student looking at computer

A student checking their email, April 25, 2019.

There are many things to consider in the in-person versus virtual learning debate. First and foremost, COVID-19 has returned in full force after a few blissful months of semi-normalcy; anyone still living as freely as they did two months ago is ignoring the highly contagious omicron variant. Because this variant spreads faster than other variants, we should continue to be cautious. For this spring semester, Virginia Tech has maintained that we will have classes in person until further notice. This is not in the best interest of Virginia Tech students and faculty because of the prevalence of health anxiety, the high potential for absences due to illness without an online option, and the financial burden for students who struggle with housing and dining plan costs (with an online option, they could bypass these costs). Because of the omicron variant, Virginia Tech and all other state schools should seriously consider moving classes online.

The Virginia Department of Health reported a mere 11,329 confirmed positive cases in the week of Dec. 11, 2021, as of Jan. 21, that were symptomatic; over the course of the last month or so, the number surged to 79,878 confirmed symptomatic cases in the week of Jan. 8, 2022, as of Jan. 21. In a recent message from President Tim Sands, he told the Virginia Tech community, “Expect the omicron variant to drive a COVID-19 surge in the early weeks of the semester.” It is apparent that everyone is aware and preparing for an outbreak of the virus now that spring classes have started up again and measures beyond a required booster vaccination can be taken to lessen the spread.

Virginia Tech’s COVID-19 Dashboard, updated by Schiffert Health Center, indicates that there were a total of 15 positive cases on campus as of Jan. 18 (the first day of class). The total number of positive cases climbed to 45 just two days later, and that was with many in-person classes temporarily switching online, on account of Provost Clarke, who recommended deans encourage instructors to stay online during the first week of classes. Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, stated that they will “carefully monitor this situation and make adjustments as conditions improve.”

In light of the rampant spread of COVID-19, anxiety among faculty, staff and students can be mitigated with an online structure, especially when classes offer alternatives for the lessons regardless of whether a student is sick or not. Students who test positive are often, but not always, given the option to attend class through Zoom or to get the information they need through Canvas. The spread of COVID-19 is inevitable, but Virginia Tech can do its part to slow the spread by switching to an online format during the first few weeks of classes or until cases have drastically decreased. 

COVID-19 anxiety takes many forms, but in a highly populated environment like Virginia Tech, it is easy to be hyper-aware of everything you touch and everyone you come in close contact with. While it is less likely for people to catch the virus when they avoid environments where the risk of spread could be higher, this new form of anxiety is extremely taxing on one’s mental health. In a 2021 article by Verywell Mind, author Arlin Cuncic wrote, “Researchers have now raised concern that obsessive distress and avoidance behaviors … will not subside quickly, even as COVID is controlled.” Developments such as COVID-19 anxiety syndrome demonstrate how the impact of the virus has bled into more than just physical health.

University fees would also be more affordable for some if they didn’t have to worry about housing costs on top of tuition. It would make all the difference for my family if I were able to sublease my apartment in Blacksburg and finish my classes while living at home. I’d save money on rent and have the time and energy to work a part-time job, which is not feasible for a lot of students when being a full-time student in Blacksburg. Many other students juggle jobs with their classes as well and an online format allows for schedule flexibility to make those more manageable. 

With an online format, I felt that attending class was made very simple, as it can be much easier to make an 8 a.m. class from the comfort of one’s own home than it is when the commute to and from campus must be taken into account. On some days, I only have one in-person class to attend and it can feel like a huge burden to physically go to campus just to come home 50 minutes later. Having the option to attend class through Zoom would most likely increase students’ willingness to go to classes and office hours. An online format is optimal, and it’s not only convenient for students; it’s also guaranteed to slow down infections of the omicron variant, which will ensure that local hospitals aren’t overwhelmed and students will be able to focus on their academics without worries of getting sick.

My opponent Elise argues that while the omicron variant is one of the most contagious viruses, it would be wise to carry on with our lives because it isn’t as fatal as the delta variant. According to journalist Manuel Ansede, “Omicron is certainly the most rapidly spreading virus among the ones we have been able to investigate at this level of detail.” Just as we’ve been told for the last two years, everybody reacts to COVID-19 differently and not every person will have the same symptoms. In an article by UCHealth, healthcare writer Tyler Smith explains, “If you have 100 people infected with the same virus, you have a wide range of outcomes.” In order to combat the virus, everyone needs to remember that while one individual may have a mild runny nose, another could be in the hospital struggling to breathe on their own.

In a recent article by the New York Times, studies have shown that the omicron variant is retreating. “The U.S. may be only a few weeks away from the most encouraging Covid situation since early last summer, before the Delta variant emerged,” wrote David Leonhardt, a senior writer for the New York Times. This further supports why Virginia Tech should reevaluate their in-person decision for the first few weeks of the semester, as there is a promising outcome if we make safer decisions such as resuming online classes. 

While online learning isn’t and wasn’t necessarily part of every student’s vision of their traditional college experience, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught instructors and students nationwide that it works. The rampant spread of COVID-19 among students this coming semester should be of concern for Virginia Tech, even if symptoms may not be fatal with the vaccines available today. With the spike of the new variant going into the semester, students’ physical and mental health would be protected and eased with an online semester, setting them up for better success overall.

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