Return of online learning leaves future uncertain, students divided

The Coral Gables campus at the University of Miami, which just announced it will hold classes exclusively online for the first two weeks of the upcoming spring semester. The switch comes as the Omicron COVID-19 variant continues to break records in Florida and beyond.
The Coral Gables campus at the University of Miami, which just announced it will hold classes exclusively online for the first two weeks of the upcoming spring semester. The switch comes as the Omicron COVID-19 variant continues to break records in Florida and beyond. Photo credit: Jared Lennon

Rahul Kumar, Jess Diez and Rachel Sullivan contributed to the reporting in this article.

The University of Miami is moving classes online for the first two weeks of the spring semester, President Julio Frenk announced in an email yesterday, joining over thirty U.S. universities in an effort to combat the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.

“From the start of the pandemic, we have implemented an adaptive and responsive approach to keep our community healthy,” Frenk said. “At this point in the trajectory of COVID-19, the virus has adapted, becoming more contagious with the Omicron variant. We must similarly adapt.”

The email was reminiscent of one sent by Frenk near the start of the pandemic on March 12, 2020, announcing that spring break would be extended one week and classes shifted online through April 4, 2020. Rising cases eventually led UM to extend its decision through the end of the semester.

“It’s a lot like March, but it’s under completely different circumstances,” said Kaitlyn Payne, a senior majoring in meteorology and geography. “We have a vaccine and we have all of these things to protect us.”

A sudden spike in cases on university, municipal, state and national levels has left in-person learning next semester and beyond in doubt.

From Dec. 13-16, the final days of the fall 2021 semester, 275 students tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the university dashboard, the highest total since Feb. 1-4, 2021.

In the past seven days, Florida has seen it’s record for daily COVID-19 case totals break four times, reaching a high watermark of 58,013 on Dec. 29, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In his email, Frenk announced changes to UM’s COVID-19 protocol, including updating the university definition of “fully vaccinated” to include only those that have received their booster shot and updating isolation and quarantine protocols in accordance with CDC guidelines.

Unvaccinated students, including those that have yet to receive a booster, will be required to undergo twice-weekly COVID testing.

Current university vaccination rates among students and faculty stand at 85.1% and 94%, respectively, with 4.59% of professors granted exemptions on medical or religious grounds, according to the university dashboard as of Dec. 30. The university has not yet updated the dashboard to represent students and faculty that have received their booster shots.

Universities across the country including Emory University in Georgia, New York University and Wake Forest University in North Carolina have responded to rising cases with vaccine and booster requirements for students.

Due to pushback from politicians like Gov. Ron Desantis, however, no Florida universities have instituted vaccination mandates, with the University of Miami instead opting for incentive programs and education campaigns, despite the state currently ranking sixth in per capita COVID-19 cases, according to the CDC.

In his latest email, Frenk again urged the UM community to receive their booster shots as quickly as possible.

“Evidence shows that vaccination — including boosters — significantly decreases the most dire consequences of the virus,” Frenk said. “Take this extra time to get your shots.”

The two-week postponement of in-person classes signals a major setback to the UM community’s hope for a return to normality, after the university consistently averaged one positive test result a day among students and faculty for most of October and all of November.

“I think it’s a reasonable and informed decision, especially if they’re just doing it for a short time like a couple weeks,” second-year medical student Jean Corvington said. “New variant or not, when you have people grouping in one centralized location after spending weeks out of state or abroad, you’re bound to see some new cases.”

Medical students in clinical rotations will be allowed to continue in their roles depending on the requirements of their host sites, something Corvington says he feels is necessary to adequately prepare for their time in the field.

“There needs to be a game plan to make sure med students are getting adequate, productive hours in the field while also staying safe from the virus,” Corvington said. “I think Miller has been doing it well so far and putting lives over financials.”

In addition to online learning, all residential students will be required to provide proof of a negative COVID test within 48 to 72 hours of returning to campus and undergo testing upon arrival in order to mitigate the risk of another outbreak.

Some students are worried that the switch online may hinder the quality of their education and limit their opportunities on campus.

“If it is necessary for the health of the students to go online, it is also necessary to change the fees and tuition to accommodate a college experience that is less than preferable,” said Colin Mader, a third-year graduate student and teaching assistant studying motion pictures.

No changes to university tuition have been announced as a result of COVID-19, online learning or limited facility access, with fees like the $163 “Wellness Center Fee” and the $167 activity fee remaining unaltered despite many students’ inability to take advantage of such services while studying remotely.

Dining hall services will be available to all students enrolled in meal programs but limited to takeout only, while residential students will be allowed to move in at any time during the remote-learning period, Frenk said in his email.

While COVID-19 variants may cause UM to switch between strictly online and in-person classes for the foreseeable future, sophomore biochemistry major Ajay Zheng proposes giving those paying tuition their choice of learning modality.

“I don’t think a complete shutdown is ideal,” Zheng said. “But I do agree with giving the option for online classes and allowing students to come to the undergraduate and medical campuses if they feel comfortable doing so.”