The UA Student Experience During COVID-19

September 29, 2020

The fall 2020 semester at The University of Alabama has so far provided a very different student experience from semesters past.

With new procedures in place to stem the spread of COVID-19, life for students has dramatically changed. Masks and social distancing are required. Many classes have moved on-line or are a hybrid, both in-person and on-line. There will be no tailgating and only limited capacity in Bryant-Denny Stadium for this season of Crimson Tide football.

Demarcus Joiner, president of the UA Student Government Association, said the restrictions are needed to help stop the spread of COVID-19. He sat down with Dr. Tom Weida, University Medical Center’s chief medical officer and a family medicine physician, to talk about the changes and the importance of students doing their part.

TW: Tell me a little about your background.

DJ: I currently serve as the Student Government Association president here at UA. I’m from Roanoke, Alabama. I’m a senior majoring in civil engineering with a concentration in pre-law.

TW: What is the SGA?

DJ: The SGA is the Student Government Association. Our main goal is to serve as advocates for students on campus and to serve as the liaison between administrators and the students.

TW: How did you get involved in the SGA?

DJ: I started in my sophomore year as a senator for the College of Engineering, and then I served as the vice president for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. As vice president, I had the opportunity to meet students from different backgrounds. I thought if I could have a bigger platform and impact more students, being president would be it. That’s why I chose to run for president and that’s where I am today.

TW: You are majoring in civil engineering. Tell us about that.

DJ: Civil engineering is probably the broadest engineering major we have here. I can be a construction engineer, an environmental engineer, there are many options. But I want to go to law school, so I’m kind of taking a different path than the typical civil engineering major.

TW: As president of the SGA, what do you hope to accomplish this year?

DJ: I started in March, and during my campaign I focused on the student experience and engagement. It’s been an interesting year to talk about the student experience and student engagement.

TW: How has this and your role changed now that COVID-19 has descended upon our campus?

DJ: It was hard, initially, representing students who weren’t necessarily on campus. We were trying to figure out how to engage with students who weren’t here, who were at home in states all around the country. That was the hard part, but we still served as advocates. We worked with (UA President) Dr. Stuart Bell and his office, and Dr. Myron Pope (vice president of UA Student Life). We built a strong connection with him to make sure the students still had an amazing experience. (Get on Board Day for students) was virtual. (Approximately) 600 organizations were present. they also had cooking shows, live videos and live concerts.

TW: Prior to COVID, what was student life like?

DJ: Everyone was living freely. On Thursdays you would see people walking around campus getting ready to go to a date party or a swap. On Fridays you would see people getting ready to go out to the Strip. Saturdays would be game days, so campus would be flooded with people and families. During the week, you would see people at libraries and dining halls. But now, since COVID has happened, everything has kind of shifted.

TW: How has it shifted?

DJ: Right now, we can’t have social events. That cuts out the swaps and date parties. Bars have capacity (limits), and it’s not necessarily recommended to go there. As for libraries and dining halls, only so many people can sit at tables now, and you have to register or reserve a time to go to some library spots.

TW: What about in the classrooms? Have there been changes there?

DJ: Yes, many. Teachers have spots where they must stay during teaching. Everyone has to wear a mask. You have to show your (pass) to get into class, which shows that you have no symptoms, that you have not been told to get tested, or that you haven’t been exposed to anyone (with COVID-19) that you know of. They have plexiglass dividing rows and seats. There are (designated places) where you can and can’t sit. It’s very different but it doesn’t hurt.

TW: Is wearing a mask a requirement on campus?

DJ: Everybody is supposed to wear a mask. It’s required. If you don’t, you’re subject to a student conduct violation. When we first came to campus, we all thought, ‘How are we going to make sure students wear masks?’ Luckily, on the first day of school, everyone was mostly complying. The only people I’ve seen who weren’t wearing masks were by themselves, sitting on the Quad by themselves and doing homework. I think most of the people have been compliant as far as wearing masks and doing what’s right.

TW: What else has happened to help with students’ social life?

DJ: Students are leaning more on friends and family. When I say friends and family, I mean the family they have created here at the University. I think now is the time where students are building those bonds and strengthening those bonds. For freshmen, I think they have to be friends with their roommates, and they have to lean on their roommates to make sure they have social interaction.

TW: You’ve been in close contact with various student groups. What have they thought about all of this?

DJ: I think they understand the importance of having restrictions right now. At first, I know it was kind of a culture shock because most student group executives are seniors and we’ve been used to having parties every other weekend or meetings every other week, and once these restrictions came it kind of shook everything up. But now students understand, and the numbers (of positive COVID-19 cases) are going down and if we do what’s right, restrictions will be lifted.

TW: What about fraternities and sororities? They usually have a pretty social atmosphere. How have they been adapting?

DJ: Most fraternities and sororities, including the one I’m in, we have the social aspect but we’re more focused on service and brotherhood. I think now fraternities and sororities are focusing more on the service and philanthropy as well as brotherhood and sisterhood.

TW: Can you give us an example of some of the philanthropy projects they are doing?

DJ: Some are raising money for different social justice groups. Some are working with different places in Tuscaloosa to either donate money or donate products. As far as brotherhood and sisterhood go, speaking for my fraternity, last night we had a brotherhood Zoom study night, so everybody got on Zoom and studied together. It was as productive as you can expect with 30 boys sitting there on Zoom. Everyone is trying to do different things and I think that shows that we are being adaptable.

TW: Has this been more difficult for freshmen?

DJ: Of course. I think it’s because freshmen had so much ripped away from them at the beginning, and they thought they would have the college experience that we brag about. I think that was the part that they had to adapt to. It has been hard, but I think freshmen are leaning on upper classmen to serve as mentors so they can do what’s right and so they can have the experiences that we talk about.

TW: Football season is coming. How do you see that impacting campus?

DJ: It’s going to be interesting. I’m looking forward to football season. I love football season here at the University. But I think students now understand and, seeing how the first few weeks went, when the city shut down bars and the University got tougher on us, that they don’t care what it is – it can be football, it can be anything. I think students understand that we’re going to have to do our part and do what’s right during football season.

TW: Have you personally taken the message of how to be safe to campus, and how have you done that?

DJ: The Student Government Association put out five videos right before school started about wearing masks, how to properly social distance, how to get tested (for COVID-19), where to get tested. And when I see people walking around campus and some people might not have their mask up, I say, ‘Hey, pull up your mask.’ And they say, ‘OK, cool. I just forgot.’ They’re very compliant.

TW: When students first came to campus (this semester), everybody got screened for COVID. Some individuals were positive, and some individuals had contact with positive people. How did isolation and quarantine go for students?

DJ: I’ve spoken with many students that have been isolated or quarantined here on campus and have quarantined off campus. I think at first, as far as the University goes, I don’t think we understood everything that would go into being quarantined. Now, I’m proud to say I think we do. (The University) is making sure that quarantine spaces are clean, that students have someone they can talk to at any time, that they are safe. I think now the University is doing an amazing job to make sure that students in quarantine have the mental health support they need, as well as the physical support – food and making sure that they are safe.

TW: When they’re in isolation, what does that really mean? Do they get to go anywhere?

DJ: No. They’re supposed to stay in their quarantine spaces to make sure that they don’t infect anybody else.

TW: How have students continued to participate in decreasing virus transmissions? Are they on board?

JD: At first, I guess everybody thought with 30,000 plus students coming back to campus, no one was going to get tested, no one was going to do that. But our students proved everyone wrong. Students know that getting tested is a responsibility to make sure that not only are they safe but that everyone around them is safe as well.

TW: Tell us about the classroom experience. What’s that like now in the era of COVID?

DJ: I have three hybrid classes. I go to face-to-face class once a week for each of those classes. I also watch online the other days. The teachers make sure that everyone on Zoom (has their questions answered) and they’ll stop and explain things whenever students need that. So the experience has been good. It’s actually better than I thought it would be. (The professors) are so helpful right now. They understand. As an engineering major, it’s tough to learn engineering on a computer, so they are trying to be as flexible as possible to make sure that we are the best engineers when we graduate from here.

TW: Once we have COVID behind, do you see a benefit with continuing with hybrid classes? Is that something we need to be thinking about for the future?

DJ: I think for some classes, definitely. But I do understand students wanting to be face-to-face because this is college. I think students, when they come to college, they’re looking for that face-to-face interaction. But I do believe that some classes will work fine hybrid.

TW: Do you see, with restrictions being eased on the Strip, that there’s going to be a mad rush by students to go out?

DJ: I want to say no, but we also know that we can’t speak for everyone. But I do believe that now, after the first few weeks (of the semester), students understand the importance of doing everything the right way, so we don’t have to revert back to Phase 1 where everything gets shut back down.

TW: Has anything changed about the fall semester? Is it shorter, longer?

DJ: When we get to Thanksgiving break, students will have the opportunity to go back home to finish up classes; there will be no face-to-face classes after Thanksgiving. But we will still have finals week.

TW: How will they do finals online?

DJ: I think the University has different proctoring instruments to make sure that students uphold the best academic integrity that they can.

TW: What do you think the spring semester is going to look like?

DJ: I think once spring comes, hopefully things are better. But I think we’re going to have to treat it just like we’re leaving it. So, making sure students understand that we’ll probably still have to wear masks and socially distance to make sure that we don’t have a big spike once students come back. I don’t know if the University is going to make every student get tested to return back to campus but I’m sure that probably will happen, just to make sure that students aren’t coming back from their respective homes and bringing COVID with them.