Degrees of anxiety: As college classrooms empty, students fear for educations, jobs


Students listen to a lecture during class at the University of Texas at Austin. Spencer Selvidge for The Texas Tribune

Classes are moving online. Students are moving out. Graduation ceremonies may be cancelled.

The changes wrought by the novel coronavirus for students at Texas colleges and universities won’t be fully known for months. But the outbreak has already thrown them into a state of anxious uncertainty as they grapple with a college experience now confined to laptops or rapidly emptying campuses.

Students are wondering what will happen to their jobs, whether they will get refunds for campus accoutrements they’ll no longer use and what remote classes will look like in equipment-heavy fields like art and chemistry.

“I've been trying to keep myself calm and just worry about things that I can control,” said Hira Ali, a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso, who is concerned remote classes will leave her ill-prepared for graduate school. “We'll see what happens and we'll try and figure it out from there.”

Ali is glad classes moved online; she’s worried about infecting her grandmother, with whom she lives. But she’s disappointed a conference she spent all semester planning has been canceled, and said she’ll miss in-person interactions with professors she wanted to ask for letters of recommendation.

Most of all, Ali hopes the virus won’t rob her of the chance to walk in UTEP’s commencement — a dream her mother held before she died.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” Ali said.

UTEP is one of dozens of colleges that announced last week it would extend spring break and move courses online in reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic now forcing entire European cities into partial lockdowns. At some universities, students are leaving, dormitories are shuttering and professors are quickly cobbling together virtual classes.

“It's very weird to think that Thursday when I was on campus to go to class … could very well be the last time I am on campus as a student,” said Jake Salinas, a senior at St. Edward’s University, in Austin, which has moved classes online until April 4 at least.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster Friday and cities across the state have canceled events and restricted large gatherings. As of Monday afternoon there were at least 69 cases in Texas, 3,927 in the United States, and at least two confirmed at Texas colleges — a staff member at Rice University and a student at the University of Texas at Arlington. (The Texas figure is based on data from the state and the federal Centers for Disease Control. There are likely more unconfirmed cases, given that there are examples of community spread and limited testing capacity.)

Many campuses say they’re sanitizing aggressively, and have restricted travel and canceled events, including sports games.

Similar measures are rippling across the country, as universities try to mitigate the risks posed by the large group settings and close living quarters that are foundational to many college experiences. Campuses on the west and east coasts were earlier to react. The University of Washington moved its 50,000 or so students to virtual classes in early March, and several New England universities, including Harvard, unexpectedly evicted students early last week — leaving international students and those without a stable home scrambling.

Texas universities have taken a more moderate approach. Rice and Trinity universities both asked students to move out within two weeks, and are offering refunds for campus housing, and letting people with nowhere to go petition to stay. Most campuses, though, are moving classes online — be it for a week, a month or the entire semester — and keeping their dormitories and dining halls open. It’s unclear if students who choose to leave those schools will be reimbursed for their housing, meal plans and parking permits.

That’s a concern for Juan Garcia, a third year mechanical engineering student at the University of North Texas. Originally from Houston, Garcia said he paid $1,900 last semester in charges that cover “transportation services, library fees, technology fees, gym fees and other stuff.”

“I feel like since they’re mandated by the school and we won’t be able to use those services for the second half of the semester, then UNT should refund students,” Garcia said.

Emilia Capuchino, another UNT student in Denton, has other questions: If classes go online, will it be harder for students to get birth control, anxiety pills and other medication filled at the campus pharmacy? What will her in-person classes look like through a computer screen?

Her friends have joked, “We paid for in-person classes but now we’re getting a University of Phoenix degree,” said Capuchino, a senior. She’s at least grateful the campus is staying open: She has a classmate whose permanent residence is “out in the country” without WiFi, who was worried about accessing online classes from there, she said.

(UNT and UTEP did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But UTEP’s website says that faculty should “work to reconfigure” classes that cannot be remotely delivered, like labs and performing arts courses.)

While many colleges already have online courses, they’re preparing to offer them on an unprecedented scale, leaving students and faculty alike wondering about the transition.

Some students have prosaic concerns about their professors’ technological capabilities, or the glitches and awkwardness that can accompany video conferencing with groups. Ali, the UTEP student, said one of her professors looked visibly stressed in class on Thursday, saying “I don’t know how this is going to work.”

But her biochemistry professor has already redone his syllabus, and held an in-person midterm scheduled for last week online, saying: “Look guys there's 200 of you in my class. I would rather be safe than sorry.”

Their new virtual reality has some students worried they’ll fall behind academically or won’t have the same experience learning chemistry or the performing arts in a largely online setting.

That’s the case for Claire Daily, a junior at Wayland Baptist University studying vocal performance.

“It's kind of chaos, especially in my department because a lot of our classes are ensemble performing and things that you'd have to do hands-on face to face,” like an opera class and choir, she said. Faculty have been working hard to find apps that students can use to record themselves, and administrators have been clear in setting expectations, Daily said. “But there's nothing like actual performance experience that will prepare me and my colleagues in my field.”

A Wayland Baptist University spokesman, Jonathan Petty, said "we understand some situations, such as students majoring in vocal or instrumental performance, provide additional challenges. But our faculty is more than willing to work with students to ensure their success both in the classroom and on the performance stage.”

Kathryn Wilbanks, a physics major at the University of Texas at Arlington, has been taking a physics course with a “predominantly circuits-based lab.”

“We're working with equipment that you can't easily get to do at home, right? It's not quite the extent of a chemistry lab where we're sitting there mixing chemicals, but it's not something that I could run down to the Ace Hardware, pick up a few circuits and try to build my own circuit,” said Wilbanks, 25.

“I understand why they're making the decision … Some of those classrooms, we've got over 100 kids sitting shoulder to shoulder, so it makes sense,” she said. “But as a student who prefers that traditional lecture learning style, I am a little bit worried about how that's gonna impact how I'm going to continue to perform for the rest of the semester,” especially with a lost week of instruction because of the extended break.

Jobs are also a major source of anxiety for students — like Wilbanks, who earns $13.70 an hour as a "supplemental instruction leader" at Tarrant Community College — who depend on them as a main source of income. Abbott announced Sunday night that he will waive regulations to ensure Texas students are paid for work-study programs despite the disruptions in campus activities. But students are still worried about the income they earn on the side, as the outbreak is prompting people to stay home and transforming how some businesses operate.

One student at Austin Community College, who asked not to be named because he feared losing his job there, said he’s received “no indication whatsoever” that he’ll have a job as a part-time tutor on the other side of the extended break.

Teachers have been told to prepare to move online, but he hasn’t seen an update for hourly employees beyond a notice encouraging them to reach out to their primary health care provider if they feel sick.

“Of course, as an hourly employee I don't get any benefits from school, I don't have health care providers, I don't have any health insurance,” he said. He’s capped at working 19 hours a week because more than that would “trigger" healthcare and other benefits, he said.

An older student who is studying to make a career change, he is relying on savings that have been depleted by going back to school full-time and thinks he'll run out by summer.

“I'm frantically looking for internships right now and hopefully I can convince one of them to start maybe a little bit earlier. I have something lined up for the summer but that's still two or three months away,” he said. For now, he’s stocked up on rice, beans and other supplies.

ACC's website says hourly employees' work schedules are determined by their supervisors, and that they may be able to make up hours or be reassigned tasks. School spokesperson Jessica Vess said several emails have been recently shared with employees — one of which she provided — and that the "college will do everything it can to ensure all employees and students experience as little disruption as possible to their work and academic lives."

"We recognize that this is a time of uncertainty for many and are working around the clock to provide as much information as possible to students and employees. Because the situation continues to evolve, the college's response also evolves," she said.

The ACC student is not the only one in that position.

Ali, the UTEP student, is also wondering if she’ll keep her job at the YWCA, where she works as an elementary school tutor after-school, teaching science and math. She’s paid based on students’ improvement, and has to submit report cards every four to six weeks.

“We're not turning in those report cards, we don't get grants,” she said. “How am I supposed to pay my credit card bill? I don't know, I don’t know.”

She also applied for a job going door to door for the U.S. Census to make some extra money. “I’m actually not sure how that’s going to work out either,” she said. “It’s tons of exposure.”

Emma Kramer, a student at Trinity, in San Antonio, is concerned not just for her campus jobs — but for the whole gamut of experiences she’ll now miss out on. The university asked students to move off-campus by noon Monday, and she’s now home with her parents, her brother and his girlfriend, and a sister who’s also taking online classes.

The house is small and the internet is “questionable.” She’s taking a chemistry class and another lab that she doesn’t know how will work online. She doesn’t know what’s happening to her job as a teaching assistant in a chemistry class, and her work-study position in the counseling center. She doesn’t know when she’s getting a refund back or her housing and meal plan, or if she’ll be reimbursed for campus services like the gym. She can’t play with her wind ensemble group.

“I am not upset with Trinity because I feel like it's probably a good idea to slow the spread of disease, but I'm very nervous about the quality of my education for this semester,” she said.

Tess Coody-Anders, vice president for strategic communications at Trinity, said students will receive reimbursement for housing, meal plans and other incidentals by April 10, and will receive a flat $10 rebate for parking.

The university will work individually with students in paid internship and summer research positions — as well as jobs, like Kramer’s — to help resolve their situations, and is “thinking very carefully about those unique classes like a studio art class or a lab.”

“Anything you were doing on campus, we're trying to find a way to do that off campus and remotely,” Coody-Anders said. They’ll also work with students facing barriers like lackluster internet.

“It is absolutely understandable that students are anxious and unsure, because this is all unfolding so rapidly. But if I were to give them one piece of advice, it would be to hang tight, ask questions of your advisor or residential life.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso Rice University, the University of North Texas, the University of Texas at Arlington and the Austin Community College District have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.