On Saturday, March 12, Point Park will mark the two-year anniversary of shifting from fully in-person classes to online learning due to the COVID-19.
And, two years on, another class of seniors are preparing to graduate during the pandemic.
“At this point, I’m about to graduate and really haven’t had much of a college experience as a result,” said biological sciences major and first-semester senior Kara O’Rourke. “Overall, this college experience hasn’t been what I wanted, nor has there been any compensation for the things I’ve missed out on.”
In a statement from then-University President Paul Hennigan’s Office, the university announced that classes would be canceled beginning the following day, March 13, 2020 through March 17, 2020. Afterward, all classes would be moved online for the remainder of the semester.
“At this time there are no confirmed cases on the Point Park University campus or in Allegheny County; however, the virus continues to spread globally. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared it a pandemic, a term the WHO warns not to take lightly or carelessly,” the statement said. “….Because of the uncertainty surrounding the virus and its transmission, the University will take further action to protect our campus community.”
According to a timeline of COVID-19 developments in 2020 published by the American Journal of Managed Care, Point Park’s announcement came just one day after WHO declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic, and one day before the United States declared a national emergency.
Following the Spring 2020 semester, Point Park continued to be impacted by the pandemic, with the university offering remote learning options, as well as the university implementing mask and social distancing guidelines to ensure safety among students and faculty.
At the time, the exact length of these policies was uncertain. A follow-up statement from the University President’s Office on March 13 stated that the status of the upcoming commencement had not yet been decided, providing insight into the optimism of the time that the pandemic could be short-lived.
This lack of certainty also meant that the then-sophomores could not have known that the pandemic would still be looming over their own graduations two years later. As a part of the university’s student body enters the final weeks of their academic careers, they can only reflect on how the unexpected pandemic has derailed their expectations for college.
“I tend to be pretty positive, but I will say that the pandemic made me a tad more pessimistic,” senior education major Lily Fields said. “The social isolation was the worst part. Being told your whole life that college is a place where you’ll meet the best friends of your life and do all of these social things, it’s a bit of a letdown when you can’t.”
The social impact of the pandemic has also been felt by O’Rourke:
“Coming into college in a pandemic is definitely not the expensive experience I would’ve wanted. Having been put into quarantine, online courses, lack of socializing, constant class changes and loss of learning during those times has made it quite difficult.”
Pandemic protocols, such as quarantining and social isolation, have played major roles in the lives of college students nationwide. In September 2020, the Journal of Internet Medical Research published a study that “conducted interview surveys with 195 students at a large public university in the United States to understand the effects of the pandemic on their mental health and well-being.”
The study concluded that “due to the long-lasting pandemic situation and onerous measures such as lockdown and stay-at-home orders, the COVID-19 pandemic brings negative impacts on higher education.”
However, some students are choosing to try and find a silver lining from the last few years of hardship.
“It’s made me value my time with others more,” senior dance major Olivia Brookes said. “Not that I didn’t before, but with how unpredictable life has become, I’ve tried to fully be present and treasure my time with the people I love to a greater extent.”
In addition to the social effects, the pandemic has also complicated education. Remote learning provided students with a much less personal learning experience, leaving both students and teachers alike striving to create the best possible educational environment under these circumstances.
“Remote learning made me more aware of the privileges I had,” Brookes said. “Being a dance major, I had to dance in a much smaller space and without the usual atmosphere of a dance studio when we were sent home two years ago. That really put into perspective the gifts I was given.”
Fields said that she believes that despite the challenges presented by the pandemic, Point Park has done well to overcome them.
“Education-wise, I feel like Point Park did the best they could with the sudden change,” Fields said. “In the education world, flexibility is beyond important, and it all happened so fast. I will say though, I am in the education department, and the education professors did a great job trying to make classes as engaging as they could. I feel like the school did the best they could. I won’t say that it was flawless, but they kept COVID numbers as low as they could. I’d say this year they grew a little more restless trying to go back to fully in-person. I wish they could’ve transitioned that a little more because it was so jarring. But I think the biggest loss was socially.”
Even two years after the start of the pandemic, its long-term effects are not yet known. According to the Research and Development Corporation (RAND), the lasting impacts of COVID-19 on education may not be fully understood for some time:
“While preliminary accounts highlight the impact of COVID-19 on a variety of student outcomes, it may take years to unpack how the pandemic affected student learning and social and emotional development.”
Despite the many challenges presented by the pandemic for students, some students have still been able to hold onto an optimistic view of their pandemic-era college experience, including Brookes.
“It made me realize that we can adapt and still make things enjoyable and valuable,” she said.