Returning to Campus: A ‘Dimmer’ Experience Than Expected
It’s halfway through the semester and the long-awaited return to campus arrives. If one were to judge by a video produced by Yeshiva University’s PR team — perhaps to encourage more students to come to campus — they would come to the conclusion that students are being provided with a “robust” experience. Remarks from students include: “They definitely planned really well for us to come back and be safe” and “it feels great to come back.” While I do not discount the personal experiences of these students — and perhaps some elements of these comments resonate with me — I cannot help but think that a more nuanced view of the return remains unmentioned.
It goes without saying, in a very circular fashion, that the primary aspect of education is education. Campus life and student activities — while also important — are simply peripheral aspects of college that can be accomplished out of the classroom. In the COVID-19 “world of tomorrow,” students are provided with a lackluster student life experience and, for many, a complete repeat of last semester’s remote-learning disaster. I am lucky to have just a few in-person Judaic studies courses and shiurim, a benefit many students don’t have.
There is no question in my mind that the Zoom courses have deleteriously affected the educational welfare of the student body. From my personal experience, during remote classes, I feel less motivated, less focused and less involved in the educational experience. One need only look at the responses of students to a Commentator survey conducted last semester to understand that there are inherent problems with the online learning model. 40% found online learning to be more difficult than online classes and 86% indicated they use a smartphone more frequently during online classes when compared with in-person classes. In a different, more qualitative, survey, one student summed up his experience in quite similar terms to mine: “I found that overall it’s a much tougher experience. Class somehow feels more boring … The constant threat of distraction makes class almost unbearable.”
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the experience of faculty members. As I heard one professor put it, “After we transitioned to Zoom, twelve years of pedagogical experience went down the drain.” Many of the teachers have children at home, some of whom disrupt their classes, and must balance their role as a family unit while teaching multiple courses. Nevertheless, being dealt with a difficult hand, most of my professors took the bull by the horns and taught to their best abilities, transitioning their classes and curricula to the online model while recognizing that it was not an optimal experience.
To my knowledge, though, there have been no substantive changes to the online education model that mitigate the defects. And woe unto us when the spring semester cometh, and alas, most classes are still online. Who knows? Students were not yet informed about any changes to the format in the spring semester. My fear is that nothing will change.
The university must incentivize professors to come and teach in-person classes — while obviously adhering to sensible health regulations — or else Madda will, of necessity, be sacrificed; otherwise, current and prospective students will question the value of higher education.
Nov. 3 was my second day back on campus and featured the first, and only, in-person student event I attended: the election night watch party, if one can accurately call it a “party.” The chants and controversies of 2016’s election party were absent in 2020’s — which may have been a good thing. That being said, barely any students showed up and the televisions were only able to air the results on C-SPAN, not even something as “exciting” as CNN or FOX. The swag advertised prior to the event included America-themed glasses and signs lying on otherwise-lonely tables. If there was any effort by the Office of Student Life in making the event exciting, it seemed to have failed. I left the event after 20 minutes to go to the library, where I could follow the election results with a small group of friends and with my preferred, and more exciting, media sources.
Organized campus life is, in essence, dead. There are individual pockets of friends, here and there, who hang out when possible, whether it’s in the cafeteria or the library. However, there seems to be little effort by the university to create a social environment. Shabbos is a case in point. Students can either eat in a designated location set up by the university — which allows two people per table — or eat with a predetermined group of friends in a predetermined location, perhaps in a floor lounge, apartments or their dorm rooms. The first, more official, option sounds anything but alluring. But the latter options allow for more flexibility and less supervision by the university. For example, I witnessed a couple of students, not socially distanced, singing in a room with their masks off. Why would these students go to the YU-designated dining location when the lounge would allow for this flexibility? What incentives is the university providing to make sure that students follow the rules in these situations? Seemingly none.
There are a few issues with the dining situation that must be ironed out. First, prices are undoubtedly much higher. For example, this year’s pasta side course costs $5.00, $1.25 more than last year’s $3.75. There is a noticeable lack of variety. A student can’t choose one slice of pizza, but rather the $7.00 two-slice option. There are fewer sushi options. I can’t even find something as simple as a tuna or salmon roll, unlike before, when my favorite sushi chef, Todi — God bless his soul — assembled my choice options into a culinary masterpiece. Nevermind the current lack of a salad bar for those who want to stay healthy. It’s understandable that COVID-19 restrictions would necessitate the limitation of food items, but perhaps the options are so inadequate that students are incentivized to get food from restaurants and other sources instead.
Another change to the dining service was the institution of a sign-in system: If students would like to eat in the cafeteria, they must sign their name on a piece of paper before they eat and sign out before leaving the cafeteria. I’m not sure, though, that the pen is ever changed. If so, I have no knowledge of it, and have seen multiple students use the same pen to sign in and out. Interestingly, through this policy, by increasing the COVID-19 regulations, it could be that the university is heightening the risk, by the repeated use of a single pen.
Any semblance of campus life effectively shuts down at 10 p.m. The library and gym, both necessary components of the college experience, close at that time. Gone are the late-night midterm study or workout sessions, and forget about ever getting a bite from Nagel. YU must adhere to the guidelines set by the New York State government, which means that it has no choice in whether the gym remains open after 10 p.m. or not. However, many students — including me — have classes and/or night seder before then and cannot find a reasonable time to exercise; our physical health is being neglected. YU should consider alternatives to mitigate this concern, including opening the outdoor basketball court at night, which, to my knowledge, remains locked.
It may also be prudent to reinstitute the local shuttle. There have been times, in recent weeks, where I felt unsafe walking the streets. One time, as I was strolling down 186th St., a group of young “gentlemen,” one of whom fired a menacing snarl at me, mentioned something about a phone being in my pocket after which I quickly turned the next corner and thankfully arrived safely back on campus. I would venture to say that it’s more likely for the average student to be mugged — or worse — than to be critically damaged healthwise from COVID-19 because they rode in a local shuttle. If students reasonably feel unsafe in the Heights, the university administration should understand and accommodate them, subject to reasonable health protocols.
When I first came back to campus, I was told to take a spit test twice a week. The first time was a fairly unpleasant experience; I, unfortunately, took the middle table of the room which made me self-conscious about other people seeing me spit into the tube. Aside from that, the spitting took around 20-25 minutes, after which my throat was parched. I took the test one other time, on Wednesday of that week.
I received a call that Friday, Nov. 6, from Cayuga Health System — the organization that administers the tests — saying that I tested positive for the first test and negative for the second; to backtrack, I previously had the virus, after which I tested negative and was cleared to return to campus, and, therefore, I was dreading a repeat of experiencing isolation. After confirming the information with YU’s COVID student line, I was told: “you are cleared and should refrain from testing on campus for now because you will most likely continue to receive false positives. You’re all set.”
Unfortunately, this information was not communicated to students prior to the return. I had no reason to believe that I — even while I previously had the virus — should not partake in the university’s testing program. Further, a previous communication from the university mentioned that students should let YU know if they “have tested positive within the past 90 days as this may impact the results of [their] test,” implying that those students should receive the test. The same email also explicitly stated that “all students who will be on campus” must take the test. Later university communications, after my experience, included the information that students who tested positive within 90 days and provided documentation to the university “will be waived from this testing requirement.” Hopefully, as a result of the update, this protocol was made clear to the relevant students affected.
There have been other miscommunications following the implementation of COVID-19 regulations. On the evening of Nov. 9, I witnessed a security guard stationed in Rubin Hall prevent two female students, who simply wanted to get dinner from the cafeteria, from entering the building. They were told by the guard and his supervisor that they were not allowed into the building because they were not dorming there, despite the fact that male non-residents are regularly allowed into the cafeteria. Both women confirmed that they participate in YU’s rapid test program on the Wilf Campus and have submitted negative PCR nasal swab tests prior to arriving on campus. The students later attempted to clarify this information with a senior member of the administration, wondering whether this was actually the university’s official policy, after which they were told, “Current students- from either campus, may use the cafeteria.” The administration sent the security office an email the next morning to affirm that the university policy was to allow individuals of either gender into the cafeteria. The Commentator has received reports of at least three other women prevented from entering buildings on the Wilf Campus, including the cafeteria and library, after this incident. It is unfortunate that YU students underwent this experience, due to miscommunication, and one wonders whether they will have warm memories of their college experience after they graduate. Miscommunication in general, I fear, will deleteriously impact the legacy of this institution, all the more so during this unfortunate and uncertain time.
Every day, in order to enter campus buildings, students are to take a “COVID-19 Symptoms Pre-Screen Tool.” Questions include: “Did you develop any fever?” and “Did you develop a cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing?” Students who successfully complete the survey and answer each question correctly are welcomed with a picture of a green smiley face with the date that they must show to a guard at the entrance of each campus building to enter. This protocol has become so routine that I barely focus on the specific questions anymore, and simply remember the order of the answers I must provide in order to be approved to enter campus buildings. Of course, if I ever show symptoms I would not try to cheat the survey, but I have no doubt that some students have cheated the survey.
One might hear frequent coughs in the library, even though that particular cougher may have indicated on the survey that they did not develop a cough. In addition, the popularity of the screenshot-sharing business allows lazy students the ability to skip the survey, for whatever reason. It’s only a matter of time before someone develops a computer program that automatically creates a picture of the green “smiley-guy” for the applicable date. My point is this: The survey is a nice system to have and probably reminds people to take precautionary measures, but it’s certainly not foolproof and has been abused in the past.
Of course, there are sometimes violations of health protocols. I will often see food left on the hefker table near the Glueck beis medrash, that can be taken and eaten by anyone, even while not knowing its original source. The YU administration should make a better effort at cracking down on these violations or else it will promote an environment of laxity.
Coming back to campus was generally a nice experience, at least relative to the alternative. Seeing longtime friends and acquaintances after a long hiatus, “chilling” in the library and living the city-life are some of the wonderful aspects of the transition to on-campus life. These are positive aspects created independent of the university’s actions; there is simply a space provided. At present, though, there unfortunately seems to be little focus by the university administration on creating the “robust” educational and social environment that students were promised. Of course, I, as a student, am not privy to all of the administrative behind-the-scenes work; this is simply my impression. Indeed, we all — students, parents, faculty and administrators — have to deal with the harsh reality of the COVID-19 era. However, we should still not ignore the aspects which must be fixed.
If the current situation continues, seniors will leave and first-year students will enter YU with a sour taste in their mouths. Seniors often wonder whether there will even be senior dinner, awards ceremonies and an in-person graduation, with all pomp and ceremony, to capstone a formative period of their lives, or whether we will tread down last year’s pitiful path; first-year students won’t even know what a real pre-COVID-19 college experience entails, perhaps ever. It is out of love for this institution and for its legacy that I urge the administration to change course and start providing students with an experience that will make them proud of calling themselves students of Yeshiva.