Members of Georgetown University’s incoming freshman class sent an open letter to university administrators May 1, urging them to consider a slate of accommodations for students should the university hold the fall 2020 semester online.
With COVID-19 case numbers and fatalities continuing to climb, colleges across the country are weighing the feasibility of resuming on-campus activities in the fall. Many schools have announced their intention to resume full operations in the fall, while others are considering partial reopenings or postponements. Georgetown has not announced any plans for the fall 2020 semester as of May 9.
If classes continue online during the fall semester, the letter calls for an extension of the gap year decision deadline for incoming freshmen, the postponement of the fall semester within the window of the fall months, guaranteed on-campus housing for vulnerable student groups and guaranteed pay for all faculty and staff.
“In an online setting, students cannot experience the invaluable studying and socializing that happens in dorms, dining halls, and clubs. These experiences help us adjust to academic life and support in our development as persons, enriching our character and maturing our worldview in the true spirit of cura personalis,” the letter reads. “Being denied these experiences, which are crucial to a healthy transition to college life, would hamper our ability to engage in rigorous online coursework in a distance learning environment.”
Incoming college freshmen risk losing two capstone events in academic life because of the pandemic: senior year of high school and the inaugural year of college. The symbolic losses are accompanied by many tangible challenges. The possibility of another online semester is particularly unnerving for many low-income students who rely on campus resources to succeed, according to Amy Cazares (COL ’24), an incoming first-generation, low-income student.
“As someone who has no idea how college is supposed to work, trying to learn through an online medium would prove extremely difficult given my circumstances,” Lazares wrote in an email to The Hoya. “My advancement through school is dependent on in-person class and if that means a delayed academic semester, then I’d prefer it. The uncertainty throughout these past few months has completely turned my world upside down both financially and academically.”
Many homes are also not well-suited for academic life. Incoming freshman Hannah Ajibola (NHS ’24) had to navigate the obstacles of an online learning environment her senior year of high school.
“I felt ever more distanced from my classmates as they seemed to get along just fine as many are from affluent families,” Ajibola wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I never felt that divide until now when I’m on zoom calls and my classmates or friends can call basically at any time conveniently, or have the privacy of their own room, which I do not have based on my living circumstances. Sometimes my connection would cut out because so many people in my household are using it at the same time.”
The letter, which has garnered 160 freshman signatures as of May 9, raises concerns about these inequities and encourages the administration to minimize them.
“We fear that continuing online instruction would exacerbate inequalities within our Georgetown community, which may give rise to long-lasting academic repercussions and contribute to an unjust learning environment,” the letter reads. “A stable internet connection and a private learning space are imperative to successfully implementing online learning, and numerous students may not have access to either.”
The effort took inspiration from a similar movement at Harvard University, according to letter signee Bella Fassett (SFS ’24).
“I think really throughout the whole COVID crisis we’ve all, of course, been talking to each other about our concerns with the fall and about what we’re dealing with currently,” Fassett said in a Zoom interview with The Hoya. “We learned about the Harvard thing in the afternoon, and a few hours later we had started drafting our own letter on Zoom and planning to create sort of a petition, but more of something that focused on voicing the concerns of the class of 2024.”
Since receiving the letter, the university administration has continued to consider several scenarios for the fall but has yet to come to a decision, according to a university spokesperson.
“We will be prepared to move forward with our academic and research mission under a range of possible scenarios, which will be driven by public health conditions and our responsibility to keep our community safe,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “As decisions are made, administrators will continue to consider the differential impact that remote instruction, and the disruption caused by the move back to permanent residences, had on our students in the Spring, and will be mindful of that as we make any decisions about the Fall.”
The letter’s drafters hope it will elevate the voices of the freshman class and convey their concerns, according to Graham Hillmann (SFS ’24), who also signed the letter.
“We just want to make sure we have a seat at the table because we have seen how these policy decisions can have serious ramifications for students in our daily lives as current high school students, and it’s not good,” Hillmann said in an interview with The Hoya. “We just want to make sure that everyone’s voices are being heard.”