Following the UC’s announcement in January that it is planning for a return to in-person instruction next fall, UC Santa Barbara students and faculty have responded to the prospect of in-person instruction with feelings of both tentative hope and wariness.
UC President Michael V. Drake said that forecasts of the COVID-19 pandemic are optimistic for “a more normal on-campus experience” this coming fall. More specific plans will be announced by individual UC campuses as they continue to manage campus operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
While some are eagerly awaiting the return of in-person learning, others feel that expecting a return to business as usual is premature. Some UCSB students are disappointed with the university’s response to the pandemic, as well as their classmates’ continued participation in large gatherings and parties.
Second-year environmental studies major Hazel Johnson was playing on the UCSB women’s water polo team but recently quit, in part due because she was uncomfortable that practice was still held in person. Johnson said that practice for women’s water polo resumed last October on campus, though there are currently no scheduled games. Johnson was the only member of her team to opt out of in-person practice and choose to stay home for the season.
“I had a lot of frustration with the university’s response to the pandemic, particularly regarding athletics,” she said. “It doesn’t seem worth it to put lives at risk just for sports.”
For Johnson, the university’s athletics policy during the pandemic has reinforced her skepticism that the campus will not be able to open safely in person for fall.
Her feelings are shared by first-year pre-sociology major Luna Moreno, who moved into one of UCSB’s apartment villages this winter after spending Fall Quarter 2020 at home.
Moreno said she has rarely been to campus and avoids traveling to Isla Vista out of fear that people are not following public health guidelines.
“Just looking at the state we’ve been in the past year, it’s hard to hold onto the hope that everyone will cooperate with the safety guidelines and make the situation as easy as possible,” she said.
Despite her concerns, Moreno still hopes that a safe return to campus will be possible in the near future. “I’m a people person; I miss the face-to-face interaction,” Moreno said.
First-year biology major Shahir Saleheen said that he not only misses the general social interaction, but he also feels disconnected from UCSB because of remote learning.
“I have never stepped foot on campus, and I don’t really know what to associate with the school,” Saleheen said, having been at home for both the fall and winter quarters this school year. An in-person fall quarter would let him feel much more connected to the school, he said, and he looks forward to it with anticipation.
Fourth-year transfer student and sociology major Diana Alaberkyan has also missed the in-person social setting. Alaberkyan expects to graduate in Fall Quarter 2021, after having spent the majority of her final year at UCSB over Zoom.
“I like being in lecture, raising my hand and being face-to-face. Zoom has made it a lot harder to connect with professors,” she said.
Students may not have to contend with the barriers of remote learning for long, however. Only a handful of classes have been held in person this academic year, but more professors are inching closer to holding in-person classes.
Steven Gaulin, a professor in the anthropology department, has been teaching remotely since Summer Quarter 2020. However, come Spring Quarter 2021, he and his colleague Daniel Conroy-Beam, a professor in the Department of Psychology & Brain Sciences, will be conducting an in-person seminar called “Feathered Dinosaurs of UCSB.” The class will hold a weekly in-person field session to observe birds on campus.
The move toward in-person instruction, though outdoors, is still not possible without strict precautions.
Gaulin said he belongs to a high-risk group for COVID-19 and was able to get vaccinated on campus this month. He said the vaccine roll-out and opportunity to teach in person has given him a sense of optimism for this coming fall quarter, and he hopes to be able to return to the classroom environment under safer circumstances when he can.
“The university isn’t just making us go back into the classroom and put ourselves at risk, but are actually helping us get ready to return safely,” Gaulin said.
Though Gaulin’s outdoor seminar takes place next quarter, a limited number of outdoor courses have already been taking place.
Fourth-year environmental studies major Frances Harris took a restoration ecology course in Fall Quarter 2020 that included a weekly field course, in which she and a small group of students visited sites around UCSB and discussed restoration techniques.
Harris said she greatly enjoyed the opportunity for social interaction that the class offered her.
“I didn’t realize how much I appreciated and valued talking to strangers … I found myself excited to go to this class and speak to people I wouldn’t usually talk to under normal circumstances,” she said.
Despite the excitement of social interaction, Harris said she felt that her in-person course lacked proper instruction on safety protocols from the professor to make her feel safe from the virus.
“Something I found kind of odd is that [no professors] specifically told us to come with a mask,” Harris said. “I thought [the professors] would go over all their expectations and tell us to be COVID-safe and social distance, but there was no going over protocols.”
She noted that everyone in her class wore masks and practiced social distancing even without being told to do so by the professor, but still found it concerning that her professors didn’t review the university’s COVID-19 protocols.
“Maybe instruction was less clear because there were only a few labs and sections allowed to be back in person … hopefully next school year there will be more generalized precautions [given by professors] for all in-person classes, instead of just on a case-by-case basis,” Harris said.
The transition to in-person classes is being led by Jeffrey Stopple, assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate education and dean of undergraduate education. He has been helping faculty and staff develop new practices and transition safely to in-person instruction, he said. Professors and course instructors have been told that masks are mandated both on and off campus and that testing before all face-to-face instruction is required, according to Stopple.
“Currently, only lab, performance and field courses are allowed by Santa Barbara County Public Health … it’s largely a matter of ensuring classrooms are configured for social distancing, cleaned between uses, have appropriate ventilation and that entrances, exits, hallways, stairs and elevators are configured for one-way traffic,” Stopple said.
Regarding the safety of current in-person instruction, few students attending in-person classes have tested positive for COVID-19, and there has been no evidence of student-to-student transmission within the classes, he said. Even so, he said that faculty are being cautious in their planning.
“There are many uncertainties, from lack of vaccines to variants of COVID, that may force us to continue remote instruction,” he said.
Even with these uncertainties in mind, Stopple said he remains optimistic and expects that vaccines will be widely available in the fall for students, staff and faculty.
When asked if he was confident in UCSB’s ability to open in the fall, Stopple responded, “Yes, very much so.”