Ella Spungen ’23.5 is what you might call a “big shopper.” At the start of the spring semester, she planned to attend the first meetings of at least 10 classes. But when she tested positive for COVID-19 the week before classes started, the semester’s first three days became “nonexistent.”
“It left me sort of unsure of what I (was) doing,” Spungen said, adding that some professors allowed her to attend class via Zoom, while others did not provide that option. “I haven’t really been able to shop at all.”
This semester, the University’s approach to academic instruction regarding COVID-19 will remain the same from the fall semester, according to a Jan. 30 communication from Interim Provost Larry Larson.
The approach, described in an Aug. 9 communication from former Provost Richard Locke P ’18, includes guidance related to student absences. “While instructors are not expected to teach additional hybrid or online sections to accommodate individual student absences, we ask that instructors develop plans for student absences and communicate those plans to students at the beginning of the semester,” Locke wrote.
The Aug. 9 announcement pointed to a faculty guide for remote-accessible teaching that lists resources such as Media Services and the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, covering scenarios including courses where class sessions are recorded and posted on Canvas and students joining in-person classes via Zoom.
The Herald spoke to four students who, due to positive tests for COVID-19, were unable to attend class in person during the first week of shopping period. Students’ experiences included a combination of attending class via Zoom, watching recorded lectures, listening to audio recordings or reading syllabi and going over slides.
Although Spungen was able to attend certain classes via Zoom, others were more difficult to access.
“I’ve had a lot of professors be like, ‘Oh I’m so sorry, no I cannot figure out Zoom. … Look at the syllabus,’ or they forget to send me a link, or said they were going to try and then couldn’t figure it out,” Spungen said.
Sebastian Park ’25 had a similar experience to Spungen. While some professors provided a Zoom option and others utilized lecture capture, two classes Park was interested in did not offer recordings, he said.
“It was not the most convenient thing to try to get the feel of what (the classes) were like when I had to stay at home,” Sebastian said.
“The first classes are … where you kind of get the overall feeling of the class,” said Isabella Clarke ’26, who missed the first three days of shopping period after testing positive for COVID. “Obviously I could look at the syllabus myself in my room, but not being (in class) was a little difficult.”
“I kind of get it on their end,” Spungen said. “But we’re three years into (the pandemic) and I don’t think it's that hard.”
The Aug. 9 announcement included guidelines for managing classroom density and providing virtual options during shopping period. Instructors “should explain their attendance policy in their syllabus, post their syllabus on Courses@Brown … and publish Canvas websites in advance of the first class so students know how instructors will manage attendance before the first day of class.”
Instructors may also manage the density of classrooms by “recording their first lecture(s) if feasible and posting on Canvas,” Locke wrote. While professors have discretion over how COVID-related absences are managed, the Provost’s Office notes that instructors “should be flexible and support students with excused absences.”
Michael Satlow, professor of Judaic studies and religious studies, said that professors have a number of options when it comes to accommodating students who cannot attend class, but that the decision is “pretty much entirely up to us.”
“It's a lot of effort, in general, for a professor to provide lecture capture or some filming of his or her lecture, especially on the first days,” said Satlow, who teaches RELS 0010: “Happiness and the Pursuit of the Good Life,” in which over 400 students are enrolled. He has not yet had a student reach out to him regarding health concerns, he added.
RELS 0010 is taught in Salomon Center DECI, a room that has lecture capture. “I do nothing,” Satlow said, regarding the automated system which starts, stops and uploads recordings to his Canvas page automatically.
“If I was in another room that didn’t have that, and I had to set up the Panopto on my own computer and get that running in addition to thinking about the content of the class, that’s a much tougher lift,” he said.
Quinn Cowing ’25 said that a seminar they missed after testing positive for COVID-19 last week offered no virtual option or recording because the course is discussion-based. Another class provided lecture capture, and one professor shared just the audio of the class to accompany the posted slides.
“I’m lucky in that it’s still at the beginning of shopping period where classes haven’t picked up very much,” Cowing said. “But I don’t think this is going to be a super sustainable practice to keep class accessible to kids.”
“We have been encouraging instructors to offer as much flexibility as they can in the specific context of their class and classroom,” Sydney Skybetter, deputy dean of the College for curriculum and co-curriculum, wrote in an email to The Herald. “This flexibility is intended as a means of offering support to one another — students, staff and faculty — and to acknowledge that individual pedagogic circumstances are simultaneously intensely personal and variable.”
Zoom and recordings are “technology that we should all be very familiar with at this point,” Spungen said. With absences due to COVID-19, “you have to do a ton of self-advocating, and I was luckily healthy enough to do it, but it’s exhausting.”
Despite challenges, all four students told The Herald that professors have been understanding about holding their spots on waitlists.
Koren Bakkegard, associate vice president for campus life and dean of students, told The Herald that students can reach out to Student Support deans for assistance with the impacts of their health on academics, including navigating conversations with faculty or receiving dean’s notes.
Satlow said that virtual or even hybrid class sessions lessen the learning experiences of both the people in the room and those attending virtually.
“Do you try to accommodate those people who can’t make it?” Satlow said, noting that students who get sick typically miss one or two classes. “But degrading the quality of the instruction for everybody who’s there — (that’s a) tough choice, as much sympathy as one has for the people who’re sick.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to include a more relevant link to the University’s resources for managing student and faculty absences and now includes an updated summary of those resources. The Herald regrets the error.
Haley Sandlow is a section editor covering science and research as well as admissions and financial aid. She is a sophomore from Chicago, Illinois studying English and French.