In mid-December, university officials announced that while students could return to campus, the first two weeks of winter quarter classes would be held online. In their note to the University, Stanford administrators stated that their “concern is not about the safety of the classrooms or workplaces at Stanford, but about the logistical challenges of supporting students amid the uncertainties of Omicron.” The policy aims to address and mitigate these “logistical challenges” arising when students test positive and must quarantine, as well as to “make class management easier than it might otherwise be.”
The administration wants two groups to benefit from their policy: students who test positive and professors. In theory, students who test positive will benefit from not having to worry about missing lectures and falling behind in their classes, and professors won’t have to deal with complications arising from their students missing class.
Both sets of concerns could have been easily addressed without canceling in-person courses. The COVID-19 pandemic has been going on for two years. We have the ability to provide students with lecture material if they are in quarantine. Video recordings of lectures are easy to produce, and course materials for virtually all Stanford courses are distributed online.
The administration is overreacting. Instituting university-wide online courses is a textbook example of, as former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would say, using a sledgehammer to perform brain surgery. Instead of giving students who are unable to attend class online materials, Stanford has opted for the extreme response of putting everyone online. The sledgehammer of online courses wreaks havoc on students' learning and mental health and undermines student confidence in the administration.
Although university officials encouraged students to return to campus on time, many decided to stay home or travel elsewhere instead. Students staying home has led to a feeling of emptiness among students on campus. Further, students who return to campus by Week 3 may test positive anyway, pushing the initial problem that online courses for two weeks sought to fix down the line. Realizing that positive tests are likely to continue fuels reasonable speculation that the university intends to call off the whole in-person quarter.
Moving the first two weeks of classes online also jeopardizes students' learning. Many students use initial class meetings to cultivate relationships with their professors. The small class sizes of many Stanford courses allows students to frequently catch their professors on the way out of class and ask them questions to establish a rapport. Being in person also allows a student to more accurately gauge which courses are suited to their learning styles. This helps them to finalize their course schedules, a decision that must be made by January 21st. These decisions play a crucial role in students' academic planning –without accurate information, the administration cannot expect students to make informed decisions about their education.
Students also use the first two weeks of the quarter to form study groups, but it’s difficult to reach out to peers over Zoom. In person interaction allows students to approach each other and connect, whereas when students are forced to be online and alone in their dorm room, they often fail to have the interpersonal interactions that are crucial to the Stanford experience. Zoom school also places a burden on professors. It is difficult to gauge student engagement when classes are online. Further, professors were expecting to come back in person. Much of the work they put into planning for the quarter likely went to waste.
The University’s announcement undermines trust in the administration's competence. Comments on Stanford subreddit posts serve as an indication of dismal administration approval among students. Students are remembering the slew of half-baked announcements that came out over the course of last year, and the uncertainty and pain that they were plunged into as a result. After enduring over a full year of online courses, students are still at the mercy of an indecisive administration that continually amended return dates and threw wrenches in their travel plans. While nearly 100% of American schoolchildren are back to full time in person school, Stanford students can still only see their professors through their computer screens.
I am saddened to know that despite productive measures for dealing with the pandemic, students are still subject to irrational and destructive administration policy. I hope soon all Stanford students will be able to enjoy in person academic interactions with peers and professors alike, but this new announcement makes me pessimistic. COVID-19 is here to stay. The Stanford community would be much better off if the administration finally accepted the persistence of the pandemic and allowed for normal in-person instruction.