Students and professors troubleshoot return to in-person classes

Problems with overcrowding, mask-wearing, outdoor space and technical difficulties have made the fall semester less than ideal.

In compliance with L.A. county’s indoor masking mandate, students at the University of Southern California wear face masks while studying at Wallis Annenberg Hall, Los Angeles, CA, on September 9, 2021. (Julia Zara)

While in-person learning has resumed on campus, students and professors are still trying to balance safety and effectiveness when determining the modality of their classes.

According to USC Environmental Health & Safety, students should wear a mask in class, social distance from others if possible, wash or sanitize their hands regularly and refrain from eating or drinking. Social distancing is recommended, though not required, and maintaining space between students has proved impossible in larger classes.

One particular class, AME-201: Statics, has received criticism for overcrowding. AME-201 is a 49-person class taught in the Social Sciences Building (SOS). According to Brendan Kim, a sophomore enrolled in the class who is majoring in mechanical engineering, said the classroom environment feels especially cramped.

“It’s in the basement. So it’s pretty stuffy, there’s not a lot of ventilation,” Kim said in an interview with Annenberg Media. “The thing is with this particular classroom, it’s pretty small, it seats a lot of people but the desks are stationary and they’re really small too. So you’re really like neck-and-neck with everyone. Like, I lean back and I can feel a person’s iPad brushing up against [me]. We’re really close to each other.”

Kim said one student in his class even started a petition to move the class to a different room, but so far nothing has changed. Students are able to attend class on Zoom, but are unable to social distance if they wish to attend in-person.

Students in USC’s Thornton School of Music are also confronting a unique set of COVID-19 related challenges with in-person learning.

In July, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health released requirements for institutions of higher education that mandated mask-wearing at all times during indoor classes, including performing arts classes.

Robert Cutietta, dean of the Thornton School of Music, announced in an Aug. 16 email that all aerosol-producing activities, including singing and playing wind instruments, were to be held outdoors or online. There are a few exceptions. Singers and wind players may practice inside without masks only if they are alone in a room, and singers are allowed to sing with others in the room as long as they are masked.

“It’s definitely better than not being able to do it at all,” Emily Harrington, a graduate student in Thornton studying flute performance, said in an interview. “That’s kind of been an interesting challenge to be able to really listen intently to everybody else that’s playing more in a group setting versus when you’re inside, you could hear more clearly… The weather doesn’t help either.”

Harrington said some performances and dress rehearsals to prepare for them will be held indoors.

Dominic Anzalone, a senior majoring in popular music performance with an emphasis in drum set, has had a different experience. He’s been able to remain inside for his classes.

“I think it would be a little bit more distracting to be outside, to be honest, especially for me,” Anzalone said in an interview. “But, I feel like inside works really well and we make accommodations for vocalists and stuff. The vocalists usually pre-record stuff in a corner of the room, so it’s never really an issue to be inside, honestly.”

The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, conversely, is facing an issue of limited outdoor space but an adequate supply of indoor classrooms. In response to requests from students, staff and faculty for more outdoor seating options, Wallis Annenberg Hall’s two terraces have been designated as community spaces, allotting more outdoor space for students to work or socialize while following the university’s guidelines.

“It’s nice that they set up little areas like this, with tents and stuff for people who want to sit outside and social distance while doing their work, because normally I would be in the library,” Sophia Loreto, a sophomore majoring in communication, said in an interview. “I would much prefer to be outside, where I can keep my mask off, get fresh air and be farther away from people.”

Since students are required to stay home from class if they test positive for COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms, many professors have relaxed their policies regarding in-person attendance and offer hybrid learning options that allow students at home to attend class through Zoom.

“I have encouraged students if they’re feeling the least bit sick or have the least bit of a concern that they can attend class via Zoom,” Douglas Becker, an associate professor of political science, international relations and environmental studies, said in an interview. “So even though it’s not mandated, it has resulted in a bit more social distancing than if I had a strict attendance policy, which I typically do. But I’ve decided to relax that as a result of this semester.”

However, professors have faced technical issues when trying to accommodate students attending class virtually, and many of these problems require help from USC’s technology services staff to troubleshoot. Becker said that he was particularly frustrated by the lag and choppiness of videos played over Zoom as well as trying to ensure high-quality Zoom audio while teaching in a large classroom with a mask on.

“We have basically decided as faculty that this technology is going to let you down at some point in every class,” Becker said. “And in the past, you could get away with not teaching without the technology and just go back to a traditional teaching.” Becker said he looks forward to the day when the mask mandate ends and he does not have to rely on Zoom to teach.