In one video, an upbeat pop melody plays as an announcer declares, “Don’t miss the moments that matter.” In another video, titled “Treasured Moments” students and their professor, masked and socially distanced, extol the virtues of in-person classes and the lingering conversations that occur after the lecture is over.
Nearly a year after COVID-19 gripped the country and transformed higher education, forcing many colleges to transition to mostly remote classes, Northeastern University is trying to remind its students about that long-ago time when they learned in-person, and is urging them to come back to the class this spring.
In recent weeks, the university has released videos on social media and instructed its professors to give students a nudge to attend in-person classes, if they have the opportunity, by including it in their syllabus.
The effort has angered some Northeastern faculty and students, who say the university is prioritizing an image of a bustling campus over public health.
Encouraging more students to attend classes when COVID-19 remains a deadly threat is unwise and some professors are wary of pressuring students if they feel safer taking classes remotely, said Ryan Cordell, a Northeastern English professor, who taught both in person and online last semester.
“The reality for a lot of classes, I don’t know if in-person in a pandemic is the best option,” Cordell said. “A lot of schools want the optics of being in-person.”
Northeastern has said that it has spent millions of dollars on frequent COVID testing and on ensuring that buildings are safe, and that transmission has been low on campus. Coming to class allows students to engage with peers and gain more out of their educational experience, administrators said.
Northeastern is not trying to pressure professors into encouraging students to come back, but many faculty have asked administrators for suggestions on how to increase attendance in class after it slumped during the later fall, said chancellor Ken Henderson.
“If people interpreted it as pushing, that wasn’t the intent,” Henderson said. “It’s part of our promise as a residential campus to deliver the in-person interaction.”
The university has also converted offices in buildings with in-person classrooms into study space for students, so they don’t have to rush from their remote classes in the dorms to their in-person lecture halls, he said.
Will Cooper, 22, decided to take all his classes remotely this spring — his last semester at Northeastern — and said it isn’t laziness that is keeping him from going to the classroom. He enjoys the engagement he used to get in class with his peers, but the online classes have given him the flexibility in his schedule.
Cooper also said he can save money by eating lunch at home between classes and he can wake up later and simply log-on to his class instead of rushing across campus. Taking classes remotely also lessens his exposure to COVID, Cooper said.
“I don’t feel like I’m losing out on anything,” he said.
Northeastern isn’t the only school that saw a shift during the fall. Boston University also experienced a drop-off with in-person student attendance during the second half of the semester, officials there said.
At Plymouth State University in northern New Hampshire, only one or two students out of a class of 25 would show up for a face-to-face sessions at the end, said Robin DeRosa, the director of open learning and teaching collaborative at the public college.
Universities said it’s unclear whether students are skipping in-person classes because they fear getting sick, have lost momentum due to the mental toll of the pandemic, or are finding the remote classes more convenient.
Students at Plymouth State come for the residential college experience, but in the pandemic some have been forced to pick up more work to help parents who lost their jobs. For those students, remote classes are more convenient, DeRosa said.
Others may be feeling isolated or worried about their families getting sick and just couldn’t rally the energy to come to class in the winter, she said.
“We are underestimating the stress that students were under,” she said. “The convenience of the classes was a stress reduction.”
But she worries that students who may need face-to-face interactions with professors and peers to learn may not be getting the necessary support by opting for remote classes.
Even in-person, the classes are a world away from what students have come to expect from the college experience. Professors are often juggling discussions between the students in the classroom and online.
Attempting to blend teaching models sometimes has created surreal situations: students taking a class online from their dorms from a professor teaching at home, but with their faces and conversations projected onto computer screens in an empty classroom.
Students say they want in-person classes, and colleges are under pressure to offer that to justify the prices schools are charging, said Chris Marsicano, an assistant professor at Davidson College in North Carolina and founding director of the College Crisis Initiative, which has been tracking higher education’s response to the pandemic.
But the reality is taking a toll, he said.
“Students got tired,” Marsicano said. “You have to keep your mask on all the time [inside classrooms], you’re making sure they were getting tested, it was exhausting.”
Marsicano said he commuted during the week last fall from his home in Nashville to North Carolina to teach, and attendance in his morning seminar slowly shrank until one day he was teaching to an empty room.
“Having driven eight hours to be in the class, I was mildly annoyed,” he said. But he added that students in his other two classes kept attending in person.
“Once we get to the place where most students are vaccinated and faculty are vaccinated, I know what I’ll do,” Marsicano said. “You will not get a high participation grade if you don’t show up in class.”
Northeastern officials say it’s too early to tell if the school’s social media campaign is bringing more students back to the classroom.
For Hannah Nivar, 19, a Northeastern sophomore, taking one in-person class this spring has made a difference. She took all remote classes last fall and didn’t realize until recently that she missed some of the social cues of being together in the same room, such as making eye contact with the professor or noticing when others raised their hands or nodded in agreement.
“We’re slowly easing into it,” Nivar said. “This is the new normal.”