Against delaying the 2020-21 academic year

Opinion by Tiffany Zhu
May 4, 2020, 7:10 p.m.

Recently, the Faculty Senate considered, among other plans, delaying the start of the 2020-21 academic year to January and making up classes in summer 2021. I recognize that no decision about fall quarter has been made yet, and I know that much rests on how the spread of coronavirus and the testing and tracing situation in California changes over the summer. Nevertheless, regardless of how COVID-19 develops, I strongly believe that the start of the academic year should not be pushed back to January. Instead, classes should resume on time, whether online, in person or a combination of both. This is why:

Disproportionate damage to rising juniors’ and seniors’ careers

I am a rising senior. This summer was the last summer that my class could complete a full-time internship before we graduated without interrupting our academic schedules. Many employers care deeply about what you did the summer before you graduated, and if you have a gap in your résumé in the summer before you graduate, they will not even consider you for a full-time job.

My internship for this summer was canceled, and my backup summer internship is on hold. Just in between April 20-22, I’ve read numerous LinkedIn posts from rising juniors and seniors whose internships at private companies were canceled at the same moment when most companies had implemented hiring freezes.

While the internship cancellations negatively impact all undergraduates, they have a disproportionate impact on the classes of 2021 and 2022. A lot of us will want to make up for our lost summer by doing an internship in summer 2021, or need a summer 2021 internship to get started in their career. Now, it is possible to take a gap quarter next summer and graduate a quarter later. But I am not optimistic that organizations will adjust their full-time hiring timelines to accommodate schools that have changed their schedule to a winter-spring-summer cycle. Institutions like Harvard, Princeton, UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC San Diego have already announced that they are not canceling their fall classes. Many others across the country intend to resume some form of instruction this fall. Why should organizations make an exception for Stanford students? They already have enough qualified candidates to draw from.

More than that, compelling students to make up fall 2020 by taking classes in summer 2021 would jeopardize Stanford-run summer programs, like SIG fellowships, Haas fellowships, Stanford Global Studies internships, BOSP overseas internship programs, Stanford SEED and research programs such as Bio-X, Summer Research College, Chappell-Lougee Scholarships and UAR’s Major Grants. These experiences have been critical and formative for students looking toward public service, international careers and research careers. Jeopardizing these opportunities will limit students’ chances to explore their interests at an institution where many already feel the pressure to go into consulting, finance or big tech. And it would derail the careers of undergraduates for whom these unique opportunities — all of which you cannot find outside Stanford — could have opened doors.

Mental health consequences

In the three weeks between undergraduates being sent home and spring classes starting, I nearly went insane. I tried to keep myself busy with all kinds of things — working on a short story, translating some Russian music, video calling with my friends. But inevitably, I spent most of my day “doomscrolling” through social media. Ultimately, those three weeks of idleness in the midst of a global crisis hurt my mental health. Only now, having settled into my spring quarter routine, am I starting to regain my mental composure.

I cannot imagine what will happen if I have to spend 10 more weeks sitting at home watching the world burn and scraping around for ways to stay busy. It’s been demonstrated that in times of stress, humans psychologically cope by developing a routine and staying occupied. There are ways to get involved in one’s community while quarantined at home: deliver groceries, sew masks, volunteer at the food bank. But these options are very limited, and many are not possible to students who do not have sewing supplies at home or cannot risk spreading the virus to elderly or immunocompromised family members. 

Of course, what works for my mental health will not work for everyone. Many students will benefit from a break from coursework in the fall. Nevertheless, the administration would do unwisely to cancel fall in the name of mental health — one-size-fits-all approaches seldom work on something as complicated and individual as mental health. Without a doubt, students who know they need time off should be permitted to take a gap quarter free of the worry that it may hurt their financial aid or academic standing. But those whose mental health depends on finding a routine and staying occupied should also have the option of taking classes at Stanford, without needing to temporarily transfer to another university or struggle to piece together another routine.

Undergraduate, graduate student and faculty equity

Arguments in favor of student choice introduce the problem of equity. As the ASSU Executive Board said regarding this spring’s grading options, “any policy that is optional will inevitably end up disproportionately benefiting students who are experiencing relative privilege.” If Stanford brings back fall classes, then no matter what happens, first-generation and/or low-income (FLI) students will be hurt — online classes raise the problem of access, while in-person classes may lead students who cannot afford to take the quarter off to disproportionately put themselves at risk. Besides, the question of grading equity would rear its head if classes are fully online, with the stakes even higher because making a second quarter Satisfactory/No Credit could threaten the rigor of Stanford’s academics.

These inequities are real, and they are a major problem. But canceling fall classes would not eliminate those inequities and would instead create a new set. For one, the impact on job and internship recruiting disproportionately affects FLI and other students who need to gain financial independence or start supporting their families as soon as possible. For them, getting a job one quarter earlier would make a huge difference. Moreover, taking six consecutive quarters — winter-spring-summer, followed by a traditional academic year in 2021-22 — may produce a mental health toll for students who need the summer to recuperate. This toll would accrue disproportionately to students who need to get a job as soon as possible.

Crucial sources of University financial support would also come into peril. Right now, the Financial Aid Office is providing housing and living support to students enrolled in classes. But an information sheet on their website says they cannot provide any support other than Cardinal Care scholarships to students on leaves of absence. If students cannot take classes this fall, then whether the Financial Aid Office can continue providing living support is unclear — a cruel irony in a time when students need financial support the most.

Canceling fall quarter wouldn’t just pose problems to undergraduates — it would also put the financial situations of teaching faculty and graduate students at risk. My economics core professors and Russian language teachers are full-time lecturers. Since they don’t do research, their employment depends completely on their ability to teach. If fall classes are canceled, can I trust Stanford to furlough them with full pay and benefits? Maybe, but I find it hard to trust an institution that has stubbornly refused to support its service workers through this crisis. Even if classes are all online, then at least our teaching faculty can be assured to keep some of their salary and benefits through the fall. That all becomes uncertain if classes are completely canceled.

Likewise, many graduate students’ funding depends on their ability to work as teaching assistants. What happens to their funding if there are no classes to TA? Stanford already severely underpaid graduate students when the economy was growing. Now the pandemic has put the academic job market into turmoil and eliminated significant sources of summer income for graduate students. I am not optimistic that Stanford will guarantee the same level of financial support for graduate students if TAships are eliminated this fall. Even if classes are held online this fall, at least graduate students will have the chance to keep their TAships and hold on to a sliver of certainty in the midst of a devastating economic crisis.

I do not know what the most equitable solution is. Every possible solution, from fully in-person classes to no classes at all, will produce a different mix of inequities. But Stanford should not fool itself into thinking that canceling fall classes would solve the problem of inequities. If fall classes are canceled, then the university needs to commit to protecting the livelihoods of faculty, graduate students, and service workers, not to mention ensure that undergraduates can keep receiving financial support. Stanford has to realize that it cannot escape this great unequalizer that is the pandemic.

Sustainable solutions

Researchers say physical distancing will probably need to continue in some capacity until 2021 or even 2022. If we cancel fall quarter, for instance in the hopes that we can bring everyone back on campus by winter, then what’s the plan if physical distancing measures are still in place by winter? Are we going to push back classes for another quarter? Are we going to push back classes indefinitely until physical distancing measures are lifted?

Pushing back classes is not a sustainable long-term solution to the issue of how residential colleges are going to cope in the age of physical distancing. “Zoom University” is greatly inferior to the full residential experience of Stanford, but no university at all is still worse than Zoom University. If we push back fall quarter classes only for winter quarter to be held online or highly regulated anyway, then what would be the point of canceling fall?

It’s hard to propose concrete alternatives right now, since no one knows what the spread of the virus or the testing situation will look like this fall. To its credit, the administration is moving cautiously. Although President Marc Tessier-Levigne has not confirmed or denied that fall could be canceled altogether, he has noted that the fall quarter options range from fully in-person to fully online classes. I am grateful that the administration is considering all the options at Stanford’s disposal.

Regardless of what happens, I think it is reasonable to ask that Stanford give students the option to take classes in the fall. I understand that that allows for the possibility that we may have another online-only quarter, with its nest of problems. However, the coronavirus is not going away any time soon. If the administration takes an all-or-nothing approach to the Stanford experience, we will almost certainly be left with nothing.

If Stanford wants to encourage students to take the fall quarter off, they can do so without completely canceling fall courses. Classes can be added to the 2021 Summer Session, with financial aid expanded to cover summer classes and eliminate summer contributions for 2021. Honors programs can revise timelines so that seniors missing fall quarter can still complete their thesis in three quarters. And students should be given extended time to consider whether to take a gap quarter and be guaranteed that their financial aid will stay with them if they take the fall off. But those who need or prefer to take classes this fall should be able to resume their studies. As much as I love and cherish the residential part of a Stanford education, I do not believe we should sacrifice academic continuity, career exploration or students’ mental health in the faint hopes that fully residential education might resume in winter 2021. I implore Stanford to do its part and, at the very least, not exacerbate the tolls already being inflicted by the virus.

Contact Tiffany Zhu at tzhu10 ‘at’

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