On the first day of classes at the University of Massachusetts in Boston last week, students, faculty and staff – most of them masked – flocked to stand-up campus shuttles.
More than 20 months after the state’s first public case of COVID-19 was reported on this blustery bay-side campus in Dorchester, UMass Boston is sinking again, finally.
“We are very happy to be back,” said Steve Striffler, labor historian and professor of anthropology., get off a bus and then walk across campus for the first time in a long time. “I think we all recognize that in-person education really beats at a distance.”
As a third consecutive school year marked by a pandemic begins, different types of public colleges in Massachusetts are taking divergent approaches to teaching courses. A GBH News survey of the 29 colleges find most classes at four-year universities like UMass Boston are in-person, while most at two-year community colleges are online.
The researchers say the difference stems from the application of immunization mandates and the different types of students that schools serve.
“The population that community colleges serve as a whole is non-residential,” said Chris Marsicano, who heads the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, which tracks colleges’ COVID response plans. “They don’t live on campus. It is more difficult to mandate [vaccination] when you don’t know where your students are at any given time.
The Marsicano team found that nationwide, only 7% of community colleges require the vaccine. This compares to almost half of private colleges and about a third of public four-year schools like UMass Boston.
Regardless of vaccination mandates, Marsicano said most colleges in the United States are trying to return to their pre-pandemic programming previously scheduled for this month.
“These shifting institutions rely a bit more on the Internet than in previous years, but the vast majority of institutions want to come back in person – back to pre-pandemic normal,” Marsicano said.
The colleges that decided to move away early on are doing this whole semester.
This is certainly the case at Cape Cod Community College in Barnstable, where administrators say 84% of all courses this semester will be either online, distance, or hybrid.
“Two years ago, how many of us knew Zoom? Asked President John Cox, welcoming the faculty back to a launch event in a campus theater. All the teachers wore masks, sitting at least three feet apart.
Last spring, the community college decided to stay primarily online this fall.
“If we wanted to be in a strong position to meet this challenge, we had to use technology at the highest level possible,” Cox said. “We made this monumental pivot to embrace technology – technology that wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen. But to support higher education, we had to move into the online and virtual marketplace and we had to move into it literally overnight. “
The professors say this decision has paid off.
“Going remotely has really opened up our footprint,” said Daniel Shea, who coordinates Cape Cod Community College’s diploma program in funeral service.
The professor says the pandemic has forced the college to rethink how it reaches people who may have been hesitant to enroll in person.
“They wanted to do it, but they couldn’t come because they couldn’t uproot their life,” Shea said. “They have families. They have a job. And now we want to maintain that footprint.
To achieve this, Shea piloted the college’s new hybrid platform that allows online students to stream live in otherwise in-person courses on embalming.
His classroom is equipped with a massive computer screen, a 360-degree camera, and a microphone that captures him and his students from a distance of 30 feet.
Shea admits that this high-tech education is not easy.
“It’s a juggling act, but it’s not impossible,” he said. “You see people in front of you. You should also make sure that you are interacting with the people who are on the screen. We can hear them as if they were in their regular class.
UMass Boston, on the other hand, limits online options to courses that must be delivered remotely “for various reasons,” according to a spokesperson. Most classes, like the Latin American Labor History class Striffler teaches, are in person, with his 80 students crammed into a conference hall.
“It’s good to see all of your masked faces,” he said, standing in front of his class. “A little weird though.”
Striffler says he and over 80% of professors surveyed want at least the option to go online. “One of our requests would be to have a greater percentage of courses taught remotely,” he said.
In an email to the campus community, UMass Boston Chancellor Marcelo Suarez-Orozco said: “As the only public university in Boston serving largely first-generation college students… the in-person education is not only what students yearn for… but also what they need. “
The students on campus seem to agree.
“I’m excited because I’m learning in person rather than remotely,” said Izabel DePina of Dorchester.
At 38, she is the first in her family to go to university. Last year, the Cape Verdean immigrant took all of her courses online, which she says went well.
“I got good grades, but it wasn’t the same as in person,” she said. “I missed going to get the teacher, like, ‘Hey, I need help. ”
Wearing a Black Lives Matter, “No Justice, No Peace” mask, DePina said she urges her classmates to get vaccinated.
“We just need to be safe,” she said. “Follow the rules and make sure you finish strong.”
A spokesperson for UMass Boston told GBH News that 98% of enrolled students have complied with the university’s immunization requirements. The remaining 2% is either exempt or removed from registration this week. In an attempt to keep the campus and surrounding community safe, the university offers free vaccinations at various campus clinics and follows all of the CDC’s recommended protocols for finding contracts.
Despite these precautions, several faculty members told GBH News that an administrator told faculty at UMass Boston in a private meeting earlier this month that he expected there to be “lots of COVID cases on campus”.
Fifteen cases have been reported since classes began on Sept. 7, according to the university.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of positive COVID-19 cases since UMass Boston began classes. The number is 15, not more than 150.
Diane Adame of GBH contributed to this report.