With safety protocols in place, the fall semester pressed on as the first full semester of courses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After going all online for the remainder of the spring semester, the option for a virtual format was offered for all classes in the fall semester due to COVID-19. This gave students the option to attend via Zoom at any point in the semester if they were sick or felt uncomfortable going to classes due to the pandemic.
Though the options were always changing, professors had to ensure they were giving attention to both students in class and on Zoom. Vice Provost of Academic Affairs & Strategic Initiatives Michael Stephenson, Ph.D., said the increase of in-person classes from the spring was decided by different colleges and specific departments.
“The increase in face-to-face courses was the result of some department heads and faculty who had expressed to the provost that it was difficult to teach two sets of students — those in the classroom and those attending online,” Stephenson said. “Some felt that it was challenging to keep both groups engaged during the entire class period.”
Stephenson said the number of Q-drops increased by about 50 percent during the spring semester, with an influx coming after the university announced they would not count Q-drops toward the maximum number allotted by Texas A&M and the state. He also noted there were fewer withdrawals for the semester. Stephenson said there is no data to show if the change of educational platforms caused an increased number of Q-drops and failures.
“I’ve heard from both faculty and students that this was one of the best semesters they’ve had and I’ve heard from another set who indicated it didn’t go very well,” Stephenson said.
Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics assistant professor Angela Clendenin said the university discovered during the spring semester that some classes could easily be delivered online while others were more difficult.
“Even college students that are perceived as being young and flexible — we all need something that we can grasp on to that sense of normalcy,” Clendenin said.
Clendenin said some of the challenges for professors with a face-to-face option was the weeks without seeing any students and learning to cater to the virtual students.
“I think that it forced the faculty to be creative and to look at the ways that we were approaching our teaching while trying to engage a classroom with both types of students [face-to-face and Zoom] in it,” Clendenin said. “It was challenging and I think that it helped us all grow professionally to some extent.”
Department of Health and Kinesiology professor Paul Keiper, Ph.D., said in a class like his Olympic Studies course, it was important to have discussion and interaction among himself and students. With a discussion-based class, Keiper said he encouraged students to come in person if they could and if not, to participate in discussions via Zoom. He said these discussions are vital to his curriculum.
“It was hard at first with the two different options, if you’re in class and talking to the in-class people, you don’t want to forget about the Zoom people,” Keiper said.
Keiper said one thing he missed was getting to learn and recognize people by face and name, which he always strived to do by midterms. Not only did the hybrid class make this more difficult, but with the protocol of wearing a mask he never really saw the students’ faces.
“I might need to do things like smaller assignments where I get to know the students better but I am going to try and make it an experience where it is not like a split class thing,” Keiper said.
Keiper said going forward he may change a few things he has learned over the course of this semester for the spring. These adaptations have helped with a hybrid class and have helped to promote discussion in his classes. One thing Keiper said he didn’t mind for the future was the idea of people using Zoom when they truly cannot make it to class to stay connected with the course.
“You have to figure out ways to find positive things and to find hope to make it more successful,” Keiper said. “I know that there are some good things that have come from this technology thing and what can we take from this that has been good and take it moving forward.”
Clendenin said working with contact tracing through the cases reported to the university, there were no reports of cases that were spread through face-to-face classes. She said this was vital when looking at staying in-person the entire semester.
“When you look at how big our campus [is], how many students came to class, even if they didn’t come to class but they may have come back and been moving around in the community, I think that we did a good job given what we were facing,” Clendenin said. “We continue to evaluate where we are as a university and continue to find new and innovative ways to deliver the education that we are known for but also while keeping everyone safe.”
Looking forward to the spring semester, there will be an increase of in-person classes as well as some electives offered only face-to-face. Though more classes will be offered online, it is important everyone continues to follow the safety measures set forth by the university, Stephenson said.
“COVID[-19] fatigue is our biggest challenge moving forward,” Stephenson said.
Though this semester looked different with some Aggie students residing not in College Station, administrators and professors said they tried to keep the high educational level of A&M the same.
“As I look back on everything, I look at how everybody came together and worked through it,” Keiper said. “I didn’t really think about it during the time but looking back with the way that IT people, facilities people, everybody in the departments and administration came together, I really have to give a shout out to that.”