As SUNY New Paltz preps for another semester of hybrid learning, students rethink their plans

SUNY New Paltz (photo by Robin Weinstein)

The spring semester at SUNY New Paltz will be similar to fall, offering a mix of in-person, hybrid and fully online classes, with testing and quarantine required for students and faculty before entering campus. While not much has changed in that regard, the grind of pandemic-related restrictions seems to be taking its toll on students. Citing the distractions of world events, less engaging nature of remote learning, and lack of in-person clubs and socialization, many are altering their plans. Some have decided to plan for an earlier graduation, others have had to switch to a part-time schedule and others dropped out completely.

 

Keeping the virus in check

On-campus residents will be mandated to complete a seven-day quarantine, mandatory testing, and daily health screenings two weeks in advance. The hybrid (or fully remote in some cases) semester will not see a spring break. either, with three “mind, body, spirit” days instead. (More details here.)

Last semester, SUNY New Paltz created a hybrid plan to allow students back on campus with some in-person classes.

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It’s fair to say the college did a good job controlling the virus, with 75 positives out of the 10,750 tests conducted on campus with no lockdowns or need to pause classes.

“We learned some things from the fall that we are applying to the spring,” said SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian. “Our students were marvelous in the fall with their adherence to social distancing and mask-wearing. They played a key role in getting through the semester with relatively few Covid-19 cases.”

The first day of the spring semester is January 19, but almost all classes will start off remote until February 1. The first week of remote classes will allow students to complete the mandatory seven-day quarantine for anyone on campus. Just like last semester, those who are on campus for classes like science labs must complete daily health screenings, which start two weeks before the projected start date.

Additionally, SUNY is requiring all students, faculty and staff to produce a negative Covid-19 test three days before or within five days after returning to campus. There will be on-campus testing between January 19 and February 4. Just like last year, the in-person population will undergo mandatory Covid-19 surveillance testing, which tests around 20 percent of students each week.

Administrators say the college is prepared to pivot to fully remote instruction at any point if need be.
One large number looms in the background at this unusual time. On January 7, the Ulster County Covid dashboard recorded 436 positive findings in New Paltz since the beginning of the pandemic. A month prior to that, on December 8, the number of positives had been 316. The pandemic is an ever-present reality. It hasn’t gone away.

 

Covid course change

The pandemic has upended the typical college experience. Students can’t meet new people, hang out on or off campus or explore new clubs the same way. Many students have faced challenges with the mostly remote learning situation.

Third-year industrial-organizational psychology major Brooke Birkel, for instance, opted to graduate a semester early. She was previously active in numerous activities, including the Undergraduate Psychology Association and Sigma Delta Tau.

“I came to realize that due to the pandemic there was no longer such thing as ‘the college experience,’ sadly enough,” explained Birkel. “I figured it would be wiser to just save money and graduate early by taking summer courses rather than sticking around in spring of 2022 to sit in my off-campus apartment on my laptop all day.”

When the pandemic hit last year and the campus closed, Birkel said “it was much more difficult to find motivation within remote courses especially when there was so much else going on in the world. It was hard not to put my education in the back seat.”

She decided to sublet her apartment for the spring semester, head back to her parents’ house in Long Island, and figure out how she could graduate in the fall.

“I think SUNY New Paltz has done their best effort to switch clubs to being remote as well as classes which certainly creates more involvement opportunities for the students who are willing to pursue them,” said Birkel. “Regardless though, I think this pandemic has put a much more singular aspect to the college experience .… I think a lot of it is up to the students to stay motivated and involved remotely, which is something that understandably many students are not mainly focusing on right now.”

Birkel said that she has a handful of friends who have decided “to completely put their education on hold and even drop out.” Birkel doesn’t blame them. “It’s a difficult time,” she said.

Haley Osgood, a third-year digital media production major, also decided to adjust her plans. During the fall semester, she had found balancing remote classes and working at her job overwhelming. She decided to become a part-time student, “mostly because of the shift online.”

“Because we couldn’t meet in class, so much motivation was lost,” said Osgood. “I thought a lot of the professors were ignorant to the fact that this is affecting us in so many ways, and they were a little insensitive with the work being handed out.” Osgood said the college could have done a better job preparing professors for teaching remotely.

Reducing her course load from five to three last semester helped Osgood focus, and she ended the semester with good grades. She then enrolled in classes during the winter session.

“My winter classes are completely remote,” she reported, “but the professors care and email around twice a week to check in on us and remind us of important assignments, which is so helpful when you’re a student and also have a job.””

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Learning experience “tarnished”

Second-year student Amber Rose adjusted her workload. She had been double majoring in theatre and business, which required taking summer and winter classes. However, after experiencing the switch to online learning, she decided she needed a break, so she changed her double major into a major and minor instead. While she will still be on track to graduate with a major in business and minor in theatre, it wasn’t what she had planned.

“The pandemic has tarnished my enjoyment of learning,” said Rose. “Teaching myself the material isn’t anywhere as close to the same as what it was before. It made all my work feel busy and bothersome.”

 

“Pretty clearly Covid-linked”

These students aren’t alone. Numbers from the college show the amount of students taking a leave of absence or withdrawing was up over 50 percent (201 to 306 for leaves of absence from fall 2019 to fall 2020 and 222 to 341 for withdrawals from spring 2019 to spring 2020). Total enrollment during that time has varied from about 7400 to 7800.

Some 144 of the 306 leaves of absences in the fall were due to personal/family reasons, 59 for psychological reasons and 47 for financial reasons.

“We’ve had fairly stable first-to-second-year and fall-to-spring retention during all of the years I’ve been president,” said SUNY New Paltz President Christian. “What we’re seeing here is pretty clearly Covid linked. It reflects a lot of different things …. We know some students are taking time off because they don’t find campus life the way they thought it would be/”

Christian said that the school’s promotion of resources for how students can succeed in a remote course “has helped a lot.”

In town halls held online by the college, students have shared their experiences adjusting to the pandemic’s restrictions on their education.

“They miss the connection and ask professors to spend a little bit of time knowing them on the remote sessions – just talking about how students are doing and creating a sense of personal connection over the Internet,” said Christian. “We’ve given this feedback to faculty, and faculty has been pretty sympathetic and supportive of that.”

Christian discussed how the lack of student engagement in some remote settings has been studied by the SUNY system, which is working on guidelines for faculty to help build the student-teacher relationships.

A mentor group consisting of faculty members who are more adept at the remote world has been created to help provide individual coaching sessions to colleagues.

 

The professors’ side

Donna Flayhan, associate professor of communication, said the faculty experience has involved “learning to teach all over again.” She’s optimistic. She said most of the kinks that were present at first have been worked out. She mentioned new, more user-friendly software for remote instruction as an example.

Flayhan decided on asynchronous remote instruction, meaning her classes aren’t live. Students can tune in at any time. Her flexibility extends to deadlines as well. When students are not completing assignments, she will email them weekly with encouraging sentiments. This spring, she is offering a drop-in Webex session for increased engagement.

Although Flayhan found she could give more undivided attention and feedback to assignments that were submitted, she noted that more students seem to struggle than in years past. She saw an increase in the amount of failing grades in her classes, despite allowing late submissions. This past fall, about five of her students failed, compared to what is usually zero or one. In these cases, the student did not get back to her at any point throughout the semester or except at the very end.

Flayhan advises students feeling overwhelmed to cut back their workloads. “I hope some students do look at it as I’m going to take five years instead of four,” said Flayhan. “I do understand financially, life and online learning make that really, really difficult. I hope people don’t give up and not finish their degree or realize they may graduate later.”

Many students put a lot of pressure on themselves to finish the plan they started before the pandemic, observed Flayhan. “I feel like that’s too much pressure on yourself. We know anxiety and depression are up for everyone everywhere.”

She likes to remind her students they’re not a failure just because they fail a class and that they are probably failing a class because “it’s a pandemic and everything is online and you are trying to take five online classes. That’s dizzying.”

Alexander Gonzales, an adjunct professor also in the communications department, continued to teach some classes in-person.

“For most of the students I was the only in-person professor that they had,” he said. “Students seemed to really appreciate being in class… it was business like usual.”

While he didn’t strictly enforce deadlines and was more lenient on students, similar to Flayhan, he felt as though his curriculum didn’t change compared to semesters past, which may have been in part from still having a few in-person classes.

“For me as an educator, it’s so much easier being in person and feeling the pulse of the room and seeing if there are things students don’t understand,” he said. “Recording myself feels distant and it’s like a glorified YouTube video compared to being in person.”

He said it was “hard to maintain enthusiasm” in online classes.

“Some students rose to the challenge and produced great work,” he said. “I can’t say it was a failure because it wasn’t. If anything, a lot of students stepped up to the plate. To be honest, I think those students would have stepped up to the plate with or without the pandemic.”

One positive of remote instruction is the ability to do one-on-one conferencing online, which allowed him to “hyperfocus and even take control of the students computer,” which was beneficial for his website design course.

“It’s encouraging to see students progress and especially the students who are eager to learn and make things – it’s really inspiring,” said Gonzales. “Even if my classes were changed to fully remote, there are still students who are ready to learn.”