Easing back into the classroom

Around a third of Carolina students are enrolled in at least one in-person class. Here’s a look at how it’s going.

Student sitting in a classroom.
Wearing masks and sitting at least 6 feet apart, students attend Samba Camara’s Introduction to Africa course in Fetzer Hall. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill) (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

It’s been a year and a week since Carolina first switched to online instruction. This semester began Jan. 19 with a three-week in-person delay that pushed the first physical classroom sessions to Feb. 8. Since then, Carolina has offered five modes of class instruction — two types of in-person classes and three types of remote classes. About 35% of Carolina students are taking at least one in-person class, while 65% of students are taking all remote classes.

Many say they are glad to be back.

“Even though I’ve gotten used to remote teaching, I really like teaching in person,” said Linda Green, a lecturer in the College of Arts & Sciences’ mathematics department. I’m happy to be back in person, partly because it feels great to get out of the house and bike to campus in the morning! I get energized by interacting with students in person more than I do by teaching remotely.”

Samba Camara, teaching assistant professor in the College’s Department of African, African American and diaspora studies, agreed. “At first, I was reluctant to go back. My intuitive thought was to be careful. But overall, I am happy and excited to be back in person,” Camara said. “Staying on the computer wasn’t fun since I couldn’t see my students’ faces because they always had their cameras turned off. There is also a big difference between teaching in-person and online. In-person is easier.”

Reese Ellis, a sophomore in Alexander Pomeroy’s Yoga and Pilates class — offered by the College’s exercise and sport science department — said she is happy to be back in the classroom with peers. “I’ve gotten used to online classes, but it’s nice to actually go to class and be around other people. Being back on campus and in the classroom makes me feel like I’m part of the UNC community again, a feeling I was missing,” she said.

Masks in the classroom

Nicole Else-Quest, associate professor in the College’s women’s and gender studies department, said that the safety regulations have changed some aspects of her class.

“Masks certainly change things, as does the physical distancing, but we’re adapting. We can’t do things like pair-and-share activities in person right now, but we can do group discussions and contribute via our tech, Zoom chats and polls,” she said. “With a small class, that works well. I can’t read students’ facial expressions as well when faces are partially covered and at a distance, so that makes it a little more challenging to gauge understanding in the moment.”

Although masks can act as a communication barrier, the instructors said everyone is being compliant and following the rules. Camara said that he brings extra masks to class just in case anyone forgets to wear one. “It’s important to follow all safety regulations so that we don’t have to go back to remote only instruction.

Helping students

Carolina instructors always try to help their students, but since the pandemic, students have relied on the help of their instructors more than ever. “I try to help them by being available during office hours as well as by appointment for private conversations,” said Green.

Else-Quest said she is making learning and well-being her top priorities. “We do regular check-ins so students can share with me how they’re feeling and what resources or support they need,” she said. “They know that I care and that I want to help them thrive and succeed, and I think that knowledge facilitates a feeling of connection and community. Plus, I’m able to respond to their concerns and adapt the course as we go, if needed.”

Looking forward

While hybrid classes are more enjoyable, they’re still not ideal. “I wish more students would come in person,” said Green. “I find it much easier to interact with students who are in person.”

Camara said he is excited for the future. “I’m hoping that everyone will be able to get vaccinated so that we can have a full return in the fall,” he said. “I hope that everyone is staying safe now so that we can all feel safe once we are together again.”

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