If you didn’t know better, you’d think it was summer break at Stanford University, the academic epicenter of Silicon Valley. On Tuesday afternoon the campus roadways surrounding the main oval, normally clogged with students, were nearly empty. A few dozen bikes were parked outside of the Gates Computer Science Building, but actual students were scarce. A coffee shop hummed with quiet activity, but the mood was serious.
“I’m internally very panicked,” a Stanford junior studying human biology told WIRED, requesting that his name not be used because he feared that speaking out would risk his on-campus job. “A lot of things are uncertain at the moment, and just having that layer of uncertainty for everything here on out is putting me on edge.”
School is still in session. But Stanford is one of more than 200 colleges across the US that has limited or canceled in-person classes this week in favor of online coursework, as more communities try to prevent the spread of Covid-19. “The public health guidance we are receiving continues to emphasize not only good personal hygiene practices, but also minimizing close contact among groups of people, as means of restraining the spread of COVID-19,” Persis Drell, Stanford’s provost, wrote in a statement online. “For the final two weeks of the winter quarter, beginning Monday, March 9, classes at Stanford will not meet in person.”
Stanford’s move toward “distance learning” comes as the number of identified Covid-19 cases in Santa Clara County, where Stanford is located, reaches 45; California cases top 150; nationwide numbers exceed 1,000; and global cases have surged to nearly 120,000. As academic institutions try to responsibly contain the spread of the virus on their own campuses, many are turning to video conferencing apps and collaborative software as a means of keeping students on track. Teachers, some of whom weren’t even using email before, have gotten a crash course in Zoom and are figuring out how their lecture series, lab sessions, or one-on-ones with students will port to the digital world.
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For college students, the disruption has led to intense unease. The mandates around remote learning are coming at a time when midterm and final exams, spring break travel plans, and upcoming graduation ceremonies are colliding. Not every student has access to working WiFi or data plans that allow them to live-stream classes. And some universities have taken an even more extreme step, one that puts some people, particularly low-income students, in fraught situations: Colleges such as Harvard, MIT, Cornell, and now Stanford have asked students to vacate dorms much earlier than planned.
“These kinds of remote solutions have the effect of doubling down on inequalities that are already in the system, and that’s going to be even more true when it happens, unexpectedly, mid-semester,” says Kate Antonova, an associate professor of history at Queens College in New York, which is part of CUNY public schools. On Wednesday morning, New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced the SUNY and CUNY schools will convert to online classes starting March 19.
“I’ve already surveyed my students, and I definitely have students who have no internet-connected devices at home,” Antonova says. “And I have even more students who have a smartphone but are paying for their own data, so they wouldn’t be able to stream long lectures.”
Distance Learning for (Almost) Everyone
At Stanford on Monday, political science professor Rob Reich experimented with his first massive Zoom class, just a few days after the university banned in-person instruction. More than a hundred students logged on for the class, part of a 10-week course on ethics and technology.
Reich co-teaches the course with computer science professor Mehran Sahami and political science teacher Jeremy Weinstein. High-profile tech figures like WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton and former US deputy chief technology officer Nicole Wong have been guest speakers. (“Mike Schroepfer was probably our last in-person guest for awhile,” Reich said grimly, referring to Facebook’s chief technology officer.)
The most challenging aspect of video conferencing, Reich said, was figuring out how to facilitate conversations between students, all of whom now appear as faces in boxes on his computer screen. “I usually do the philosophical thing of, ‘Here’s 15 minutes of an orientation to a question, a framework, a topic.’ And then I’m going to give students a prompt or a dilemma and I want them to talk to their neighbor and have those exchanges. We tried out a chat function yesterday [instead].” It worked fine enough, Reich said; he just wasn’t able to “take the temperature of the room.”
In addition to Stanford, University of Washington, UC Berkeley, USC, UCLA, University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Texas at Austin, Indiana University Bloomington, University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Ohio State University, Iowa State University, Fordham University, Columbia University, St. John’s University, Rutgers University, and many others have either committed to moving classes online or have indicated that they are strongly considering it. Face-to-face class interactions are being banned entirely in some cases, and professors are being urged to use apps like Zoom, Google Docs, and Canvas.
It’s perhaps not surprising that some well-funded private universities with tech-minded staffers might be equipped to handle the transition to online classes. Jordan Harrod, a PhD student in medical engineering at Harvard-MIT, noted that less than half of the 400 students in one of her Machine Learning classes attend regularly in person, so the university already has some experience with remote learning.
But that’s not the case for every academic institution. Rebecca Slatkin, a software engineer who teaches iOS app development at Syracuse University, says Blackboard Collaborate is the default option being offered by the school, which is moving all of its classes online after spring break. Slatkin says the app is limited because it only offers dedicated time slots for classes and doesn’t support office hours or staying beyond class for extra help.
So Slatkin opted to update her personal Zoom account and pay $14.99 per month out of her own pocket instead. “An upgraded account gives me unlimited time,” Slatkin said. “I figure if it helps my students and makes the remainder of the semester slightly less painful, it’s 100 percent worth it.”
“We have to do this for everybody’s safety, but fundamentally what is being asked of all of these colleges and universities going online, from a faculty point of view, is double labor just to get the courses online,” says Antonova, of Queens College. “I will have to do it with small children at home if their schools close. Double labor with small children is frankly impossible. And my students are facing a similar double burden.”
Some Students Especially Hard Hit
Coronavirus precautions are also disrupting student life. More than a dozen students across the US who spoke to or messaged WIRED detailed a wide range of canceled events, changes in travel plans, and even scrambles for housing, all of which are compounding anxiety for an already stressed-out generation of students.
Amanda Mungcal, a student at Rutgers in New Jersey, says the school will host all classes remotely starting March 23, and has not yet given guidance on what this means for graduation in the spring. “I’m a fifth-year undergrad, paying for school with loans completely under my name, so graduation is literally all my parents have been waiting for,” she wrote to WIRED.
Others are trying to make the best of remote classes: At Columbia University in New York City, Barnard political science student Nicki Camberg observed that earlier this week students were enjoying a rare 70-degree day on the campus lawn. “It felt like the first day of summer. But then every so often you’d see people walking by with suitcases, wheeling their stuff around because they’re going home early.”
Several colleges have taken the measure of requiring students to vacate their dorms weeks earlier than they had originally planned to, including Tufts, MIT, and Emerson, as well as Cornell University in upstate New York. Harvard, in particular, has been getting attention for its requirement that students move out of their dorms by 5 pm this Sunday, likely both because of the abrupt ask and because of the public’s focus on the elite institution.
“Harvard just gave students 5 days to pack all of their things, move out, and go home. many can’t go home because of costs and travel restrictions, and they’ve provided no guidance. and we’re expected to go to class for the rest of this week,” said Harvard computer science student Hakeem Angulu, in a tweet that has been retweeted 41,000 times.
Angulu’s viral tweet highlighted the fundamental challenges that students in financially precarious situations may face when confronted with the fallout from a global health crisis. According to a 2019 report from the Pew Center, 20 percent of dependent US undergraduates in 2016 were from poor families, up from 12 percent in 1996. Some of those students are attending two-year colleges or minimally selective schools, but numbers from private four-year institutions reflect this as well: At Harvard, 15 percent of students are the first generation of their family to attend college and 20 percent qualify for full financial aid from the school. For some students, leaving campus early will be a matter of packing up their things and paying a flight-change fee, but others are strained.
“I was in class and just started crying,” said Jaden Deal, a Harvard freshmen who has written before about the pressures that are unique to first-generation, low-income students there. “I feel like it’s hitting me today.”
Deal is one of the students who qualified for full financial assistance at Harvard, and said his father was planning on flying out to campus in May to pick Jaden up and fly back with him to his hometown, a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa. Now, he says, his family may be out several hundred dollars as they try to rearrange flight bookings and a planned Airbnb stay. More concerning for Deal is the status of the summer program he was planning on participating in back at Harvard, which would give him a $4,000 stipend to spend throughout the school year.
Deal said when he told his father, who works at Home Depot, what his hourly rate was for his new research job, his father replied that it was better than his own hourly pay.
Another first-generation, low-income Harvard student, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the situation, said that she told the dean of the school that returning home early will greatly affect her mental health, something she has struggled with in the past, due in part to a disruptive home life. She also noted it would be more expensive than anticipated to store her personal belongings. In an email exchange reviewed by WIRED, the student explained her situation to the dean and asked for an exception to be made, so that she could stay on campus beyond mid-March.
A Harvard dean for freshman replied that for the safety of the students, exceptions to staying on campus were extremely rare and reserved for students who come from countries with travel bans or “level 3” coronavirus caution levels. The student later received a couple hundred dollars from the university to help with moving costs, but believes that was due to the increasing pressure from the student body.
In an email to WIRED, spokespeople for Harvard reiterated what Harvard president Larry Bacow said in a public letter. “The goal of these changes is to minimize the need to gather in large groups and spend prolonged time in close proximity with each other in spaces such as classrooms, dining halls, and residential buildings,” Bacow wrote. “Our actions are consistent with the recommendations of leading health officials on how to limit the spread of COVID-19 and are also consistent with similar decisions made by a number of our peer institutions.”
Spokesperson Rachael Dane added that the university will be providing moving boxes, “about 40,000 to the Houses for student use. We will be working individually with students who have demonstrated a need for assistance with respect to travel.”
Students who spoke to WIRED expressed dismay with how the administration was handling the sudden changes. Ultimately, they said, it’s the students themselves who are providing the best social support for each other. A GroupMe messaging group of more than 800 students has been lighting up with resources and information all week, and Deal says he has reignited a GroupMe group for 132 first-generation, low-income students.
“The support from our own student community is the best thing that’s come out in this situation,” Deal said. Within three hours of Harvard’s initial announcement, a group of students created an Excel spreadsheet to help displaced students find housing nearby.