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The Challenges Of Online-Only Classes During Coronavirus Outbreak


Ohio State, Harvard and Duke - just some of the more than 100 universities across the country that have canceled in-person classes because of the coronavirus, and then moved those classes online. Some colleges are telling students to just pack up and go home. That's not the case at all schools, though. Paige Pfleger of member station WOSU in Ohio reports.

PAIGE PFLEGER, BYLINE: Every day for the past week, colleges and universities around the country have made the announcement. In-person classes are canceled due to fears over the spreading coronavirus. Lecture halls will be empty, labs closed, concerts canceled, sports practices called off. All classes will move online.

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 like Karen Costa.

KAREN COSTA: I think, like many folks, there's been a lot of shock and stress on a personal and professional level. 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?

PFLEGER: Costa has been fielding questions on Twitter, giving webinars online, uploading YouTube tutorials all in hopes of easing this transition, which she admits is less than ideal.

COSTA: To ask somebody 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. And we're trying to do it overnight.

PFLEGER: She's spoken with professors who don't have staff or online systems in place to support this shift. And she 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. Ohio State senior Cartier Pitts says if she wanted to go to an online university, she would have enrolled in one.

CARTIER PITTS: I'm worried about classes being canceled physically because me and virtual online learning, like, does not get along. Like, (laughter) I don't like learning online. So it's going to be a rough two weeks.

PFLEGER: And much longer than two weeks for some schools. Pitts worries these changes could keep her from graduating on time. And the move has raised other critical questions about campus life. Just how safe is it to have students on campus at all?

ANDREW PAVIA: 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, 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 spread of viruses in that setting pretty high likelihood.

PFLEGER: Andrew Pavia is the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah. He says spaces like 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.

PAVIA: Big difference with cruise ships is that they tend to have a lot of very vulnerable people. The population in 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.

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

For NPR News, I'm Paige Pfleger in Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLEEPDEALER'S "ASTORIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Paige Pfleger