With the return of in-person learning this year, some students at Pitt-Greensburg struggled to maintain steady participation throughout the Fall 2021 semester. Anxiety, burnout, and stress from lingering pandemic pressures contributed to shaky attendance records at Pitt-Greensburg and colleges around the country.
Anna Noel Bass-Riley, a junior creative and professional writing major, acknowledges that anxiety and the pandemic have made attending class tough.
“My attendance has always been impacted by my anxiety, but the pandemic has made things worse. It has made my desire to go to classes much harder for me,” Bass-Riley said.
Bass-Riley said she missed about half her classes this semester for multiple reasons. On Mondays, for instance, she would have two classes separated by a three-hour shift at work, which was exhausting and made attending her later class difficult.
Compared to last semester, however, Bass-Riley said her attendance is better.
“I actually think I go to class more because, last semester, I stayed in my dorm room all the time because there was nothing else to do,” she said. “I think it caused everyone to just go into a depression, and it made it very easy for me to just be like: ‘You know, the class is online. I don’t care. I’m just going to sleep, there’s nothing else to do.’”
Faculty at Pitt-Greensburg have made this comparison, too. Dr. William Pamerleau, a professor of philosophy, says Fall 2021 got off to a strong start compared to Spring 2020, but student attendance has dwindled over time.
“At the beginning of the semester, attendance was better than average,” Dr. Pamerleau said. “My perception was that there was an early kind of enthusiasm to being back in the classroom after being remote for so long. But since then, now that we’re all in the closing end of the semester, attendance feels more like a normal semester.”
Dr. Pamerleau said it was difficult to compare attendance this semester to last semester because of remote classes. Although a student could figuratively “attend” class because they logged into a Zoom call, not much else could be said about their participation.
“This is what was so bad about being remote: not seeing people’s faces. You kind of rely on feedback, visual feedback that you’re getting from the class, of how you’re doing. You gauge the level of their interest and react accordingly,” Dr. Pamerleau said.
Even with in-person learning returning to campus, Dr. Pamerleau said that faculty have seen the issue persist in a different fashion: absences due to quarantine.
“I have heard that the number of people that are claiming COVID as a reason to miss class are much higher than the actual reported cases,” Dr. Pamerleau said. “It would just be odd to get nine to ten people in a single class when there’s only supposed to be six people on campus that have it. But it’s still hard to gauge because again, some people, I think it’s not that they’re claiming that they have COVID. They’re claiming that they’re worried that they’ve been exposed, and so that could be legitimate.”
It’s not just COVID keeping students out of the classroom. Sometimes, it may be because of how a class is structured. For Bass-Riley, course material seems available enough that going to class can become unnecessary.
“All of my classes, except for chorale, … The assignments are all online.” Bass-Riley said. “So I can do the assignments online, all the notes are online, too, so if push comes to shove, I could do the classes without going to class. But that’s also not super healthy, and I can miss stuff if I don’t go to classes.”
Dr. Pamerleau has noticed this among his students as well.
“I think that there is a double-edged sword in providing a lot of these resources in case students get sick,” he said. “Because, while that’s great for the people who are sick and they can’t be there, it also means that it’s easier for people to just not go to class if they can get the same resources by not going to class.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Pamerleau said he doesn’t expect attendance to decline any further in the future.
Even for students that can and do attend class, it can still feel like absence is a better alternative. Many students report feeling “checked-out” in class, and that only seems to make the experience more difficult, especially when it comes to starting discussions.
“I personally don’t have a problem with being called on,” Bass-Riley said. “I generally volunteer, but then there’s the fear of ‘what if I don’t know the question and no one else knows the question.’ And, you know, someone’s going to be called on. I don’t know who it is, and it could be me, and then I’ll have to say ‘I don’t know.’ And that’s very embarrassing.”
Dr. Pamerleau said that’s a phenomenon that can hurt the classroom experience.
“Lack of interaction is self-perpetuating,” he said. “As classes stay checked-out, people tend to be more reluctant when the rest of the class doesn’t seem to be interacting.”
What’s important, Dr. Pamerleau said, is that students make an effort to participate where they can.
“If you’re feeling checked out, I would say making a conscious effort to participate more will help,” he said. “If you sit near the front of the class and you make a conscious effort to actually raise your hand once in a while, the fact that you will start that interaction in the classroom actually helps you because now you’re there. You’re participating.”