The entire world was holding its breath when the COVID-19 pandemic escalated in March 2020, followed by a nervous exhale as schools and colleges across the nation began to announce plans to return in the fall, claiming to adapt to the so-called “new normal.”
Pens turned into keyboards, welcoming hellos turned into smiling eyes and a mask, and attendance turned into names on a digital list, punctuated by muted mics and turned off webcams.
Several months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, The University of Texas at Tyler made the decision to have students return in the fall, citing numerous new rules and restrictions such as required mask usage in university buildings, social distancing, and the widespread transition to many online and hybrid courses.
“I thought it was a good idea for us to be flexible,” Biology lecturer Jessica Coleman said. “To try and figure out what was best for the students and at the same time try and figure out ways to be safe.”
Though UT Tyler administration urged students to read the Procedures for Fall 2020 Return to Normal Operations before returning to campus, students like Junior Biochemistry major Kendall Phillips still expressed initial confusion of the format her specific classes were to be held in.
“I didn’t feel that they were very clear,” Phillips said. “I didn’t know how I would be affected or how each college [within the university] would be affected. The school could have been more coordinated in distributing that information.”
After a relatively successful return back to campus in late August, students began to adapt the foreign dynamic, but not without some difficulty.
“Things are a bit more organized now than they first were,” Phillips said. “But I still had professors not knowing what they were doing until the weekend before classes started, which was really stressful because I didn’t know if I was gonna be hybrid or online.”
Professors were forced to quickly adapt during the pandemic, and alter the ways in which they manage their classrooms.
“I think this is a new normal,” Coleman said. “I think that all teachers are kind of in the same boat. It’s forcing us to kind of reevaluate how we teach and how we structure things and do better.”
Due to the onslaught of changes, the online format has proved to be a difficult vessel in truly grasping concepts and information.
“To me when I’m just watching stuff on zoom or online, it doesn’t feel as real to me,” Phillips said. “I struggle with retaining information and motivating myself to watch the Zoom or the videos just because it doesn’t feel like a real class.”
Despite the lack of necessary class time and ability to converse face to face for extended periods of time, educators are attempting to maintain student interest in the curriculum.
“It does change the dynamic,” Coleman said. “I’m not able to do group projects like I normally do but I’m trying to find new ways of being engaging.”
The familiar buzz and dynamic of the UT Tyler campus has been silenced, and it’s a silence that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the student population.
“The college experience to me is making friends, finding out who you are as a person, and finding different groups of people,” Phillips said. “Like experiencing the world outside of your hometown, and we’re not getting that experience anymore.”
Unable to extensively interact with friends, breathe freely in buildings, and learn in-person, Phillips expressed yearning for a singular decision that she could control.
“I wish that we would have been given the choice to do completely online if we wanted to,” Phillips said. “I feel that having the professors decide for their own classes is great for them but for us as students we kind of just have to sit back and wait for them to decide and we don’t have a choice in what we want to do or how we feel safe.”
Due to the nature of the pandemic, isolation is a necessary precaution, but a precaution that can also eventually cause harm.
“People are just being isolated and I feel like that’s going to lead to bad mental health,” Phillips said. “Like me personally, I feel like I’m not getting that experience. I feel that if we do end up finishing up this semester, like if there are no outbreaks on campus, I feel that my mental health won’t be that great because I’ll be so isolated.
Despite the looming fears and experiences of isolation, there are numerous methods of coping, one of which being contacting your professors.
“[Students need to be] finding ways of engaging on an online platform,” Coleman said. “[They] don’t need to be afraid to reach out, especially in coursework. The faculty are here for them with whatever they need. We’re not bothered to have an email just saying, ‘Hey I’m struggling. What can we do?’ The faculty are here for [the students] even in these trying times.”
If you or someone you know needs someone to talk to, feel free to contact the UT Tyler Counseling Center at their 24/7 Crisis Line: 903.566.7254.