After a year-long hiatus of in-person classes, students were finally welcomed back to campus in the fall with the intention of returning to the “traditional three-quarter academic calendar,” as the University touted. But just one quarter later, students are finding themselves back on Zoom — and many are struggling to stay focused and build community amid the online learning environment.
In December, the University announced that classes at Stanford would be online until Jan. 18, the beginning of week 3. But the message was soon followed by a Jan. 7 update, which stated that only graduate courses and undergraduate courses with lab components, design projects or performance-based requirements would return in person on Jan. 18, while all other classes would remain online until Jan. 24.
Students reported a range of reactions to the news of the prolonged online schedule. While some decided to come back to campus right after winter break, others lingered in the comfort of their homes — and regardless of their choice, many spent the beginning of the new year in isolation with COVID-19.
Lauren Selden ’23, a history major, is taking a course load composed entirely of seminar-style classes this quarter. Seminar-style classes are generally smaller in size and driven by student participation. For Selden, a difficult aspect of attending class via Zoom has been the missing social component.
“Last quarter, we had more of a definable group dynamic and we had conversations before and after class,” Selden explained, referencing the cohort of students in her Latin classes both this quarter and last quarter. “We had a group rapport, I guess, and then that mostly goes away on Zoom, which is really disappointing.”
The social component of in-person courses extends beyond the classroom, with many students taking advantage of the commute to and from class to socialize and explore campus. With Zoom instruction, Selden said she has observed more students remaining in their dorms and noticed fewer opportunities for interpersonal connection.
“That just makes me feel sort of closed off from the rest of the world,” Selden said.
But students still expressed an understanding toward the University’s policy of holding classes remotely for the beginning of the quarter.
“I think the online period has been super important, not to prevent contracting COVID in the classroom, but to allow people in isolation — of which there are hundreds, if not still over a thousand — to go to class without worrying about not being able to get academic accommodations,” Selden said.
Some students, like Kiana Hu ’23, have delayed their arrival to campus. Hu has been taking classes from her home in Richmond, California for the first two weeks of the quarter. In the fall, Hu took a few hybrid courses, including LINGUIST 1: “Introduction to Linguistics.” At the time, she considered the convenience factor of remote learning outweighed the potential drawbacks of online classes.
“The main thing that’s really nice about remote and Zoom is the scheduling,” Hu said. “That’s the biggest thing that encourages me to do meetings on Zoom. I still do [problem set] work with my CS partner [online].”
But Hu said that her experience in winter quarter has felt different and more distant — like a repeat of last year for many upperclassmen.
Though technically in her third academic year, Hu reflects on the fact that she only had two in-person quarters at Stanford before the fall, which has inherently had an impact on her experience with online learning.
“When I was at home doing classes, it felt like 2020-21 all over again,” Hu said.
Hu is currently enrolled in two lab-component courses, including ARCHLGY 1: “Introduction to Archaeology.” The uncertainty of lab work during omicron has been confusing for students like Hu to navigate.
“Archeology 1 has a ‘remote lab’ but I don’t really even know what that is or what that means,” Hu said.
But Hu said that online learning is not her greatest concern. More than anything, she hopes for in-person student activities to become lively once again, as she said that made the biggest positive difference in her Stanford experience this past fall.
“Even with hybrid classes, most things were in person, face to face,” Hu said. “The biggest difference last quarter was there was still stuff going on with extracurricular activities, it just felt like things were happening on campus.”
As the pandemic enters its third year of circulation, Hu said she would not be surprised if remote learning is around for the long-haul.
“[Stanford] already implemented the ‘extend by one week’ scenario,” Hu said. “There’s nothing indicating they might not do it again and again.” In an email sent to students on Jan. 11, Stanford reaffirmed its commitment to returning to in-person instruction on Jan. 24.
The rise of COVID-19 cases on campus has also caused students to adapt to changing living situations and, by extension, working conditions. In the Jan. 7 email sent to students, the University announced that some students rooming with someone who is COVID-positive may be asked to move out and find alternative accommodations, such as sleeping in a common space or a friend’s room.
For Camden Burk ’25, a resident of the all-frosh Crothers Hall, abruptly moving out of his dorm room after his roommate tested positive for COVID-19 added an additional challenge to adjusting to online classes. He had to minimize trips in and out of his room, until eventually moving in with a friend to avoid exposure to his roommate.
“I took what I could carry — my backpack and my laptop and folders —and just sort of left,” Burk explained. “It was a very quick and rapid change without too much opportunity to plan and be prepared.”
According to Burk, these arrangements can make it difficult to find a distraction-free work environment. Burk said that he finds it easier to concentrate when working in lounges and common spaces, but that it’s been increasingly difficult to use these spaces as study zones.
“I tend to go to lounges, but now lounges tend to be relocation centers for people whose roommate tested positive for COVID,” Burk said. “I’ve been doing a lot of my class in the new room, but that’s also not an ideal circumstance.”
Burk is nevertheless looking forward to what he hopes will be a safe return to in-person learning.
“I’m always going to be for in-person sessions, as long as it’s safe to do so,” said Burk. “So seeing that we’re, hopefully, again, going to be starting that soon — that gets me excited.”