In July, Penn State president Eric Barron announced that nearly half of the university’s classes this fall would have some in-person component. But since the start of the semester, attendance for some of those in-person classes has dropped substantially.
Junior information sciences and technology student Alaina Strife has one in-person class this fall. Her Object-Oriented Design and Software Applications class is in the Willard building three days a week, but Strife stopped going to class two weeks ago.
“It’s only like 50 minutes and it’s a pretty decent walk from my apartment, so just to go for that one little bit of time," Strife said, "it didn’t feel like the full experience that you would get in an in-person class anyway.”
Strife’s class started with roughly 30 people, but the last time she went there were just eight students in-person. During the first few weeks of the semester, students on Zoom complained they couldn’t hear the professor very well.
Ever since, Strife said the class has become more geared toward Zoom students as the professor began talking directly into his computer. Strife said that change made it difficult for in-person students to hear him, especially since he was far away and speaking with a mask. She said the quality of the class is now better on Zoom than in person.
“Obviously, the computer’s closer to him so you can just hear him a lot better," Strife said. "And it was easier to take notes because I actually understood some words that he was saying that could get mixed up with others.”
Junior Sophia Sapp goes to her entrepreneurial leadership class in the Hammond building once a week, but she said most of her friends don’t go to any of their in-person classes anymore. Sapp said her roommate chooses to stay in their apartment for class because of the long walk to her class from home.
"They’re far away now, like some of the classes are a lot farther," Sapp said.
To allow for social distancing, Penn State is holding classes in buildings that have never been used in the past. Some are at the edges of campus. Sapp’s roommate has a class at the Nittany Lion Inn while another friend has a class in the Bryce Jordan Center. Both have cars, but neither bought an on-campus parking permit.
Sapp said she enjoys going to her in-person class, but she said one class is not enough.
“That’s the biggest thing that’s made me really not happy with this semester," Sapp said.
Mike Poorman teaches a communications class called Introduction to the Sports Industry. He said his in-person class size has shrunk “a ton” in the last six weeks. On a rainy day in late September, Poorman’s class had just 16 students in person instead of the 79 in person that he started the semester with.
“I think it’s much easier to watch at home, especially on a day like today when it rains," Poorman said.
Poorman said in addition to having class over Zoom, he records each lecture and makes them available for students to watch on their own time. Poorman said he doesn’t think all students are staying home just for convenience, though. He understands why some might be nervous about coming to campus.
“I’ve gotten notes from students who’ve said, 'I'm anxious about being in class' or 'I was sitting in class [next] to someone who’s now tested positive, and I’d feel more comfortable going home,'" Poorman said.
Yet Poorman wishes he could have a better turnout for his in-person classes. Poorman said he’s three times older than many of his students and has made sacrifices to make teaching in-person a reality.
“I’d much rather have everyone be here than teaching to this," Poorman said, "knowing that half the people who are ‘at home watching’ really aren’t at home watching."
Junior Kyle Cannillo also has one in-person class. His Gender, Diversity and the Media course is held downtown at the State Theatre every Tuesday and Thursday.
Cannillo said his class had around 40 students in-person at the beginning of the semester. Now, Cannillo said it’s rare for the class size to be more than 10.
“It’s becoming more and more common that people aren’t showing up to the class," Cannillo said. "They are just going on Zoom and saving themselves a walk to the class.”
Cannillo said many students leave their cameras off and microphones muted on Zoom during class. Instead of concerns about COVID-19, Canillo thinks the driving force for smaller class sizes is laziness.
As students begin to schedule their courses for next semester, Cannillo said he’d like to have more than one in-person class this spring.
“I would really prefer if these classes were in-person, and I hope that next semester, Penn State looks to expand and have more in-person classes," Cannillo said.
Students can begin scheduling classes for the spring semester as early as November 2nd.
Penn State student Jake Starr assisted in reporting this story.