Students navigate new challenges as they shift from virtual to in-person experiences

After over a year of online learning and Zoom interactions, students are both anxious and excited to return to classrooms and in-person social scenes.

As difficult as the shift to online learning was for some students, many students now express concern over the likely return to in-person classes in the fall.

“I’ve found making small talk again really challenging,” said Sangeeta Kishore, a sophomore studying international relations and French. “Even though we’ve had breakout rooms and other Zoom socializing opportunities, I feel like spending so much time away from real social interaction has made small talk way more daunting than before.”

Despite these feelings of social anxiety, Kishore takes comfort in knowing that this experience is widely shared.

“I feel as though I need to re-learn and re-train myself back into that social mindset,” Kishore said. “But at the same time, having lived through this shared experience of quarantine and pandemic with everyone, I’ve also been able to connect with new people in a way I wouldn’t have before.”

Kishore isn’t alone. With limited chances for in-person socializing, social anxiety and pandemic fatigue have drastically increased amongst students. According to a recent study, 71% of students reported higher levels of stress and anxiety during the pandemic, and 86% reported a significant decrease in social interaction.

According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, approximately two-thirds of adults expressed that they participated in less in-person social interactions during the pandemic. At the same time, about half of adults reported feeling uneasy about returning to in-person social interactions.

USC sophomore Jack Goldman expressed concern about returning to in-person classes. After transferring to USC in the fall, Goldman said living in an apartment close to campus has provided him with some opportunities to be independent and “have a college experience.”

He’s concerned, however, with how he will be able to readjust to on-campus learning after taking classes virtually for nearly three semesters.

On a normal day of online school, Goldman said he wakes up just a few minutes before class begins, throws on a shirt and “maybe pants.” Next semester he will have to wake up much earlier to make the trek across campus for class.

Goldman’s biggest worry is returning to studying and taking in-person exams, especially as a newly-admitted human development and aging major. He said he thinks students like himself will struggle attempting to re-learn the test taking skills they once practiced.

With online school, Goldman feels tests are often no longer straightforward multiple choice questions. Since it is easy to look up answers or use notes, he said his professors are making exams more based on critical thinking and application of learned material.

“Instead of just cramming and learning all the information, we’re actually synthesizing it,” Goldman said. Taking tests based on critical thinking made Goldman feel like he “was learning something instead of just regurgitating information on a test.”

For incoming students like Irene Kim, going to campus will be doubly unsettling as she returns from quarantine and navigates a new school routine. Kim, a high school senior hoping to attend USC in the fall, frequently experiences the tired, drained feeling of pandemic fatigue. Since her mom is at high risk of contracting the virus, Kim has participated in very few in-person activities since the start of the pandemic.

“Being at home every single day, sitting for seven hours hasn’t really affected my happiness,” Kim said. “It’s more just the fatigue of, ‘oh my goodness, I have to log in every single day and do this. I know my friends are really having a tough time, too. All we do is think about how we need to move forward.”

Although her senior year has been mostly virtual, Kim follows her routine to make her days feel more normal. Having previously been involved in her school’s track team, she now runs three miles around her neighborhood, does yoga for an hour and FaceTimes friends.

In spite of the many anxieties the transition will bring, both Goldman and Kim said they are looking forward to reconnecting with students in person, making new friends and exploring the various opportunities in-person classes bring.

Along with the emotional hurdles that students are facing, many educators are expecting to see “academic gaps” when school resumes in person. Since classes have been online, teachers have had to dramatically adjust or even reinvent their course plans. When students return to a real classroom setting again, teachers may have to compensate for the quality learning time lost.

Dr. Kelly Greco, the Behavioral Sciences Assistant Director of Outreach and Prevention Services at Engemann Student Health Center, encouraged students to be open with each other and their professors about whatever concerns and anxieties they face.

“I don’t want students to suffer in silence,” Greco said. “I know vulnerability is difficult and it takes courage, but when we open up, it can be very cathartic.”

As a resource for students who may need help with the transition, Greco told Annenberg Media that the university will host 30 minute “Let’s Talk” drop-in sessions. These are not seen as counseling sessions but rather an opportunity for students to discuss their feelings and develop coping strategies.

“Giving ourselves permission to feel is really key,” Greco recommended along with prioritizing sleep, diet and exercise. Greco also advises that students try to “go with the flow” in their everyday lives and attempt to not sweat the trivial matters.