President Joe Biden declared that completely reopening all schools in fall 2021 was “essential” back in August of 2021. Throughout the course of the pandemic, parents of K-12 students have become more concerned with their childrens’ academic status and emotional well-being than with the risk of students and teachers contracting and spreading COVID-19. These concerns are valid, especially for children in their formative years; however, safety should always be the first priority. Biden’s statement and parents’ mindset shift reflect the American society’s understandable desire to return back to normalcy. But, in reality, our pre-COVID-19 way of life can never be recovered.
Many employees are accustomed to being expected to work at an on-site office, but working from home has boomed in popularity since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schedule flexibility is now one of the top factors in employee retention. Industries like grocery delivery and telehealthcare are here to stay, as well. From this point onwards, American individuals possess more options to customize their lives than any generation. Industries are shifting to recognize the clear demand for more virtual goods and services, and the field of education should be next.
In fact, the concept of online education is relatively old in comparison to these newer movements. The University of Phoenix instituted the first online degree program in 1989, and online universities have become more prevalent since then, with universities such as Southern New Hampshire University and Capella University being founded soon after. The main benefits of attending classes in person are increased interactions with classmates and instructors and arguably a better learning environment. A survey of about 13,500 college students in July of 2020 showed that students taking online classes were most concerned with maintaining engagement in their learning. Some may be concerned that online school is too easy to cheat in, or that students will lose out on the true school experience if they opt for online classes. These are valid criticisms, but online learning also offers safety and unparalleled convenience. To mitigate the impact of cheating, for instance, instructors can utilize proctoring services like ProctorU and modify their tests by including more free-response questions.
UC Irvine resumed in-person classes on Jan. 31, early in the winter quarter. As soon as the decision was announced on Jan. 21, it was already clear that UCI made the choice based on an artificial need for in-person instruction. Almost immediately, ASUCI and Associated Graduate Students (AGS) responded with a joint statement that asserted they were never consulted preceding UCI’s decision, contrary to what UCI published in their statement. UCI’s navigation of this situation turned into a massive scandal, and they were rightfully criticized for being inconsiderate of the safety of their students and faculty, not providing statistics that support their decision to restart in-person learning, and lying about having discussions with student government. Following up with this criticism, UCI administration has since privately apologized to student leadership.
In an email to students regarding the upcoming spring quarter, UCI projected that fully online courses will be “extremely limited,” and that the vast majority of courses will be taught “in-person.” The email specifies that those who register or have registered with the Disability Services Center to obtain “approved accommodations” will have access to their accommodations. This makes learning more accessible to UCI students, but UCI still needs to take more action to increase accessibility.
As the full return to in-person instruction during spring quarter approaches us, UCI should be prioritizing flexibility as every student has differing priorities and living situations at the moment. For example, UCI has a large proportion of students who commute to campus, and they will be expected to fully attend in-person classes in the midst of soaring gas prices. Students may be immunocompromised, or in close contact with someone who is. A hybrid option should be offered if it is feasible, but unfortunately, not every professor is willing to do this. Pressuring students to attend classes in person is unprofessional, dangerous and unnecessary. We’re old enough to decide whether we want to learn in the classroom or not.
The argument isn’t that everyone should go to school virtually; it’s that everybody should be able to choose the option they want. Through this pandemic, we have already proven that in-person school is not necessary, and to an extent, it never was.
Daniel Waters is an Opinion Intern for the 2022 winter quarter. He can be reached at email@example.com.