Students reflect on a fall semester filled with many ups and downs

An unusual fall semester at SU amidst a pandemic

Dominated by COVID-19 spikes and scares, life at SU this semester was anything but normal
Published: December 1, 2020 | Updated: December 9th, 2020 at 3:39 pm
Student works online on the steps of Carnegie Hall.

With the fall semester wrapping up, the Syracuse University campus has turned into a deserted ghost town in these last few weeks. Another resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the weeks following Halloween had finally reached the threshold so that in-person classes were moved online. For many students, there was a mad scramble to pack up, offer hurried goodbyes to roommates and friends and make their way back home to finish classes remotely.

This wasn’t the end SU officials and students had hoped for. For that matter, neither was the semester as COVID-19 restricted social interactions and a majority of in-person activities were either canceled or postponed indefinitely. 

The virus brought a new experience to campus with many traditional events and activities changing formats or being completely restricted. This year’s Juice Jam was held virtually rather than at Skytop and students nor fans were not allowed to attend football games or any SU sporting events. The scene of a lifeless quad with social distance circles marked in the grass marked a notable change from the usual lively gatherings that occurred on nice fall days in past years. 

“It was really hard not being able to go to any football games, school events, or Juice Jam,” communication sciences and disorders freshman Leah Jones said. 

Jones said that she and her newfound college friends were able to find alternatives to the limited campus activities. 

“We ended up being able to make safe plans despite the pandemic and find creative ways to spend time outside since we weren’t able to be in each other’s dorms,” she said. “We liked to go shopping or go to eat at Oh My Darling with my friends.” 

The number of active and recovered COVID-19 cases on campus recorded by the SU COVID Dashboard over the course of the fall semester

 

The campus had its first pandemic scare a week before residential learning had even begun after dozens of students, mostly freshmen, had congregated on the quad with no masks and little indication of social distancing – fully violating the Stay Safe Pledge required by all students.  

By the second week of classes, the SU community was notified by Vice Chancellor Michael Haynie in an email that COVID-19 had been detected in the wastewater of the Ernie Davis residence hall. Ernie Davis residents were quarantined for 24 hours before further testing cleared them, this was the beginning of suspicion that the virus was lurking on campus. Then, in the span of one month, Two Kappa Kappa Gamma members left their sorority house in quarantine after testing positive, three residents of Day Hall Floor 8 tested positive for COVID-19, and SU experienced an uptick in new COVID-19 cases. 

Finance freshman Yash Godiwala said he hoped to do more with friends, even socially distanced, but planning for all outdoor activities is not necessarily conducive to Syracuse weather.

“Not being able to not go to other dorms made it difficult to interact, especially since Syracuse gets cold pretty early, making it hard to be outside for too long,” Godiwala said. 

Student working from laptop at home
Online classes can lead to a number of distractions. Some students find themselves online shopping during lectures or while trying to study.

In the classroom — the reason that more than 20,000 students converge on Syracuse’s campus every fall — students and professors adjusted to an array of learning formats from in-person to fully remote to a hybrid mix of both. The shift to Zoom-led classes in the spring gave an early sense of the changes that might occur down the road. But a whole semester of Zoom was a whole other story. 

“When some people are in-person and some are on-screen, it robs the experience and the power of teaching for the class,” said Professor Melissa Chessher, chair of the magazine, news & digital journalism program at the Newhouse School. “You know, it’s really hard to read a room on Zoom. It’s really hard to get a sense for what ideas are sticking and what are not. 

Professor Chessher said she misses seeing all her students in classes regularly and misses the energy they bring to class. 

“Not being able to have them in my office and talk about their ideas is painful,” she said. “It’s yet another screen and it’s not being able to see this person and have them here.”

The numbers of active COVID-19 cases throughout campus started to dip for a couple of weeks in late September and early October but another surge hit late October due to off-campus events. Robert D. Hradsky, vice president for the student experience, and Bobby Maldonado, chief of the Department of Public Safety, confirmed in a school-wide email that 70% of the positive cases that emerged from the surge were associated with students off-campus.

SU’s COVID-19 Dashboard also reflected the magnitude of active cases in October marking the first record setting increase. SU identified 98 cases in the 14-day reporting period — narrowly missing the 100 person threshold set by New York state to transition to remote learning. In-person learning was almost threatened but the reporting period reset, allowing SU to escape the fate of switching to online classes once again.

The number of new daily student COVID-19 cases that were identified over the fall semester

In November, the pandemic’s relentless nature hit SU again — hard. This time, SU succumbed to the predicted surge and ultimately transitioned to online learning following a second straight record-setting week of COVID-19 cases confirmed on campus. 

Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives and Innovation J. Michael Haynie and Interim Vice Chancellor and Provost John Liu said in an email sent school-wide on Nov. 9 that, as a result of the “troubling increase” in new COVID-19 cases, classes would switch to online within a week. But, due to the exponential number of new cases, Chancellor Kent Syverud announced in a school-wide email on Nov. 11 that in-person classes would pause effective immediately.

The transition to online classes for even the final weeks for classes proved challenging for students whose motivation was dwindling. For some, the task of tuning into class, completing assignments and getting ready for exams became a chore. 

“I always knew that it was going to be harder than ever to keep myself focused during class since there were going to be more distractions than taking them in-person,” said finance and marketing senior Prabhanjan Balakrishnan. “I was taking classes in my apartment so there were distractions like a bed in my room, so I could easily have taken a nap during class.

Senior Prabhanjan Balakrisnan and friends pose for a picture
From right to left junior Shelly Bhanot, senior Prabhanjan Balakrisnan and junior Kevin Chen pose for a picture.

When classes ended on Nov. 24, the SU COVID-19 Dashboard indicated 232 current active cases and 651 students in quarantine. The number of current active cases was on track to surpass the number of recovered students over the semester. Many students resorted to leaving campus early due to the surge in cases.

Frequent campus-wide COVID-19 testing at the Carrier Dome and an extra effort by Public Service officers monitoring campus area gatherings helped SU lengthen the semester as long as possible, but the inevitable was bound to occur. 

Freshman Erick Miguel Gomez Fernandez said he didn’t mind being asked to take regular COVID-19 tests.

“I never got a positive result, but I don’t think it was bad at all,” Fernandez said. “It just showed how serious the school was taking the virus.”

“If anything, [testing] helped keep us on campus for so long.” 

While the fall semester was one for the books, the hopes that next semester will resume in-person teaching is still high. Spring classes are set to resume on Jan. 25. 

Some undergraduates like Fernandez maintain a sense of optimism of looking forward to many more semesters ahead beyond the pandemic. 

“I constantly just remind myself that it’s still my first semester out of many left to go so I’m just remaining calm and patient with myself,” Fernandez said. “I think this is a decent start and that it can only go up from here. Hopefully in the future I get to have a more well rounded and full college experience, but for now I’m happy with how things have gone.”

For seniors now half way through their last year, fall semester has primed them with even more uncertainty for their final months at SU.

Economics and international relations senior Abhinav Yadava said he was hopeful his final year would provide him with opportunities he would treasure as part of his college experience.

“I was expecting really interesting classes, a busy social life, and the hustle of running from one part of campus to the next in 5 minutes or less,” Yadava said. “What really happened was a huge increase in workload, close to no sports (since almost all basketball hoops in the area were taken off), and a lack of motivation.” 

Yadava said he also was looking for more understanding from professors in light of the strain the pandemic has created for students personally.

But Yadava maintains some optimism as to what spring semester and eventual graduation will bring to his life. 

“I am 100 percent looking forward to next semester even if it looks the same as this semester,” Yadava said. “As a senior, I am excited to move on in my life and finally make my own living. Hopefully COVID does not last as long as it seems it will.”

Avatar for Jun Hyung Cho

is a Magazine Journalism undergraduate and Digital Producer for The NewsHouse.