social Studies teacher at an independent school in New Jersey, stated in an interview with The Politic, “One of the more serious issues during this pandemic is equity…. I think that the limitations that students face socioeconomically, racially, and gender-based really comes out [when teaching via Zoom] because you see into their lives.”
Issues such as these led Internet service providers, like Charter Communications, to begin offering free WiFi access to students and their households. The company announced in March that it would offer free Spectrum broadband and WiFi access for 60 days to households with K-12, as well as college students. In a similar effort, cities and school districts launched resources like Los Angeles County’s WiFi Locator tool to help residents find Internet access, as public buildings with free WiFi continued to close their doors. Higher education institutes have also contributed to the effort to reduce technological disparities; Yale College offered its first-years and sophomore students the opportunity to apply for special permission to live in residence for both semesters as a result of an inadequate learning environment in addition to other circumstances. Tamarkin will be one of the students qualified for this exception.
Technological issues and a lack of in-person connections are also a widespread concern amongst students who plan on attending office hours and seeking tutoring or extra help. Tamarkin took part in Yale’s First-Years Scholars at Yale (FSY) program this summer, a six-week program offered to incoming First-Generation, Low-income students that’s designed to expose students to resources and smoothen the transition from high school to college. She shared that, in some classes, “it [was] so hard to feel comfortable asking a question, and there [were] technical difficulties every day.”
Elaine Wijaya ‘24 also participated in the program, but offered a different perspective; she explained in an interview with The Politic, “FSY made me become really comfortable with meeting professors, teacher aides, tutors, etc, through Zoom.” Wijaya emphasized that she just needed time to adapt to learning online and eventually grew confident enough to “bounce ideas back and forth with [her English] professor and [her] tutor,” email her professors for help, and attend office hours.
With so many uncertainties regarding the pandemic, students have also begun reconsidering their educational aspirations, the timeline of their degrees, and how to incorporate technology into this new era of digital learning. In the town hall meeting hosted by President Peter Salovey on July 9, Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, reassured that “the undergraduate learning experience in the fall will be one of a Yale quality education.” She emphasized that Yale will have “the highest faculty-student ratio that [it has] ever had for undergraduates,” and included that many faculty are adding extra sessions of their most popular classes and intro courses in addition to implementing “innovative ways” to preserve small-group interactions such as inviting authors, composers, and experts to take part in teaching and give students a unique experience.
However, many students are torn between some of these described benefits and the obvious social and educational downfalls of virtual school. For students in majors that depend on labs and field classes, like Dara Albrecht ‘23, an Environmental Studies major, the possible upsides of remote learning may not be enough. Albrecht turned to remote summer opportunities and facilitated classes for students interested in International Relations over Zoom after her plans to conduct research in Africa were affected by the pandemic. Albrecht, who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), noticed however some benefits during her experience with remote learning; she explained in an interview with The Politic, “technology helps me feel a little bit more prepared,” allowing her to “take breaks” and “gather [her] thoughts” when needed. She also added, “it gives people with learning disabilities like mine a greater ability to be you without disrupting the learning environment.” However, while there are some benefits to remote learning, Albrecht still found it in her best interest to gain experience in the job market for graduate school by working for a conservation nonprofit and “making up for the summer [she] lost” instead of returning in the fall and being in a remote class environment for hours which “really is draining at times.”
Like Albrecht, Isabelle Lin ‘24, a prospective Architecture major currently residing in Taiwan, had concerns about the upcoming academic year. When discussing her opinions on remote learning in an interview with The Politic, Lin also expressed several advantages of online school. “In terms of the classes I took, it was definitely more helpful when I could rewatch the parts that I wasn’t able to understand the first time,” she said, noting that recorded lectures were particularly beneficial in her STEM classes. However, she found it extremely difficult to manage virtual classes along with the time zone difference and familial obligations when Yale went remote in Spring 2020. Lin did consider returning to campus, but as a result of Yale’s decision to exclude the sophomore class from its residential plans in the fall, she ultimately decided to take a leave of absence. She explained, “In order to complete the prerequisites for the [Architecture] major, I would need to be in New Haven for studio classes…but living off-campus would increase the risk of getting infected, while the short term renting process is hectic.”
Although technology has grown increasingly necessary in modern society, especially in the COVID era, it seems many have reservations about its future. There is no denying that to abide by public health guidelines, students will continue to immerse themselves in the digital classroom, but to what extent will technology be able to replicate human interaction and connections made in person will be the largest issue this fall. Albrecht, in her interview, concluded with a sentiment shared among many Yale students now: “I’m a very social person…and FaceTiming and birthday Zooms are not the same as getting a coffee with your friend or bumping into them at 3 a.m. in the buttery; it’s just not the same.” With the fall semester fast approaching, perhaps this is an opportunity for the nation to re-evaluate the education system, create innovative solutions, and adapt to a new age of technology.