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The Coronavirus Outbreak And The Challenges Of Online-Only Classes

Ohio State University suspended in-person classes through March 30.
Angie Wang
Ohio State University suspended in-person classes through March 30.

Every day for the past week, colleges and universities around the country have made the announcement: in-person classes are cancelled due to fears over the spreading coronavirus.

Ohio State. Harvard. University of Virginia. University of Michigan. Duke. These are just some of the more than 100 universities across the country that are moving classes online.

Lecture halls will be empty. Labs closed. Concerts cancelled. Sports practices called off. Some universities are asking students to go home early for spring break, and if on break now, not to return to campus at all.

A massive shift like this is unprecedented in higher education. It's led to an onslaught of questions for online learning specialists such as Karen Costa.

"I think like many folks there has been a lot of shock and stress on a personal and professional level," Costa says. "My first instinct after that initial shock was how can we get our students and faculty the support that they need to navigate this crisis?"

She has been fielding questions on twitter, giving webinars online, and uploading youtube tutorials, all in hopes of easing this transition — which she admits is less than ideal.

"To ask someone to go from a land based course to an online course without any previous online teaching experience is a huge ask and it's not something that can be done overnight," Costa says. "And we're trying to do it overnight."

She has spoken with professors who don't have staff or online systems in place to support the shift.

And Costa worries about the digital divide: if students aren't allowed back on campus some may not have access to reliable internet. As a result, students might drop out.

And online learning isn't for everyone.

"I'm worried about classes being cancelled physically, because me and virtual online learning does not get along," says Ohio State senior Cartier Pitts. "I don't like learning online so it's going to be a rough two weeks."

And much longer than two weeks for some schools. Pitts worries these changes could keep her from graduating on time.

The move has raised other critical questions about campus life: Just how safe is it to have students on campus at all?

"It's worth first thinking about people of college age they are not at great risk of getting severely ill with the virus that causes COVID-19," says Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the university of Utah. "But they can act as tremendous amplifiers of the epidemic. And the behaviors that young people have in college: spending a lot of time close together, intimate contact, sharing food and drink, make the the spread of viruses in that setting a pretty high liklihood."

Pavia says spaces such as dormitories and cafeterias are indeed high-risk environments, but because of the population living there, they're not as risky as, say, a cruise ship.

"Big difference with cruise ships is they tend to have a lot of very vulnerable people," he says. "The population on cruise ships tends to be older and sicker. So you don't have that problem in college dorms. But it is a concrete living setting where it's a lot harder to do good infection control."

But he says evicting students from their dorms altogether carries its own set of risks: some of the students may not have anywhere else to go.

Copyright 2020 WOSU 89.7 NPR News

Paige Pfleger is a reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.