At JMU, an uncertain semester is about to begin

By Sabriya McKoy, contributor

With classes scheduled to start Wednesday, JMU is bustling with first-year students attending on-campus orientation while returning students settle back into their housing on campus and off. 

They’re facing the start of an acadmic year unlike anything past JMU students have had to deal with — a pandemic that not only could put their health at risk but also result in shifting classes from classrooms to meeting virtually, the way they did at the end of last spring semester. Altogther, it’s led to major changes and a bit of anxiety. 

First-year students, for instance, usually spend a week on campus gathering in groups led by First Year Orientation Guides, or FROGs.  In recent years, first-year students’ orientation schedules have been filled with on-campus activities. The objective is to help them prepare for their classes, meet new people and navigate campus resources. But this year, those activities have been scaled back and, of course, require personal protective equipment, such as masks. 

Some of the in-person mixing has also been replaced by screen time.  

Malissa Pham, a first-year student who will study computer information systems, said she virtually met her resident assistant, who will be in charge of her floor in the residence hall. 

“So I wasn’t able to see everyone’s faces that are on my floor,” Pham said. “I wish [orientation] was more spread out because it felt a little rushed.” 

Given the circumstances, Pham said she enjoyed her orientation experience and is eager to start classes.

For other students already looking ahead to classes, the big question is whether JMU can avoid the fate of other universities, such as the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Notre Dame, which quickly had to shift to all online courses due to COVID-19 outbreaks among students. 

Sara Mudd, a first-year theater major, said she will start the fall with one online class and another four in-person. But she’s not as concerned about having to learn virtually if JMU ends up shifting online — it’s where she’ll have to go. 

“My main fear, if we get kicked off of campus, is bringing [COVID] home to my family,” she said. After a brief pause, Mudd added: “I honestly would like for everyone to try to be safe.”

Blake Bogan, one of the student orientation guides and a junior biology major, lives off-campus and is gearing up to come to campus for classes — just not as often as she would have to in past semesters. 

“I have a few hybrid classes,” she said, referring to ones that will meet in-person and virtually on alternate days.

She said her professors also are being flexible with those students who can’t come to class because of medical conditions that put them at risk or because they’re quarantined. 

“Some of my professors are giving students the option to attend the in-person classes,” she said. Students like Bogan can decide on which days they’ll go into the classroom because classes will be recorded or streamed live.

If JMU decides to move all courses online, Bogan said she’s afraid she will struggle with some of her more challenging classes, such as her biology lab. She will have to adjust to having some lectures online, while her tests are still scheduled to be proctored in the classroom. She said she hopes to succeed in all of her classes — online and in-person.

Release of case numbers disgruntles campus newspaper

So far JMU administrators haven’t said publicly what specific conditions might prompt the university to close campus or shift most or all classes online as the university did in the spring. A message to the JMU community from JMU President Jonathan Alger earlier this month said the university will monitor and take into consideration factors such as available hospital beds, capacity of on-campus quarantine bed and “an increase in positive COVID-19 cases within our community.” 

While JMU hasn’t publicly released the number of cases, JMU’s administrators did tell the Daily News-Record on Monday that 10 students had tested positive for COVID-19. 

Administrators’ decision to release that information to one member of the media came after the university’s spokeswoman refused to tell the student-run newspaper, The Breeze, what the daily figures were, prompting the newspaper to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in order to try to get the information, according to a tweet by Breeze journalist Jake Conley

“JMU is providing numbers to the Daily News-Record while failing to do the same for The Breeze,” Conley tweeted Monday evening.

Hoping for the best while laying Plans B

Overall, students are hoping for the best but bracing for the worst especially with so much out of their control. 

“I’m comfortable going into the classroom, but I’m prepared to get sick because I see everyone is still partying,” said David Siddele, a junior biotechnology major.

Siddele said he would like for there to be fewer off-campus parties.

For Siddele — like most students — the goal heading into this unusual fall semester is still to perform as well in their classes as possible, whether it’s a bricks-and-mortar classroom or a virtual one. 

“If classes become fully online, I hope to maintain my GPA,” he said. 

Emily Snyder, a senior interdisciplinary liberal studies major, said her goal is to become a teacher. But she said she’s a little nervous about going back to the classroom. 

“I don’t have the option to go online with the classes that I have,” Snyder said. “I hope to still better myself in my education through projects since I won’t get the chance to get the hands-on experience working with kids.”  

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