The High Price of Remote Learning

March marked one year of the pandemic. One year of “unprecedented times” and emails “hoping to find you well.” Unfortunately, not everyone has been well this year. 

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Eighty percent of students around the country say that COVID has negatively impacted their mental health, their spiritual health, and their career aspirations.” 

This analysis aligns with students’ experiences on Swarthmore campus as they struggle to deal with the challenges that come with online classes and isolation. David Ramirez, director of Counseling and Psychological Services, said that the pandemic has had a noticeable impact on students’ needs and mental health as they continue to adjust to this remote landscape. 

One problem that many students have noted is Zoom fatigue: the mental tiredness associated with spending all day online and on virtual communication platforms. 

Becca Keating ’23 admitted that she feels overwhelmed in front of her screen. 

“My Zoom bandwidth is only so far. And I can’t spend that long staring at the computer or I just break down,” she said. 

Ramiro Hernandez ’23, who is taking classes online on campus, reported the same feelings as Keating. Hernandez stated that he feels more exhausted after spending a day on Zoom than he ever did when he was running around to clubs and classes at pre-pandemic Swarthmore. 

“Zoom exhaustion is like a whole other level,” said Hernandez. 

Physically, online classes are more challenging than in-person learning. On Zoom, or any online video chat program, people miss non-verbal cues. In an in-person conversation, people will not only listen to most of the words someone is saying but also derive information from their body language and facial expressions. In online classes, students must therefore focus to an unnatural degree on just the shoulders-up view of the person speaking. 

Unsurprisingly, this forced focus and constant staring at screens is wearing on students, including Alex Malcombe ’23, who logs onto her classes from her dining room table in Louisiana. 

“I was getting headaches last week. It’s just been rough being on the screen the whole time,” she said. 

The challenges of being in Zoom classes also include the less-addressed issue of students’ constant confrontation with seeing their own virtual image on screen all day. 

Dan Pantini ’22, who is on campus but taking his classes online, finds it strange to see himself in class every day. 

“It’s so unnatural,” he said. “It’s like you’re walking around holding up a mirror in front of you, and you’re trying to talk in class, except we’re not used to looking at ourselves talking as often as we’ve been forced to do lately.”

Tiffany Wong-Jones ’23, who has been at home with her mom and brother in Oregon for the Spring semester, concurred that watching oneself in class is unnatural and challenging. 

“I didn’t feel confident over Zoom. I don’t know if that’s because you can see yourself, but it is all so jarring,” said Wong-Jones.

Beyond the physical and psychological tolls that Zoom classes have on students, they can also be harder to learn from, especially when taking the classes off campus. 

Keating, an astrophysics major who is currently taking three labs at home, finds online classes challenging in a way that they never were on campus. 

“The mental strain that the classes have is greater now. When I was on campus, everyone was kind of in the same boat, but now I’m the only one in the singular boat around here,” Keating said. 

The labs are the hardest aspect of academics for her at home, particularly because of the communication barrier of being remote. 

“It takes so long to get that response back when, if I was on campus, I would just walk to the engineering building, just find them in their office, and it would have been done then.” said Keating.

For those off campus and in a different time zone, the challenges of learning from online classes can be even more daunting. Students living on the West Coast or internationally have had to adapt to a vastly different time schedule than those taking classes remotely on campus or in Eastern Standard Time. 

For some students, the different time zones became unmanageable. Sky Park, who lives in Seoul, South Korea, ended up taking a leave of absence after attempting to take classes last Spring from his home. 

“The time zone placed synchronized classes at [4 a.m.] and the unsynchronized classes missed the inherent liberal arts college experience of fierce intellectual discourse. I made a judgment call that the online experience wasn’t worth the tuition cost and the mental health impacts of extended online classes and decided to spend my time more productively,” he wrote in an email to The Phoenix. 

The disconnect that Zoom classes have been causing goes hand and hand with another challenge students have been facing throughout the pandemic: isolation. 

A survey by a Boston University researcher of 33,000 students found that two-thirds of respondents struggle with loneliness or isolation — an all-time high that reflects the effects that the pandemic is having on college students. 

While there have been events that help students feel more connected, many students still feel a sense of isolation. In an attempt to stave off loneliness and isolation, Keating joined three more clubs this year, but that hasn’t helped as much as she hoped. 

“I joined like three clubs, but I’ve gone to less meetings overall, I think, than when I was on campus. The only opportunity to reach out is over Zoom, and there’s only so long you can go on a Zoom call,” she said. 

While the geographical distance of being off-campus has made interacting hard, it is difficult to connect even while on campus. With the Garnet Pledge, many students have noted the lack of spontaneous interaction. Any type of social interaction to feel less isolated takes planning.

“It’s so much of an effort to see people who don’t live in my block and honestly kind of even people who do,” said Simon Herz ’23, who lives on campus. “Because people are in their rooms and on Zoom all the time, there’s fewer casual interactions that happen.”

Herz said he misses the organic interactions of bumping into friends and classmates in Cornell while studying, which are now impossible because of the required reservations in the libraries. Like many others on campus, this lack of contact has been wearing him down. 

“Even within the block of people that I choose to live with, we’re not allowed to see each other without masks on unless it’s one person at a time, six feet away while you’re eating. It’s not like your block is the people who can give you a hug. And that makes it more difficult,” Herz said.

Alicia Liu ’24 also struggles with many of the same things as Herz, but as a freshman, she has to start from scratch building a group of friends on Swarthmore’s campus with all of the Garnet Pledge restrictions in place. [Liu is an opinions writer at The Phoenix but was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.] Liu has worked to find friends in the math lounge that she frequents and from the wall of faces her RA put up in Willets. But she still feels like she is missing out on the true Swarthmore experience. 

“I feel like in normal Swarthmore you’d have more interactions with people that are more random and sporadic and spontaneous. But now, you have to plan to meet people. You have to make more of an effort,” said Liu. 

The pandemic has been a time of uncertainty, isolation, and change. It has been an entire year disrupted, which has brought an acute sense of loss to some students. 

“I feel like I’ve missed an entire year of my life, which is a really long time for someone who’s only twenty. These are my prime years, and I feel like I’m missing out on them. I’m supposed to be in college. I’m supposed to be around people my age. I’m supposed to be socially interacting. I’m supposed to be like learning who I am, and that’s just not happening. I feel like I’ve been missing out on an entire year of my life,” said Wong-Jones. 

Malcombe also feels a sense of loss because of the pandemic and noted that it may have been made harder by the fact that as a sophomore, she had gotten a taste of pre-pandemic life at Swarthmore and loved it. 

“Knowing that you’re supposed to be in a different space and interacting with people in a different way I think that’s been one of the hardest things to know that I’ve lost, since, like, we did have a first year at Swat and like, we experienced it normally,” said Malcombe. 

Keating, who has been at home for her entire sophomore year and plans to be abroad in the Fall semester, feels the same way.

“I think I’ve just missed out on the college experience, like I’ve only been there for a semester. As soon as I was more comfortable on campus, I was sent home. I just really missed out on the experience of being there and group learning. I was so excited to get to Swat. I remember two years ago I was like, ‘This is gonna be the best four years of my life’ and now here we are,” said Keating. 

The pandemic has also created a sense of loss of more tangible events such as holidays, family get togethers, parties, and — most notably for seniors — graduation. 

Mia Capizzoli ’21, currently taking online classes off-campus with a few of her friends, is particularly sad about missing out on commencement, especially knowing that other colleges and universities will hold in-person ceremonies.

“We’re definitely upset Swarthmore couldn’t figure out a way to make it work. Graduation is like the final culminating moment of all the hard work you put in. Graduation is something you look forward to from freshman year, and now we’re going to miss going to the top of the bell tower, and being in the arboretum, and being in cap and gown, and taking pictures.”

Uncertainty of what comes next, both in the pandemic and after college, has only added to students’ anxieties. 

Pantini, who returned to campus this Spring after spending the Fall at home in Newport, Rhode Island, said that he is more stressed this year. The combination of classes and the uncertainty of what senior year and beyond holds has contributed to his stress. 

“I catch myself [being] like ‘Whoa, I’m just like, freaking out right now for not a really good reason.’ I think it’s partially just because everything’s so uncertain, we don’t really know what’s going on, and it’s harder to kind of like try to plan in the future and be like ‘Okay am I going to do what I want to do?’ and feeling like a lot of the options that I might want to explore are just like not there,” Pantini said. 

With three vaccines approved in the United States and states expanding eligibility, President Valerie Smith anticipates that all students will return to campus this coming Fall and take in-person classes, which will likely alleviate some of the problems students have been struggling with. There are still, however, two more months of the Spring semester, and many students are taking courses and doing internships online this summer. As Swarthmore students look ahead to a few more months of virtual learning, they have been employing strategies to tackle Zoom University.

Pantini recommended turning off the self-view option on Zoom, which keeps users from having to stare at themselves throughout meetings.

Malcombe, who is at home this semester, curls up with her cat when she gets sad, and she also tries to set herself fun and manageable tasks throughout the week to feel a sense of accomplishment when she finishes them.

Keating joined groups that have mandatory attendance so she knows she will see someone from Swarthmore at least once a week.

C.A.P.S. has also provided virtual resources for students. On-campus students and those living in Pennsylvania have access to mental telehealth services, while those out of state have access to three telehealth consultation meetings. Students can also use Talkspace, an online mobile therapy company. Dr. Ramirez recommends that students reach out to someone they trust when things get particularly tough and check-in with one another. 

“Make your health and wellbeing a priority in whatever way speaks to you; speaking with a counselor or a loved one, taking a walk, eating a nutritious meal, making time for your favorite hobby, and resting are all ways of caring for yourself. Know that relief will come, and that you are not alone,” said Ramirez. 

Image courtesy of Kevin Simmons on Flickr.

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