Story by CHANDLER HOLT
The University of Utah had to change many things about the 2020-21 school year to account for the COVID-19 pandemic just like thousands of other colleges around the United States. Whether it was cancelling the majority of in-person classes or changing hours for many spots on campus where students can shop or eat, the student experience had to be altered coming into the school year to make sure that all students could attend college without contracting the virus and putting others at risk.
COVID-19 made itself prevalent at the beginning of 2020 and has turned into a worldwide pandemic with over 225,000 fatalities in the United States alone. Some colleges such as University of Colorado Boulder and the University of North Carolina did not put enough restrictions in effect and had to add additional more-intense precautions after the schools had large COVID-19 outbreaks.
The University of Utah emailed all students in September 2020 letting them know that the college had only a 0.5% positivity rate through the first month on campus. This translates to only 16 positive cases with over 3,000 people living on campus for the year. This number was one of the lowest in the U.S. among other Division 1 colleges. Despite a spike of positive COVID-19 cases in the Salt Lake Valley in November, the U has altered procedures as necessary and kept cases on campus as low as possible.
Craig Caldwell, a professor in the Department of Film and Media Arts, said he had never seen anything like the COVID-19 pandemic in his 40 years of teaching. He said in a Zoom interview that many smaller disasters had occurred but nothing to the level where “students can’t interact.” Caldwell said he felt the U had done a tremendous job handling COVID-19 and he would give them a grade of “one thousand percent.”
Cameron Vakilian, an academic advisor in the Department of Communication, shared a similar answer to Caldwell and agreed that he had never seen a calamity on this level where drastic changes had to be made to ensure the safety of every student on campus. Vakilian added in a Zoom interview that the only disaster in recent memory that brought a similar amount of distress was the murder of Lauren McCluskey that occurred on campus. McCluskey was a student athlete who was majoring in communication, which adds to the devastation that Vakilian as well as so many others felt after her death.
Vakilian said the U has done a tremendous job handling the COVID-19 pandemic and said the university has taken the situation very seriously. He added that it is very hard to lock down a campus and a lot goes into it, but the U did it for the safety of everyone on campus. The U also has an effect on the rest of the Salt Lake Valley based on its response to COVID-19 just due its proximity. With this being said, it can be inferred that all the surrounding cities benefitted from the U handling COVID-19 so well.
Hayley Kievman, a graduate student who also teaches an anthropology course, compared the distress from COVID-19 to the distress a hurricane would bring to a small island. Despite it being her first year teaching a course, Kievman said in a Zoom interview that she definitely noticed a difference in how professors/teachers can interact with students. She described continuous virtual meetings and classes as “awkward.” She has experience teaching younger students so that is what she based this observation on. Kievman was also quick to point out that she has seen a large dip in student participation and student focus as well.
All three individuals said the biggest change to their work life brought on by COVID-19 was the majority of work being moved online. They also agreed it was more convenient to talk with students, but it wasn’t as personable and maybe not as effective in terms of building, or establishing, rapport.
Caldwell brought up that body language is a very key part of communication and it’s very hard to read body language over the internet or through a webcam. Caldwell, an all-online professor even before the COVID-19 pandemic, explained that he saw way more changes in his job than he expected despite being strictly online.
In conclusion, the U rose above the criticism and put in a large variety of rules to combat COVID-19. These rules promote social distancing and being educated on how to avoid contracting the virus. The U should be admired and studied by other colleges in the U.S. on how to deal with the pandemic. All rules that were changed in response to COVID-19 will be re-evaluated at the end of the semester to see if any changes can be moved back or slightly altered for the students’ sake.