Lack of Guidance Leaves Columbia Students and Professors Unsure About The Fall

By Lucas Brady Woods

Columbia University’s administration has yet to announce whether it will hold fall classes in-person or remotely due to pandemic concerns, leaving students and professors unsure about how they should be preparing for the upcoming academic year.

University President Lee Bollinger said in a statement a few days ago that he will update the public this coming week about the school’s fall semester plans. But the administration previously said its plan would be announced on July 1, which came and went with no communication, according to multiple students and faculty members. The delay is not unique to Columbia — other New York City campuses like NYU and CUNY have also not given out detailed plans yet.

Last month, Bollinger said the university’s plan will more fully utilize the three-term academic year, which includes the customary fall and spring semesters, plus an expanded summer term. According to an email Bollinger sent to the Columbia community, this will “make as much in-person instruction and campus life possible as conditions allow.”

But without guidance from university leadership on course format, students and professors say they’re unsure what kind of classes they should be preparing for and where they should plan to live. In the absence of a clear directive with about two months until the academic year starts, most of the people who spoke to West Side Rag are operating under the assumption that classes will primarily be remote.

Some students say the communication they have received from university leadership so far has been ineffective. Nada Zohayr, a rising senior at Columbia College studying political science and anthropology, says the administration has sent emails to students regarding the pandemic, but that the messages haven’t included any concrete plans or actionable guidance.

“As of now we have no idea what’s happening,” she said. “It’s definitely a bit nerve-wracking. We’re all just anxiously waiting for the administration’s response.”

If she does go back to campus for fall classes, Zohayr says she’s worried about having to then leave on short notice in the event of a surge in COVID-19 cases, which is exactly what she says happened in the spring when the pandemic first hit New York City.

Another undergrad, Sofia Garcia George, said that even if the university comes up with a plan to hold classes in-person, she would not feel safe attending them. She says she’s considering taking a year off from school so that she can keep her distance from campus.

On top of the concerns facing American students like Zohayr and George, the uncertainty about the university’s fall plan is creating additional challenges for international students. Joanna Lee is a PHD student from Singapore, and says the plan to format classes in-person or remotely determines many decisions that international students have to make in the coming weeks.

“For international students, that means: Do I go back to my home country or not?” she said. “Personally, I’m worried about going back home and not being able to come back. I have a partner in the states.”

Lee says that in the current travel climate, which includes recent Trump administration immigration restrictions and those put in place by foreign countries, she’s afraid of losing her ability to reenter the United States if she leaves, even to visit family.

Columbia professors are facing similar uncertainties. In lieu of specific guidance, some are going ahead with preparations for remote teaching.

Ying Qian is a professor in the East Asian Languages and Cultures Department. She thinks in-person classes in the fall would be too dangerous for students, faculty and staff, so she’s trying to embrace whatever opportunities that remote learning creates.

“I was thinking how we could design a class so that it will take advantage of the students being embedded at home and in their local communities,” Qian said.

She plans to incorporate assignments like oral histories or social research projects to connect students’ local communities to the class material. But she also says, despite the few interesting opportunities it creates, remote learning simply can’t match the effectiveness of in-person instruction.

Frederick Paerels is a professor of astronomy and the director of undergraduate astronomy studies at Columbia. He also says that he’s able to clarify material for students and connect with them more effectively through in-person learning.

Each year, Paerels teaches a number of courses, including large lectures for undergraduates. He’s concerned that the effectiveness of the lecture format will especially suffer due to the large number of students on a remote platform. Drawing from his experience in the spring semester, he says it will be more difficult to engage students in the subject matter during a remote discussion as opposed to hashing out a concept in person. Paerels, like Qian, is also planning to adapt classes to remote learning, but he’s working explicitly to foster connections with students online.

At the end of the day, Paerels worries about the pandemic’s effect on students’ mental health. He wants them to remember that these are not normal times, and that the university and the world will eventually return to some form of normalcy.

“It’s not like you’re watching a sci-fi movie and it will never end,” he said. “It will get back to something you recognize before all of this happened.”

Paerels says remote instruction isn’t as bad as he expected, and that it has worked so far for him and his students. In spite of all the tragedy brought by the pandemic, he says he remains optimistic about the future and wants to remind his students that it’s important for them to have hope going forward.

NEWS, SCHOOLS | 7 comments | permalink
    1. nycityny says:

      Not mentioned in the article is the potential risk to older professors. A classroom full of young asymptomatic superspreaders can be a dangerous situation for an instructor many decades older than his/her students.

      In other states the recent outbreaks have included a high number of young people, who take fewer precautions with their invincible attitude and lower Covid risk. Congregating such people in a classroom with other at-risk students and instructors is a potential recipe for disaster.

    2. Betty says:

      Columbia is decentralized so a lot of the decisions would be made on a school level including this one. My school has been super clear about the fall. We are doing shorter in-person with a mix of online. Columbia has been doing online courses for years and are pretty far ahead of other schools in terms of this.

    3. Tammie McCune says:

      My daughter was accepted into a graduate program and will be doing research in a lab. We are anxious. If classes are online we don’t know if she will be expected to be in NYC to work in the lab and if she will have housing. She had been assigned a time to select housing, but that was cancelled. We are hoping she gets direction soon.

    4. Jonathan says:

      A word, disappointed. Barnard seems to have a cogent plan articulated to their student body, why not the three colleges at Columbia? I’d even be okay with an update like, we’re still working tirelessly to finish a plan, but in lieu of such a plan we suggest that you (make/hold off on) living arrangements for the school year. What do we get? Nothing more than ambiguous assurances.

    5. Adiel Vasquez says:

      With so many factors unknown or developing daily, how can the institution be criticized for taking the extra time to develop a course of action that affects so many, let alone plan for its implementation and probable alternatives? Is not a more thought out, strategic approach preferable to a hastily made plan that will undoubtedly require late modification or may end up being scrapped entirely?

    6. Ethan says:

      For anyone contemplating returning to in-person college classes during the pandemic, I recommend you read this piece from the LA Times, which deals with waivers of liability and other schemes sought by colleges to avoid legal responsibility if their students get sick:

    7. Thank you for this article. Although it doesn’t elaborate on Columbia’s sparse communication, it makes everyone aware of the logistical problems and time constraints facing the the entire Columbia community.