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College students are forced to adapt after a return to virtual classes


As college students start returning for the spring semester, many have had to quickly switch from in-person to online classes again. With the pandemic entering its third year, NPR's Michelle Aslam reports that many are learning to adapt to abrupt changes.

MICHELLE ASLAM, BYLINE: For Annika Johnson, a psychological research masters student at Texas State University, the email she got over winter break felt a little familiar.

ANNIKA JOHNSON: It kind of reminded me of back in 2020, when they were like, all right, we're going to just give you a longer spring break. And then it ended up never coming back.

ASLAM: When the pandemic started, Johnson was an undergrad. The transition to online classes in the middle of a semester was really hard for her. She says her grades took a major hit. But after that first semester, doing online school wasn't nearly as complicated. And now, with her master's program temporarily transitioning online for the first few weeks of the semester, she says it doesn't feel like a big deal.

JOHNSON: I think that once we, like, finally adapted and got used to being online, it has actually kind of been easier for me.

ASLAM: One of the biggest reasons why - Johnson has a chronic illness.

JOHNSON: Being able to do school online means that if I'm not feeling well one day or if I'm - have a migraine or I'm sick, I don't have to miss class. I can just join online.

ASLAM: And that's part of the reason she continued online school, even when classes started being offered in-person again.

HANYA PILLAI: The beginning, to transition online, was incredibly difficult for me.

ASLAM: Hanya Pillai, an international studies major, was living in an on-campus dorm at American University in D.C. when the pandemic upended her entire living situation in March 2020.

PILLAI: We're going completely online. You all need to move out of your dorms within, like, a week or so, and you need to get out, basically.

ASLAM: Luckily, she could go home to Texas to stay with her parents. Still, she says it was difficult to learn anything amidst all the chaos.

PILLAI: I ended up - I didn't even have, like, a desk back in my room. So we went to IKEA. My mom got me a desk and things like that.

ASLAM: This time around, with American University going online for the first few weeks of the spring semester, Pillai's got a better hang of online learning, and she has her own place in D.C. so she doesn't have to worry about being forced out.

PILLAI: But I think now that we've kind of got a better idea and grasp of how things will work, I think my friends and I will be a little bit better off with what's happening now.

ASLAM: Sophia Fingerhut, a senior anthropology major at the University of Washington, says she feels like her college experience has been cut short. She was isolated from her friends for more than a year, and her dream internship was canceled.

SOPHIA FINGERHUT: I was kind of planning on doing a whole lot with my life, and then I was at home for a year and a half.

ASLAM: She says everything took a toll on her mental health.

FINGERHUT: I am worried about things being online again, but I also know now what I would need to do to prevent that downward spiral.

ASLAM: This semester, her university asked students to do online school for just a week, so they could return and get tested before gathering together. But despite free testing on campus and masking and vaccine requirements, she's still nervous.

FINGERHUT: Part of me is a little bit worried about going back to class next week just because I'm like, oh, that's kind of soon. Like, you know, people can come back and still get it.

ASLAM: In the event of the worst-case scenario forcing the rest of the semester to go online, Fingerhut says students are more prepared. They know how to handle unexpected disruptions to their education.

Michelle Aslam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOKHOV'S "ENDLESS SKIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michelle Aslam
Michelle Aslam is a 2021-2022 Kroc Fellow and recent graduate from North Texas. While in college, she won state-wide student journalism awards for her investigation into campus sexual assault proceedings and her reporting on racial justice demonstrations. Aslam previously interned for the North Texas NPR Member station KERA, and also had the opportunity to write for the Dallas Morning News and the Texas Observer.