Move to online learning reminds students of past winter reversals

Dec. 21, 2021, 6:45 p.m.

When Michelle Bao ’23 opened an announcement from Stanford officials informing students that instruction would be moved online for the first two weeks of winter quarter, she felt an immediate sense of déjà vu — during winter break of last academic year, the University announced that student move-in would be postponed by two weeks to limit the spread of COVID-19. Then, less than two days from the start of classes, Stanford canceled the in-person winter quarter for frosh and sophomores.

“I felt a familiar wave of anxiety first and foremost, and then a sense of dread,” Bao said. “I’m both grateful that Stanford is taking COVID seriously but also skeptical that the changes will be effective, that professors will be able to meaningfully translate their material to online learning or that workers will be properly supported through this.”

Bao is not the only student who has expressed worries about what the Dec. 16 announcement could mean for the wellbeing of the Stanford community. Many have echoed Bao’s concerns about quality of learning and institutional support while also acknowledging the importance of caution in the face of the recent COVID-19 resurgence. Still others have expressed skepticism that the remote period could be extended beyond the planned date. 

In a Dec. 16 email to the Stanford community, Provost Persis Drell and Associate Vice Provost Russell Furr announced that the first two weeks of winter quarter instruction will be held entirely online. Stanford cited uncertainty surrounding the emerging Omicron variant as the main reason for the online start to the quarter.

“Omicron poses a number of logistical challenges for the start of in-person classes,” wrote Drell and Furr, explaining that the decision will mitigate academic disruption.

The decision to postpone in-person learning for a two-week period was met with approval by some students, including Bikal Sharma ’24, vice president of the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU).

“I commend the University administration for putting student’s health first and employing preventative measures to ensure students have equitable access to instruction amidst the ongoing public health crisis,” Sharma wrote in an email. “I look forward to being back to in-person instruction as soon as possible and strongly encourage all students to follow best practices: getting tested regularly, getting booster shots, and wearing a face covering.”

However, Stanford is also receiving criticism from some students and affiliates for its decision to delay in-person instruction. Several individuals took to social media to express their displeasure with the decision.

One point of concern for many students is the affordability of their travel plans. For weeks, students have expressed discontent with the University’s Jan. 3 return date, noting that they were forced to schedule their return at the peak of ticket prices. Now, those who have already purchased tickets said that they feel misled by the University. One of those students is Bao, who said she had already booked a nonrefundable flight that was “absurdly expensive given winter quarter’s start date.” 

Though Stanford said that students still may return to campus by Jan. 3, students are not required to do so, information that could have been useful to students like Bao when making travel plans.

With COVID-19 cases again on the rise, students voiced concerns that the University’s decision-making could be a repeat of last year, when the University followed up a similar announcement with the cancellation of in-person school for the full quarter.

“I think I’ve seen this film before … and I didn’t like the ending,” one student wrote on Twitter.

With so much uncertainty surrounding the spread of COVID-19 in the coming weeks, Bao said she is concerned about the length of time online learning will take place if conditions worsen.

“I’m worried that the online learning period could be longer than two weeks but that the University won’t announce it until the very last minute,” she said. “I’m also worried that everyone, both students and professors, are so burnt out with online learning that it won’t be very effective.”

“Student housing isn’t created to support online learning,” Bao added.

Disappointment about the return to online learning was not limited to students. Stanford faculty also expressed how much they enjoyed teaching in-person classes during the fall quarter. 

Jonathan Laxamana ’24 emphasized that the importance of in-person interaction is not limited to classes, but also to community-building and academic research. 

“​I felt a whole range of emotions — disappointment, confusion, and skepticism just to name a few,” Laxamana wrote in an email. “As someone who is deeply involved in on-campus communities, student organizations, and lab research, this announcement initially had me thinking about all the work I’ve already done these first couple of days of winter break and how difficult it would be to adjust.” 

While the University reaffirmed its plans to invite students back to campus for the winter quarter in the announcement, Laxamana said he still holds some doubts about Stanford’s response to COVID-19 and the Omicron variant. 

“Stanford administration has had issues in the past explicitly communicating their plans,” Laxamana wrote. “I wish administration would be more transparent with not only the students, but with our dorm staff and advisors who are also receiving a load of concerns from students.”

Andrea is a high school student working with the Daily's Winter Journalism Workshop.

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