Two weeks ago, third-year College student Skylar Wampler attended classes on Grounds and worked 20 hours a week to pay rent for an off-Grounds apartment. Now — due to the University’s response to the spread of COVID-19 which includes continuing the rest of the semester online and postponing Final Exercises — Wampler and all other University students will have to adjust to a new lifestyle.
For Wampler, that includes returning to her rural hometown to attend her online classes with unreliable internet access while working a job to pay rent for housing she no longer uses.
“It just feels strange to still be paying rent in a place that I'm not living,” Wampler said.
Wampler’s predicament exemplifies one of many stories at a University adjusting to a pandemic that has altered activities around the world.
“It's very difficult for some students — including myself — to know how to proceed and handle the changes that are being made,” Wampler said.
One of the biggest changes created by the University’s response to COVID-19 will be a shift to virtual instruction — a method of teaching that will relay University courses online through Zoom, a video and audio conferencing application. However, this solution requires students to have access to reliable broadband connectivity.
Media Studies Associate Professor Christopher Ali currently researches policy regarding rural areas’ accessibility to broadband — an internet connection’s high-capacity transmission of digital information. Ali is concerned about students who may not have access to quality broadband, which he defines as a broadband that supports an always-on internet connection that runs 100 megabits per second downloads and uploads, because they would not have a system that supports live Zoom class sessions.
“They wouldn't be able to participate in a live classroom,” Ali told The Cavalier Daily. “What does that mean for their educational experience? I think in this rush to Zoom we haven't exactly taken into account all of our students’ broadband abilities or capabilities.”
According to Broadband Now, nine percent of Virginians do not have access to wired broadband — particularly affecting communities in southern parts of the Commonwealth.
On Monday, the University uploaded answers to students’ technology questions — including what to do if a student does not have WiFi access or a computer. Students are encouraged to find an alternate location with WiFi available or ask their cellular provider for a WiFi hotspot. Students also can fill out a request to Student Financial Services to pay for technology-related costs.
Ali mentioned that the University’s reliance on virtual instruction could pose a problem for students like Wampler whose homes do not have high speed internet. In order to complete her academic work during the transition to virtual instruction, she will have to go to her local church’s library — a decision she fears will endanger her community due to COVID-19’s ability to infect people easily.
“Just in terms of logistics — like handling Zoom sessions — I have had to find local places in my community that I can go to have access to the internet,” Wampler said. “So in a way I feel kind of like I'm putting my own community more at risk by leaving Charlottesville.”
Ali suggested that a solution to Wampler’s unreliable internet access would involve the University making hotspots available. In fact, some libraries in rural areas — but not Wampler’s — already have hotspots available for people to compensate for their area’s poor internet connection.
“This student can’t just will that [hotspot] into existence,” Ali said. “As a University community, we have to make that happen for her, and this is why we need to be having the types of conversations that you're having right now, and we need to make sure that the student is not being left out and not being deprived of her educational experience.”
As for the educational experience, fifth-year College student Mark Felice does not think his politics seminars and discussion-based learning courses will be taught as well through virtual instruction. He is concerned with some professors’ ability to manage the technology that the University will now rely on to educate students.
“I think most people at U.Va. would be able to agree that many of their professors … aren't technology savvy,” Felice said. “So transitioning to fully online courses poses a lot of challenges especially like if you're someone like me … in upper-level politics courses that are discussion heavy, where it's really hard to do everything online when you're trying to engage with material and classmates.”
To counter concerns like Felice’s, Ali wants students to know that teachers are encouraged to ensure the student experience is not compromised during the transition. Ali mentioned that libraries hosted workshops Monday to aid professors in creating online courses. Otherwise, the University has relied on professors to guide themselves and students into the next phase of classes.
“From the professor side — we're doing everything we can,” Ali said. “We're doing the best we can to make sure that our students are getting what we feel they need out of our courses to go forward. But we're all doing the best we can. I know that I'll be spending the majority of next week tailoring my courses to an online experience but also making sure that my online experience matches what my students can access.”
Wes Hester, director of media relations and deputy University spokesperson, stated the University is aiding faculty during the transition. For example, each school has a designated contact for faculty assistance in addition to each school’s current efforts to pool together tools for virtual instruction.
The University has also assembled resources for faculty to help with virtual instruction, including a checklist of technology requirements from Information Technology Services — which explains how to connect to WiFi and Zoom — as well as tips that outline how to prepare for online sessions and applications professors should use. Hester also mentioned that The Center for Teaching Excellence will hold sessions that will note how University instructors can maximize their educational instruction.
In addition to being a part-time student, Felice also works up to 40 hours a week as a bartender on the Corner and at a nearby movie theater. However, due to the COVID-19 threat, he believes the restaurant may close any day now, leaving him to say he is concerned about his source of income.
“For the past week I've been contemplating leaving,” Felice said. “I know several people at my workplace are feeling the same way. We've already had people talk about leaving or have already left because they're worried about paying rent or basic life necessities.”
Following the interview, Felice was laid off and the movie theater closed until further notice.
While Felice was anxious about losing his job that depends on customers buying beverages, he ultimately wants students who want to party on the Corner to think about the effects of their actions. The Centers for Disease Control suggests that social distancing is the best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and University administration — like other schools across the country — has strongly urged students to leave Grounds. This announcement included canceling all University events of 100 people or more. However, students have continued to gather in large groups as late as Tuesday evening.
“Think about the implications of what you're doing and how there are a lot of students that are going to have to go home who financially can't afford to,” Felice said. “There are a lot of students that have to work part-time, full-time jobs on top of going to school who are being affected by this. Don't be stupid.”
Wampler said she wanted to make a smart decision about where to stay during the suspension of on-Grounds activities. She decided to return home, which despite its difficulties, she knows is the option that protects the most people.
“I feel very strongly about the fact that we do need to limit contact as much as possible,” Wampler said. “I do think that we all as students — a part of this community — have a responsibility to practice distancing ourselves from one another. I don't want my ties to my friends in Charlottesville to put anyone else at risk.”