Coronavirus forcing UWRF students, faculty into rejiggered semester

Posted March 26, 2020

Shut out because of concerns over the global coronavirus pandemic, University of Wisconsin-River Falls students who have paid for on-campus meal plans and rooms in residence halls will be reimbursed for those unused services for spring semester.

Chancellor Dean Van Galen notified the students by email. “I am very pleased,” he said, “to share that UW-River Falls has been authorized by UW System to reimburse the prorated charges for housing and dining for the remainder of the spring semester for students who have left the university prior to the end of their contract.”

Additionally, UWRF faculty are in the process of moving all current classes to alternative learning methods for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester. The semester resumes Monday, March 30. UWRF suspended classes from March 16-20, and the week after was the already scheduled spring recess.

Van Galen wrote, “UW-River Falls has decided to continue with alternative modes of delivery of instruction and services through the end of spring semester. We acknowledge that this news creates additional challenges for students, faculty, instructors and staff.”

For students and faculty, some expect it will be a difficult transition trying to learn or teach online.

“Overall it will make classes a little more challenging, just because I am in three math classes and it’s kind of hard to do online testing and not have people try to cheat,” said Blake Mattson, a senior majoring in mathematics. “So, I think it makes it tricky for professors and trickier for content delivery than it is in person.”

“The most challenging part is that teaching courses in person is much different than teaching courses online,” said John Heppen, professor of geography. “When you start a semester, you plan the whole semester based on the mode of instruction. You just cannot flip a switch and turn an in-person course into an online course, even if you have taught it online before. We are having to do it in two weeks when it takes months to plan a course.”

“As an elementary education major, face-to-face instruction is super important because hands-on learning is one of the most important ways we learn,” said freshman Mikayla Whitehill. “Not being able to go into schools and classrooms and interact with children has potential to stunt the effectiveness of my teaching in the future due to less engagement than other students who did not have this mandatory distance learning experience.”

“One of the challenges is that the pace of changing conditions is speeding up so fast; it is affecting all instructors, and students,” said Professor Wesley Chapin, who currently teaches two German Politics and Culture Courses.

“We also want to make sure students have access to technology. I’ve been tracking my students’ responses and 94 percent have already said they do have appropriate access and devices. I’ve placed calls with the remaining six percent of students and hope to hear from them soon. In addition, most of our university’s faculty are accustomed to teaching face to face, and there are a lot of staff working seven days a week to try to help with the challenge to alternative delivery, which includes online,” said Chapin.

Although all campus activities will cease to operate face to face for students at UWRF, some student services are finding alternative ways to still be available for students during this campus hiatus, such as health and counseling services. The office of Student Health and Counseling Services will no longer have any students do face-to-face meetings with counselors on campus.

“We’re doing shorter remote consultations with students who want to talk to a counselor and then we’ll talk to them on how we’re doing,” said Alice Reilly-Myklebust, director of Student Health and Counseling Services. “It’s not therapy, it’s just a consultation, asking them how they are doing, making sure they’re safe, talking to them about online resources and making sure they know their emergency numbers. If they want to get connected to someone locally in their community, we will help them get connected to someone in their community.”

The decision to move classes online for the remainder of the semester came quickly after the White House recommended that people should avoid gatherings of 50 or more people for the next eight weeks. The fast decision-making by the university has students split if the campus administration made the right call.

“Yeah, I do,” said Mattson. “I think the university did a good job on keeping us updated on this. Right when the semester started they sent out an email on COVID-19 before it was even a big deal in the U.S. and I feel like they have been doing a good job on keeping us up to date and letting us know what they’re doing. I do think it’s the right decision, they’ve done a good job handling this, and it’s just the circumstances.”

Whitehill disagreed. “No, I do not think that the university made the right decision,” she said. “I think that they could have given us off until the original date, done an intensive cleansing of all the buildings, and then slowly started classes again. The current recommended guidelines are that there are no more than 10 people in a room together at one time and I think the university could have easily made that happen by splitting classes into different sections. However, yes, I do think that the university has been transparent in their communication to everyone.”

News reports of COVID-19 cases increasing worldwide along with rising death tolls can be overwhelming. Finding ways to keep both physically and mentally healthy while practicing social distancing could be a challenge for many people.

Reilly-Myklebust advised students to pay attention to their mental and physical health.

“You have to be isolated because of the recommendations, but you still want to stay connected with people, with family and friends remotely.” She recommended going outside but avoiding crowds. “There is no reason why you can’t go outside and get a walk, get enough sleep, try to eat healthy.”

Reilly-Myklebust recommended limiting access to social media and some news outlets due to an excess of misinformation.

“So, if you are going to check for information, try to go to reputable sources and sites like the World Health Organization, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.”

UWRF’s University Center is the only building open on campus and it’s only available to students accessing dining services.

All UW campuses have shifted classes to online and alternative delivery formats for the remainder of spring semester.