Students at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette have gone to classes — both virtual and in-person — week in and week out for 58 days, and the only breaks they received came in the form of two destructive storms.

Artavion Cook, a senior biology student, is wrapping up his time at UL Lafayette this semester and said he plans to begin applying for medical school next year. Cook is taking 15 hours — four classes and a lab are online while a fifth class and second lab are in person.

Cook said he’s concerned about how much he’s really getting from distance learning. He said his online lab, which features videos and questions in place of hands-on experience, doesn’t make him feel aprepared for his career path after college.

“I can make an A on it, but when it’s actually time for me to use the equipment I won’t know how to do it,” Cook said. “And I understand because the class is so big that’s what they had to do, but I feel like it makes it hard for us to learn anything that way.”

Cook said he’d absolutely considered delaying graduation because of heightened stress at school. He said his professors were accommodating in the transition to distance learning, however, one of them even implemented mental health days to give the class an overdue break. 

He isn’t alone, either. Assistant Director for the Counseling and Testing Center Kristy Fusilier, Ph.D., said she’s seen students more stressed about the semester overall.

Fusilier attributed the increase to the loss of social interaction with schooling, with the hurricanes, pandemic and upcoming election being added stressors. 

“We’re all social creatures, so when you don’t have that it can cause symptoms of depression; it can increase anxiety,” Fusilier said. “That isolation is not good for us, and if you’re trying to acclimate to college and do well in your classes and you’re not getting that support from your peers, your family, whomever, it can make it very difficult to focus, you can fall behind in your grades.

“That funk, you know, no motivation, and you’re just not connected to your university, your degree plan,” she also said.

The counseling center decided to put on three virtual group counseling sessions in response to how difficult a year it's been for students. 

The first of which is Wednesday at 9 a.m., and it focused on students’ displacement after a natural disaster. The second one, focusing on balancing coursework, will take place next Wednesday and the third, on balancing personal responsibilities, the Wednesday after that. 

More information is available on the center’s website.

Despite the difficulties, Cook said he thinks the university shouldn’t have moved any classes to in-person for safety’s sake.

“Even though it’s hard, I feel like everything should have been completely online because there have been cases on campus,” Cook said. “I feel like if everything was online, it’d probably be harder for some students, but I feel like that was the safe route.”

The fall 2020 semester was definitely different by a number of measures, but they all connect to one of two things: the COVID-19 pandemic and the series of hurricanes Louisiana is still enduring. 

When they started planning out an approach to the fall academic calendar, UL Lafayette administration knew they wanted to conclude the semester before flu season started, a recommendation that came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In order to pull that off, they would need to condense the semester by about 2 1/2 weeks.

“So the way we did that is we started one week early, we did away with fall break, so that brought two weeks, but we also did away with our flex days,” Provost Jamie Hebert said. “And we just kind of took a chance, and unfortunately, we ended up having two storms in the semester we took a chance in.”

The two hurricanes, Laura and Delta, cut hours from the calendar the university couldn’t afford to lose. If the administration wanted UL Lafayette to keep its accreditation, they’d have to make up that time somehow. Thus, students would later have to come to classes on Saturdays to make up any lost time.

Hebert co-chairs the committee behind the Ragin’ Cajuns Resiliency Plan, which formed as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and is responsible for deciding how the university would operate while complying with the CDC and the Louisiana Department of Health. 

The committee knew they would have to restructure the calendar in the event of a hurricane, but they didn’t plan out that response until the first signs of hurricanes Laura and Marco appeared in mid-August. They entertained some other ideas like having classes on Friday afternoons, but Saturday classes were their only real option according to Hebert.

The university already put out the spring academic calendar, and, although it will run the same number of weeks it usually does, the breaks in the semester will be broken up a little bit differently. 

“One of the things we’ve observed, and this was part of the discussion in making these decisions in the Spring, y’all are tired. Our students are tired,” Hebert said. “Y’all had no breaks other than breaks for hurricanes, which isn’t a break at all, I mean the anxiety level’s still up. We just couldn’t see ourselves doing that in the spring again.”

The spring calendar is going to take some off-days from spring break and move them elsewhere in the semester. Mardi Gras and spring break will both be a five-day weekend, and students will also have Lagniappe Day off. 

Other than those calendar changes, however, the semester will look a lot like the fall semester — it’ll be the same mix between online and in-person classes. Hebert said the university wants to avoid any last-minute changes, and they’d only make adjustments if the pandemic were to drastically change for the better or worse.

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