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University of Arizona is 'cautiously optimistic' it can return to normal classes by fall semester

University of Arizona is 'cautiously optimistic' it can return to normal classes by fall semester

From the April's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 1,200+ Pima County cases, stay-home order extended series

The University of Arizona’s administration is “cautiously optimistic” the fall semester will resume in-person and in the meantime is helping its educators to deliver courses in any form.

At this time, we have planned for our summer curriculum to be delivered online through to the end of June. On May 1, we will communicate the decision as to whether summer programming due to start after July 1 will also need to be delivered in online and remote modalities,” a UA statement said.

“We are cautiously optimistic that the fall semester will be able to launch with the normal face-to-face campus experience, but of course we will prioritize the health and well-being of our community in making that decision.”

The university said its Office of Instruction and Assessment and Digital Learning teams are working to support faculty to “design and effectively deliver effective online and remote courses.”

Both offices said they’re providing resources about the online platforms provided for teachers, teaching tips and live support on weekdays for instructors, among other resources.

But in the wake of the pandemic, educators and students have been grappling with the new reality of remote instruction after completing the first half of a normal spring semester.

Nearly a month has passed since the administration told faculty like David Sbarra, a psychology professor, and his students about the switch to online instruction.

If anything, the pandemic has given Sbarra and his 286 students something to discuss.

“Given my class content, there’s a huge elephant in the room for us if we just discuss health psychology broadly without going deep on what is happening in the face of this pandemic,” Sbarra said.

“I immediately changed the content of my course to focus 100% on the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19 for the rest of the semester.

“Everything we learned in the first half of the term now become background for this half of the course.”

Now from his home and sometimes joined by his two children, Sbarra has instructed his students to become “research assistants and science journalists,” diving deeper into topics such as stress management, the psychology of social isolation and decision making regarding social distancing.

“I am trying to find ways to be innovative and to engage our students in a manner that is not simply throwing stuff online,” said Sbarra, who tries to spur interactions via discussion boards and mini-lectures.

Calvin Zhang-Molina, an assistant professor of mathematics, is trying to make sure his 30 senior undergraduates complete their capstone projects and have a successful final five weeks.

It also means reaching students in relevant ways by integrating math, public health and policy making during a pandemic.

“I’ve incorporated timely materials on the mathematical modeling of COVID-19 transmission as a means to engage my students,” said Zhang-Molina, “and use mathematical analysis to promote rational thinking and avoid stereotyping and panicking during this difficult time.”

What Zhang-Molina intended for in-person student collaborations is instead being done on Zoom, an online videoconferencing platform.

However, he’s attempting to bring similar interactions to the online setting.

“I very much encourage my students to interrupt me any time during my lecture, either by using the chat room feature or by simply speaking into their microphones,” Zhang-Molina said.

“Students can use various emoji symbols to provide real-time feedback, such as ‘please speak slower,’ ‘thumbs up’ and ‘raise my hand.’”

Zhang Molina has also made himself available outside of his normal office hours and produced course notes for students to learn at their own pace.

There are similar accommodations being made elsewhere to support students still adjusting and possibly dealing with impacts of the pandemic on their lives outside of class, said Michael Brown, a professor in the chemistry department.

“This is affecting real people that have real students that are sitting there in my classroom,” Brown said. “I know these worries are there. They also have worries about their own health.”

Brown said he’s trying to support students who have lost access to friends and campus community, and are dealing with a disrupted class structure and other worries caused by the pandemic.

“I told students that, you know, maintain social distancing, but then I say that doesn’t mean that you have to have emotional distance. Stay in contact with your family, with your friends,” he said. “I opened up a website so they can have some chat rooms before class. You do what you can do.”

Brown said he took on the challenge of finding a suitable classroom while the university is shut down. He then set up video equipment instead of screen-sharing his lectures.

He said his students deserved some continuity with the previous mode of in-person instruction.

“What’s really nice is that I can see the students’ faces. Although there’s 150 students in the class, I can see their names and I can see their faces and I’m starting to be able to ask them questions and get them to respond,” Brown said.

“I’m learning how to do this and I know that they’re learning how to adapt to it and we’re getting better and better at it.”

Like Brown, Sbarra also said he’s learned firsthand that real-world problems may arise as the semester continues.

“One of our students believed she was exposed to the virus and very responsibly went into a self-quarantine. But she didn’t have her laptop,” Sbarra said.

“We worked together to figure how she could get her assignments in after her quarantine ended.

“I am trying to be absolutely as flexible and responsive as possible. I know some students don’t have good Wi-Fi or their own laptops, and many people are too stressed to keep up with everything in real time.”

Contact Star reporter Shaq Davis at 573-4218 or sdavis@tucson.com

On Twitter: @ShaqDavis1

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