By Yasmeen Persaud
As the number of COVID-19 cases rose in NYC during spring semester, so did concerns about what the future might hold for the city’s public university system, the City University of New York (CUNY) — and for the 18,679 students of CUNY’s Baruch College, those questions are still very much up in the air.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency in New York on March 7. A few days later, shortly after a John Jay College student tested positive for the virus, CUNY would close all campuses and switch to distance learning. Slowly, professors and students became familiar with the online educational world — conducting courses through Zoom conference calls and Blackboard Collaborate. But Baruch’s vibrant on-campus culture and commuter lifestyle were shattered. And now, with summer well underway and that initial transition to online learning behind them, no one knows what the fall semester will look like — or what it will mean for their futures.
“My major in corporate communications mostly consists of presentations, public speaking, and in-person team projects. Therefore, shifting to fully online has taken a toll on my learning,” junior Yaakov Spraragen said. “I am worried that if the pandemic continues through the fall semester, my professional, academic, and social experience at Baruch will be negatively impacted.”
In a recent interview with Dollars and Sense after he had recovered from his own bout of COVID-19, Provost James McCarthy said no definite decision had yet been made about the fall semester. He asked Baruch students and staff for patience while the administration continues to monitor the case numbers in the city and weigh the risks of opening the campus.
“We are a very crowded place and we have elevators that students have to use to get to class and those elevators are packed, so can you imagine what the vertical campus at Baruch would be like?” he said.
The potential issues with re-opening go beyond safely and efficiently getting students up to their lofty classrooms, he said, noting that the CUNY population commutes mainly via public transit.
“When you take a class at Baruch, how do you get there?” McCarthy said. “You’re taking the subway, and is the subway going to be in a situation in September where students and staff and faculty are going to want to depend on it?”
“We don’t have an answer to that yet. So there are forces outside of our control that we have to contend with.”
During the initial transition to distance learning, CUNY implemented multiple recess periods so that faculty members could familiarize themselves with new technology and so students who didn’t have tablets or laptops at home could be provided with them.
However, some students feel that more needs to be done to accommodate the needs of people who have been impacted severely by the pandemic.
“There are students who no longer have employment or have been affected by the virus in an extremely negative way,” senior Krutika Khatri said. “My family has been affected by the virus and I didn’t have the capability to complete some assignments to the best of my ability and I was penalized for it — I just think they need a better system altogether.”
Baruch College’s Political Science Department conducted a faculty and student survey, garnering responses about online instruction experiences in political science classes during the pandemic. The two surveys also showed students and faculty members voicing their concerns and plans for fall 2020.
Students reported difficulties in completing assignments because of the virus, due to stress and lack of motivation.
Faculty members preferred Blackboard for online instruction rather than Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, based on the overall student experience and engagement.
“I believe students need to get advice/training on how to be an efficient online student. Trivial aspects, such as joining Zoom lectures on time, paying attention to lectures instead of getting distracted by Facebook, different online chats etc., are essential,” one faculty member wrote.
CUNY has launched an emergency relief grant program to aid CUNY students and their families impacted by the virus. And in anticipation of situations like Khatri’s, the university launched a new policy surrounding grading for the spring semester. The Board of Trustees approved a flexible grading policy, allowing students to appeal for a grade of credit or no credit.
“The decision of whether to choose a letter grade or Credit/No Credit for a course is a decision you must make,” CUNY Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost José Luis Cruz said in an April 24 email to students.
Students across CUNY are weighing their options amid the uncertainty. Two students at Queens College said some people might want to consider a gap semester in place of continuing their education in the fall.
“I feel like most people should have the ability to take a gap semester due to the pandemic,” sophomore Iman Khan said. “Not everyone is financially fit or actively available to deal with classes, and they should have the opportunity to be worry-free.”
“I personally would not take a gap year. I would like to finish my undergraduate in four years, max,” freshman Priya Rattu said.
But she acknowledged that her preferred timeline might come with a cost.
“The pandemic has caused a lot of changes to my college experience,” she said. “I don’t know how I will be able to fully understand the materials and pass my classes.”
The Baruch College Writing Center is hosting sessions online to help students navigate their courses and polish their professional skills.
“You don’t have to have a draft written to meet with us: consultants are happy to help you brainstorm, understand your assignments, or talk through challenging reading material,” said the Writing Center’s Director Diana Hamilton.
Baruch students are coming together to entertain, inform and help during these difficult times. Clubs are using Instagram and Zoom as main platforms, promoting and sharing posts and video calls to mirror real life club meetings and events.
Encounters Magazine hosted a “Virtual Open Mic Night,” where students attended via Zoom meeting and the Baruch United Sikh Association hosted a “Cha and Chill Game Day,” also accessible with Zoom.
“I have met single mothers, full-time workers, and financially distressed students on campus who manage to balance their coursework all while maintaining a positive attitude,” Spraragen said. “If any student body can fight through these troubling times, I believe it is the Baruch community.”