Earlier this year, the University of California announced its intent to reopen all nine campuses and allow in-person classes this upcoming quarter. This is exciting news, but an increase in COVID-19 cases over the past month in Santa Barbara County combined with the overall fear surrounding the delta variant and potential breakout cases among the vaccinated population have many students concerned over whether it is truly safe to return to campus. Additionally, there are valid concerns such as a lack of available housing for students and the fear that areas with high concentrations of students, such as large lecture halls and dorms, could allow the virus to rapidly spread.
However, there is also a significant amount of risk in continuing with an entirely online model. This past year, students’ academic progress and mental health have been deeply harmed from the lack of in-person instruction. Online classes are significantly less effective at teaching students than in-person instruction, in addition to increasing stress and anxiety, according to a study done by McKinsey and Company. While the impending reopening of campuses does not mean that the pandemic is over, the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 has also decreased thanks to the highly effective vaccines. Therefore, I believe UC Santa Barbara should continue with some model of in-person classes for this upcoming year.
While many professors have worked to make online classes as engaging and impactful as possible, the reality is that Zoom sessions are not an adequate substitute for in-person instruction. During Zoom lectures I struggled to focus and remain engaged in the content of the lectures. From having my camera on to the awkwardness of breakout rooms, Zoom lectures also made me anxious. I would stare at myself on the computer screen and think: Is my posture straight enough? Is my room’s lighting too dim? Or is it too bright? I should’ve gotten that haircut, my hair is a mess. Ew, is that a pimple on my chin?
At the end of an hour-long meeting my eyes would become strained and tired, and mentally I felt like I hadn’t slept in days. Afterward, the task of writing a paper before my next meeting felt even more daunting. At the end of the quarter I felt burnt out and didn’t feel like I had learned much of anything. And, it turns out, there is scientific evidence to back up the idea of “Zoom Fatigue.” As I completed my classes, there was a lingering fear that my grandma or grandpa or other loved ones could get sick, which made it even more difficult to focus.
I am looking forward to returning to campus this fall, however, I still believe we have a responsibility to each other to make campus as safe as possible.
This sums up my experience with online learning, and maybe others can relate to it. Indeed, surveys have found a widespread decline in mental health and increased stress as a result of the pandemic. A study by the American Psychiatric Association showed widespread increase in stress during the pandemic, and Gen Z adults (aged 18-23) reported the largest amount of stress out of any age group. Notably, 87% of Gen Z adults in college cited their education as a significant source of stress.
This has regrettably led to an increased rate of depression and suicide among the youth population. Today, it is more important than ever to recognize and destigmatize conversations about mental health and talk about the rising cases of depression and anxiety among young adults. Many of us lost loved ones this past year — many of us felt isolated, scared and hopeless. Many worried about their futures and what a future after COVID-19 would even look like. We need to let our friends experiencing trauma know it’s okay to seek professional help if they want to. We need a strong support group of friends and a strong sense of community more than ever. We need to create an environment on campus where students can go to class and socialize with their friends and peers in the safest way possible.
There are also various ways to mitigate the risk of contracting COVID-19 for ourselves and others. Vaccines and masks are powerful tools to combat the spread of the virus. While breakout cases among vaccinated individuals are often highlighted by the news, they are exceptionally rare — a study found the Pfizer vaccine to be 88% effective against the new delta variant with the other vaccines showing similar results. Those who get sick also have a smaller risk of hospitalization as the vaccinated group accounts for only 3% of hospitalizations and 1% of deaths according to Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
Fortunately, UCSB is already requiring that all students receive the vaccine (with very limited exceptions) and requiring everyone to wear masks while indoors. I believe these measures will be effective in mitigating the risk of COVID-19 and help us return to campus safely. A hybrid model with a remote option should also be considered for students who feel unsafe or are unable to find housing in Isla Vista, but it is still unknown if UCSB is considering this option.
I am looking forward to returning to campus this fall, however, I still believe we have a responsibility to each other to make campus as safe as possible. I encourage everybody to get vaccinated (if you aren’t already), continue wearing masks and encourage your friends and family to do the same. Together we can create a safe environment on campus.
Nathaniel Ramirez is excited to attend classes in-person and hopes we can all have a safe return to campus this fall.
A version of this article appeared on p. 18 of the Aug. 26, 2021 print edition of the Daily Nexus.