Opinion | We can’t have a repeat of last semester

By India Krug, Senior Staff Columnist

Last semester was hard. I’m worn out. Even writing this column is exhausting, I’m writing at a speed of about three sentences per hour. As Pitt’s campus tried to return to a semblance of normalcy last fall, I fought burnout and flinched when I heard coughs in my 100-person lecture. During finals season, my roommates and I burned the midnight oil, passing each other dejected looks over our laptop screens.

What made last semester so hard? Students spent the past year and a half adapting to online learning and then had to scramble to keep up with the rigors of in-person instruction. An in-person education requires much more focus and energy, and after surviving years of a pandemic, our wells run dry faster.

My professors stayed supportive and dedicated last semester even when they were just as exhausted. They worked to keep both their students at school and families at home safe. I think everyone in the Pitt community is feeling the effects of this pandemic, and we’re bracing for year three.

Students depended on the capacities of individual professors rather than a universal, administration-supported effort to provide an online option when it came to missing class due to COVID-19 exposure or illness. This can be especially difficult for immunocompromised, disabled and chronically ill members of our school community.

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Across the country, there’s been an overwhelming sense that we are all expected to just “get back to work,” further indicated by the CDC cutting the recommended quarantine time in half. Even in the Pitt community, we are all grappling with the idea that this pandemic is here to stay for awhile — but that doesn’t mean we should be cutting corners when it comes to safety.

There needs to be an online option throughout the entire semester. It can be as simple as professors recording class or uploading slides so students can participate asynchronously. To enter into this semester without one just seems like it would be an error.

If Pitt’s administration wants students to get tested every time they feel under the weather, there can’t be a looming threat of falling behind in class. To continue strong mitigation efforts, there needs to be an accessible and universal online option. If there’s not, we run the risk of students not testing and coming to class anyway.

The United States just set a record high for COVID-19 cases, and breakthrough infections have become more frequent. The newest variant of concern, Omicron, appears to be less severe than Delta, but spreads faster than other strains, and we don’t know how long this variant will last. This means that Pitt’s biggest problem could very well be lots of students who have mild infections, but still need to quarantine. Even if a case is mild for someone, it might not be mild to those they spread it to.

That brings me to my next point — the Omicron symptoms themselves pose a concern. They include sore throat, nasal congestion, dry cough, headache and fatigue. Many college students will tell you that we feel a little bit gross a lot of the time, and COVID-19 can be indiscernible from a cold. That’s why having an online option is important in efforts to encourage frequent testing.

There are things about last semester we can bring with us into the new year. We learned to lean on one another, and many of my classes found solace in discussions about why we were scared, stressed or drained. The Pitt faculty voted to unionize in October, which will allow them to collectively bargain for things such as improved compensation and working conditions.

The administration mandated vaccines by Dec. 6, which was a vital step in protecting public health. COVID-19 vaccines work to prevent serious infection, and hospitalization and case rates on campus stayed low. But I think we can do better this semester, and that starts with some form of an online option for classes and other campus activities.

I know that this is not what a lot of college students probably want to hear. We’ve already missed out on milestones and lost a big chunk of our college careers to this virus. But what we’ve gained back this academic year — school clubs, lectures and, let’s be honest, social lives — can only be preserved if we have an online option available.

India is The Pitt News’ informed rebel girl. Write to her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @indialarson_, but you better like her tweets.