SALT LAKE CITY — Quinn Stagg, 21, was enjoying spring break in Mission Beach, California, when he heard the news that University of Utah classes would be transitioning to online instruction starting March 18.
The college junior, from Mountain Green, Morgan County, was anticipating the change as one by one, schools across the country bowed to concerns surrounding COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus. With two of his classes already online, Stagg wasn’t too concerned about making the switch to remote learning. The bigger uncertainty was what would happen with his fraternity brothers living in the Pi Kappa Alpha house near campus.
As all Utah colleges have now suspended in-person classes, students across the state are packing up their belongings and heading home, or adjusting to life in dorms that are eerily quiet. Professors are figuring out how to teach classes, which normally require in-person discussion or hands-on learning, via the internet. And administrators are continuously updating rules for facilities and events based on daily news releases, the latest of which came Monday when President Donald Trump advised all Americans to avoid groups of more than 10.
Stagg, Pi Kappa Alpha’s president, returned to the gray two-story house decorated with red and gold painted greek letters on Saturday and almost immediately started making plans to leave. Most of the 15 men who currently live at the house are planning to head home to their families within the week, saying goodbye to spring hangouts on the turf-lined roof deck and barbecues on the front porch. For them, the coronavirus precautions are affecting more than just academics as the social fabric that has defined their college experience quickly unravels.
“The fraternity is a huge part of my life right now,” Stagg said. “Seeing everything slow down and come to a grinding halt in a matter of days has been hard.”
“It’s bittersweet to say goodbye,” he added.
Another Pi Kappa Alpha member, Beck Berrett, 20, said he plans to stay at home with his family in Holladay and hunker down on academics in the coming weeks, although he is unsure of exactly how that will work for some of his classes.
“I think everyone’s just gonna be taking the necessary precautions, and I’m just happy to see we’re all on the same page,” said Berrett, a sophomore studying business administration. “Social life all around is gonna be pretty much on hold until things finally get figured out, but if anything it’s a good chance to just keep grinding on school work.”
School work from a distance
Exactly how professors will teach students from afar remains to be determined at many Utah colleges and universities. While schools like Salt Lake Community College, Utah Valley University and Dixie State University are currently in the middle of their spring breaks, schools including the University of Utah, Brigham Young University, Utah State University, Weber State University, Westminster College and Snow College have canceled classes for the next few days in order to give teachers and administrators time to sort out plans for the coming weeks.
Large lecture classes may easily transfer to an online model using video conferencing software like Zoom, but classes that involve in-person participation such as discussion, lab work or machine operation will require more creative adaptations.
Clinton King, manager for the organic chemistry teaching lab at Utah Valley University, said the semester’s remaining lab assignments will be canceled as there are only three weeks of classes left and students have already completed the majority of their coursework. For the upcoming summer term, department leaders are considering a variety of options including ordering kits for home-based experiments, using services like Labster that offer virtual lab simulations, or having instructors perform walk-throughs of laboratory experiments while filming every step using something like a GoPro.
At Salt Lake Community College, administrators are working through plans for technical specialty classes in subjects like automotive technology, diesel technology, manufacturing, welding, machining and fabrication, said Joy Tlou, the college’s director of public relations.
While no final decisions have been announced, Tlou said the classes may continue on a modified schedule where students can practice social distancing and come in one by one or in small groups, for example.
“I don’t have details, but that might be part of the solution,” Tlou said. “We want students to be safe and healthy as well as successful academically.”
At Westminster College’s flight school, there is no substitute for flying practice. But Brad McQueen, the aviation division chair, said he hopes one-on-one instruction at the Salt Lake City Airport will be able to continue with some additional precautions.
“We are working with risk management and will see how things develop this week,” he said.
It’s not just technical classes that risk losing something by going digital however.
Katie Koford, 22, a junior who is majoring in English at the University of Utah, is worried that the discussion atmosphere that is central to so many of her classes will be hard to replicate.
“I’m little nervous about how that will go on Wednesday,” Koford said. “Is the best way to go about it having some sort of video chat discussion? Or just having everyone post and be online at the same time? I haven’t heard yet which is happening.”
School policies regarding facilities, on campus housing and resources for students are also in flux.
As of Monday, the state’s major universities including Utah Valley University, the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Utah State University, were keeping facilities such as libraries open and allowing students to remain in on-campus housing, even though in-person classes are no longer being held.
Many schools are also offering resources for students who are struggling emotionally and financially. For example, Utah Valley University is directing students towards its Coordinated Access to Resources and Education program for help with food, health, housing and safety. Salt Lake Community College will maintain its counseling center as well as the Bruin food pantry, where students can pick up food including canned and dry goods as well as perishable items like fruits and vegetables, said Tlou.
“We hope that people are able to make the shift to remote learning effectively and thoughtfully, but we have to be flexible in all of this,” Tlou said.
Students like Scott Boswell, a 25-year-old senior majoring in accounting at BYU, are trying to remain positive, despite the fact that events like graduation and a regional accounting conference he was planning to attend in Denver have been canceled.
“It’s a disappointment, but it’s understandable too,” said Boswell, who was looking forward to the networking opportunities at the Denver function.
Like the members of Pi Kappa Alpha at the University of Utah, Boswell is also going to miss the social aspect of school, although he thinks he will stay in contact with classmates through group projects.
“I am really close with a lot of my peers and we still communicate a lot,” he said. “I think we will adapt.”
For Mercedes Brown, a 22-year-old senior majoring in gender studies at the University of Utah, the potential that her graduation could be canceled or postponed is more than disappointing, it’s “devastating.”
“I’m trying to have a good attitude and keep my head above it,” Brown said. “I’ve gone to school for the last four years and it’s been super hard. There have been so many times that I wanted to drop out, and I’ve had to deal with the financial burden of it. And now the one thing that I had to celebrate it could be gone.”
“I feel like that’s dramatic, but this is definitely not how I wanted my senior year to end,” she said.
Stagg is taking comfort in the fact that he is a junior and still has one more year left on campus. On Monday evening, he was hanging out with friends at the house one last time before he heads home to Mountain Green.
In addition to parties, exchanges with sororities and date nights that were planned for March and April, Stagg said Pi Kappa Alpha will have to forgo philanthropy week, its biggest spring event where members raise money for Camp Hobé, a program for kids with cancer.
“It’s disappointing,” Stagg said. “But it’s nice to know I have another year. For the graduating seniors, it’s a huge bummer because they don’t get to spend their last semester the way they expected.”