From cluttered homes to an uncertain fall, survey lays bare students’ pandemic struggles

Up to 60% of students would seek a leave of absence this fall if the college were to choose a fully-remote path, results show

Benjy Renton

We sent students a survey last week asking some of the questions that have continually shaped our lives since March 10.

From the data collected, we learned that: 

  • Most students felt that professors were understanding. Ninety percent of surveyed students were satisfied with professors’ accommodations through remote learning. 
  • Classes could get a lot smaller if we remain remote this fall, as 58% of students would elect to take a leave of absence if Middlebury chooses to remain fully-remote during that term. 
  • The pandemic has not been kind to Middlebury students’ job opportunities. Sixty two percent of surveyed students at one point had a job or internship that was cancelled due to the pandemic. 
  • Few people opted in to credit/no credit. In the wake of the failed movement for mandatory credit/no credit grading, 63% of respondents took all of their spring classes for letter grades.

At the end of the survey, we also gave students the chance to anonymously share opinions or anecdotes about experiences in quarantine. We’re really glad we did so — the responses you provided were at turns poignant, urgent and funny, and all of them capture the bizarre reality we’re living through. These anonymous opinions have been included in this article in places where they complement our findings expressed through data visualization. 

General demographics

Of the roughly 2,500 Middlebury students who were sent the survey, 583 — roughly a quarter — participated. Respondents were split fairly evenly across class years, with a slight majority of respondents coming from the classes of 2021 and ’21.5. (Though they will not be enrolled this fall, members of the class of 2020 were invited to complete the survey because of their perspectives on the spring semester and experience graduating during the pandemic). 

Reflecting the demographic reality of the college’s student body, a majority of respondents identified as white. Ten percent, or 58, respondents identified as international students. 

Spring semester and summer

Mental health during remote spring semester

A majority of students — 64% of respondents — reported having experienced mental health-related challenges during the course of their spring semester. Twenty-five percent reported knowing where to go to get virtual mental health support from the college, 27% said they did not know where to access care and the remaining 47% reported being “somewhat” aware of how to seek care. 

But the logistical realities of being at home with parents, siblings and other family posed challenges for some students to seek help. “As someone who struggles with mental health, it’s a lot harder to reach out for help when I’m at home and I feel at higher risk for falling into really bad lows and having no one around to help,” one student wrote.

“One challenge that I have faced has been less mental health problems myself,” a student wrote in their anecdotal response, “but more caring for family members struggling with their mental health.” 

Students reported feeling high levels of stress over uncertainty of life during the pandemic, as well as over jobs, relationships, academics, family life and home life. Often, multiple demands intersected to create unique challenges to tackling remote learning from home. 

“Mother lost her job, father might too,” a student wrote. “Having everyone under the same roof in a small house has driven my parents to the brink of divorce.”

Approval rating of communication by college entities since March 10

Students generally approved or were ambivalent about communication methods from college entities such as Schools Abroad, Parton counseling and the administration. However, several anecdotal responses expressed frustrations with a lack of solicitation of student input on the part of the college throughout the spring. 

“Many other schools are hosting webinars and Zoom calls explaining directly to students what options they are considering in the fall,” one student wrote. “Middlebury has not told us the options and therefore there are more rumors/speculations. Even if the answer is ‘we don’t know yet – here are some options,’ [that would be] better than barely hearing from them at all.” 

Covid-19 infection among family, acquaintances and community

Nine Middlebury students responded as having tested positive for Covid-19. Forty percent reported knowing a friend who had tested positive, and another 41% responded as not knowing anyone who had tested positive.

Almost half — 48% — of students reported high levels of concern over viral transmission in their communities, while roughly 12% reported low levels of concern in their communities. 

Opinions on spring remote academic programming

A vast majority of respondents — 91% — reported professors being flexible in adjusting to the demands of remote learning. “Two of my professors were amazing — completely accommodating and conscious of the circumstances,” one student wrote. However, anecdotal responses saw many students report frustrations with how professors adjusted syllabi or failed to provide opportunities for asynchronous learning. 

Many students wrote that some professors were patient and accommodating while others approached the semester in starkly different ways. 

“I felt like most of the concessions certain professors claimed were just talk,” one student wrote. “One of my professors did not cut the workload at all and just added the material from the week we missed onto the post-break semester.” 

Despite high rates of approval for professors’ levels of accommodation, 64% of students reported that their academic experience this spring was at least “generally” impaired amid the adjustment to remote learning.

“If students were disadvantaged before, this pandemic only exacerbates the previous systemic issue,” one student wrote. “We should focus Middlebury’s financial support to pledge to support students who have a less than ideal home situation for learning. This is a serious concern for accessibility reasons as well.”

Students reported “news and outside distractions” as the most significant impediment to their distance-learning experience. Financial burdens were another — more than 100 students reported a need to make money while living at home as being at least somewhat of an obstacle to their learning, and thirty-four students reported lacking a home as a significant obstacle. 

“I’ve been taking care of my two younger cousins whose both parents have brain injuries,” a student wrote. “Being home means that I have to step up in my family, and that involves home-schooling and helping to raise an 11-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy. It has also meant caring for my father who has early-onset Alzheimers. The playing field is extremely unequal when school is remote.” 

A significant majority of students — 63% — reported not taking any classes credit/no credit this spring. In the push for a credit/no credit system in the spring, students cited disadvantages faced by less-privileged students as the primary reason for offering such a system. Some students acknowledged that the credit/no credit system remained relevant because of these challenges, even if they were able to choose letter grades. 

“My grades ended up good this semester,” one student wrote, “but I support universal credit/no credit because I know how much stress my friends have experienced in deciding whether to take courses for standard grading or for credit.”

Summer plans

About half of students surveyed will participate in remote internships or jobs this summer. However, 62% reported previously having a job or internship that was later cancelled due to the coronavirus. 

A slight majority of respondents reported that they will be spending the summer months in the same location as where they spent their spring semester. 

Fall 2020 

“The Plan” 

Respondents favored an in-person, socially distanced semester for fall 2020 — a plan that raises questions about the college’s ability to enforce social distancing protocols in classrooms, dorms and the town of Middlebury. The other favorite options — delayed on-campus semester and pre-Thanksgiving end to the semester — raise similar questions that colleges will continue to grapple with as they consider on-campus possibilities. 

Students are thus not enthused by the prospect of another semester of fully-remote learning. A significant percentage of anecdotal responses submitted at the end of this survey centered around respondents’ anxieties for the fall. 

“I would easily trade my off campus/ traveling privileges for an in person-semester,” one student wrote. “Being able to socialize and learn in person with friends and colleagues is my highest priority.”

“I am going to be incredibly depressed if we can not return to campus in the fall,” another wrote.

But others expressed concern that the college committing to an in-person fall semester would pose too many uncertainties to be worth it. “I would rather have a clear remote fall than a chaotic one on campus,” one student wrote. More directly, others pointed out that an in-person fall would raise pressing questions about how to enforce social distancing guidelines. 

Others offered their own tips on how the college should plan for the fall. “I think we should arrive to campus early, spend 14 days in isolation with the highest social distancing measures in place, and then have a normal fall semester,” a respondent wrote. “This would hopefully eliminate any risk of the virus spreading after the two weeks of isolation.”

As students sort through anxieties about what the fall will bring, immunocompromised students are experiencing higher degrees of concern about how the semester will look than most.

“As an immunocompromised student I am very scared of what life back at Middelbury would look like, yet also do not want to give up the rest of my college years,” a student wrote. “I worry about whether Middlebury is talking with the ADA coordinators/more vulnerable students to form a fall semester plan.” 

Four-hundred and twelve respondents — 71% — would be “very unwilling” to pay full tuition for a remote fall semester. And in the anecdotal responses, students posed concerns about how tuition payments and financial aid would work in the event of a remote semester. 

Will the college allow students on financial aid to take the semester off without restrictions? If I take the semester off and am on financial aid will I still be assured financial aid for the rest of my time at Middlebury? Will financial aid decrease due to financial hardships of the college? I am concerned that the college will hold financial aid over students’ heads to prevent them from withdrawing from the semester if it is all remote,” a student wrote. 

 

41% of respondents said they would prefer a mandatory credit/no credit system in the event of a fully remote fall semester. 

And strikingly, 337 said they would attempt to take a leave-of-absence for the fall in the event of a fully-remote semester. 

Everyone I know would try to take a semester off if it were to be remote,” one student wrote in their anecdotal response. Another wrote that a fully in-person semester would be necessary for them to even consider paying full tuition and that “it isn’t worth my money or my time otherwise.”

In voicing anxieties about the fall, students — already three months into social distancing protocols by June — were most concerned about the ability of the pandemic in preventing them from socializing with friends. 

Other significant anxieties stemmed from the ongoing public health risk and potential restrictions on campus activities. 

“I am extremely concerned about the potential of party/social culture instigating an outbreak,” a student wrote. “I do not know that every student may follow social distancing/quarantining rules. In fact, I expect many to break them…I am worried that places of massive, close social gatherings (social houses, Atwater, etc.) will create a possible breeding ground for the virus.”

To the college, one student wrote, “good luck making these really tough decisions.”

Correction 6/4/20, 9:30 A.M.: A previous version of this article stated that “about a third [of students] reported knowing a friend who had tested positive and another third responded as not knowing anyone who had tested positive” for Covid-19. The correct figures are 40% and 41%, respectively.