Some changes forced on us by COVID-19 might be here to stay

A year ago, almost to date, three innocent words turned our lives upside down here in California: “Stay at home.” Toilet paper was nowhere to be found; frozen and canned food, grains, potatoes and any food items with long shelf lives also disappeared from stores. I couldn’t buy milk or eggs for weeks. At work, we were told to switch to “remote teaching” practically overnight, and students were rushed out of their dorm rooms and scrambled to find their way back home. Caught up in the swirl of frantic activities, I missed my deadline for my column — for only the second time in 14 years.

The following few weeks were surreal. We spent most of our time cooped up in our homes, venturing outside only to stand in line at the grocery store, and watching the number of COVID-19 cases rise daily. It’s almost comical to think about how clueless we all were back then: While we closed down outdoor recreational spaces like walking trails and tennis courts, we didn’t think anything of stepping into indoor public spaces with no face coverings. All the while, we kept telling each other, “Just hang in there for a few more weeks, and things will be back to normal.”

This past year has been one massive collective learning experience, for sure. As an anthropologist, it has been fascinating to watch how people adapt to the new situation, as the initial resistance gave way to acceptance, and eventually, what was once new and strange became everyday routine. Let’s take videoconferencing for example. Video chat platforms existed long before the pandemic, but they became an everyday necessity when the pandemic made gatherings of any size a health risk.

At my university, the thought of teaching online once seemed an affront to the close, in-person contact between the students and faculty that we always prided ourselves on. We complained bitterly and endlessly about the inconvenience, discomfort and disconnect that we felt and criticized every technology tool available to us.

After one and a half semesters, however, we are all getting better at teaching, meeting and connecting online. I’m not as anxious every time I get online; and I have a much better “feel” for my classroom. I also sense the same shift from my students. They used to comment frequently on how much they missed in-person classroom interaction, but now, they seem quite content communicating and working together online.

“Now that I’m used to it, it’s not really bad,” one of my students said recently. “Actually, I kind of like the fact that I can be in my room and still going to my classes.”

My university just announced the decision to go back to “in-person instruction” in the fall semester, which is welcome news in many ways. The majority of our students chose to go here because of the active campus life and diverse co-curricular opportunities, and the much valued sense of community is difficult to sustain without a physical center of activity. Some of the ambivalence about the upcoming changes will dissipate, no doubt, as students get reacquainted with the somewhat more “normal” ways of going to college and are reminded of the benefits of being around their peers, not only in the classroom but also for many other on-campus activities.

At the same time, I don’t think what we learned from this year’s experience will completely go away. In a recent Zoom conversation, one of my friends mused about the carelessness with which she used to travel, spending hours on a crowded plane and consuming street food that could have been exposed to any number of pathogens. Another chimed in to say that even after she got vaccinated, she couldn’t think of going outside without a mask. Now that our guard is up against the invisible enemy, it’ll be difficult to go back to our ignorant bliss.

Similarly, I imagine that this year’s online learning will leave an indelible mark on my current and future students and their idea of the “college experience.” Some of my students have taken full advantage of the mobility afforded by online courses to spend more time with their families, traveled to visit friends in other states, and even moved to another country for the year. Will they find the return to in-person learning inflexible and limiting?

What about the convenience of online learning for commuter and/or working students? As one of my students expressed it recently: “I think [going back to in-person learning] might be a little challenging. All the driving I have to do [to get to their classes] … that seems like a hassle after this year.” And how are we going to address the health concerns of those students who hesitate to return to the crowded conditions in their dorms and classrooms?

A picturesque small campus dotted with shady oak trees and tall palm trees — for over a century, my university’s physical beauty has been the backdrop to an active student life and close-knit community feeling. While this idyllic image may continue to signify a certain ideal, students who were forced to experience an alternative form of learning now realize that they have a choice. This means, for higher education institutions like mine, some fundamental changes are in order to navigate the post-pandemic reality successfully. Preserving the intimacy of the learning experience in a small college setting while providing more flexibility in how students access and participate in it: That’s a challenge worth undertaking.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.