Photos by David Kadlubowski
GCU News Bureau
Dr. Jen Santos wasn’t sure what to expect from her English 105 students bright and 7 a.m. early Tuesday. She thought they probably were used to sleeping in after not having in-person classes for six months.
But when she walked into West Lecture Hall, she saw bright-eyed students.
“Normally, they might think of ways not to come to class,” she said. “But they were THERE. ‘I’m in a classroom! Yeah!’”
They raised their hands to talk. They got excited about the material.
“I like the energy of being in class,” Santos said. “It’s exciting to see the students again rather than seeing them in a box on Zoom.”
It took awhile to feel as if students were coming together in remote work the first three weeks of the semester. When they got together in person, she said, “it felt like a community again.”
That scene has unfolded again and again this week as most in-person classes at Grand Canyon University resumed for the first time since March.
It was hard to tell who was happier to be back in the classroom – returning students or freshmen. Call it a tie.
For returnees, it’s the first step toward erasing the memory of having to go home at spring break because of the pandemic and finishing the 2019-20 academic year with four weeks of online classes. University officials then had to delay the start of the fall semester and begin it on the online platform when COVID-19 numbers spiked in Arizona during the summer.
For newcomers, it was an opportunity to finally and fully experience life at GCU – with in-person classes in addition to all the campus activities – after looking forward to it for so long.
GCU’s status as a leader in online education made it easier to deal with “attending” class on Zoom, and that expertise will continue to be important this fall with most classes being conducted in a blended learning environment.
Here’s how it works: Half the class meets in person on one day while the other half works with assistants online. Then they switch on the other day. It’s designed to limit the number of students in one room and keep them physically distanced as much as possible to try to prevent the spread of the virus.
The GCU Today staff toured campus this week to get a snapshot of how the new setup was going. The pictures painted by instructors and students had one thing in common – lots of smiles.
The early bird gets a shot in the arm in the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions, where the first day of in-person class really wasn’t the first day of in-person class.
“We came back sooner than the rest of the student body,” said immersive simulation facilitator Denise Matus of the college’s early start in August. Unlike other programs, nursing runs year-round, so the schedule looks a little different.
Still, with the chatter in the hallways and on the Promenade a little louder the past couple of days, the fall of footsteps more urgent and a general electricity in the air, it was a boon to be joined by the rest of the student body.
“The students are glad to be back. They’ve been just overjoyed. They’re like, ‘We don’t care what we’ve got to put on to be back, we just want to be back.’ We missed them and they missed us,” said Matus, who spent the past few months helming classes online, where students completed virtual simulations rather than interact with actors who bring medical scenarios to life in the third-floor Nursing Simulation Lab.
“There are some good things about it (virtual labs), but it doesn’t replace that face-to-face that you need for nursing,” she said.
Besides submitting to a temperature scan before entering the lab each morning and attesting to a statement that they don’t have COVID-19 symptoms, one thing that’s different for nursing students in their coronavirus-altered classrooms is they can’t be 6 feet apart. They’re up close when they’re trying to diagnose a patient, even a simulated one.
“We have to wear masks, face shields and gloves,” Matus said, which makes it difficult to see if students are understanding certain concepts or if they might be confused. “It does feel like it’s a little bit of a barrier.”
Matus and fellow immersive simulation facilitator Stacy Overton have compensated by doing Loom videos without their masks so students can at least see their faces.
Matus said what has warmed her heart is that, through all the threats of COVID-19, her students have seemed more resilient and dedicated to nursing than ever.
“We have asked students, ‘Has all of this changed your thoughts about nursing?’ … Nurses, we don’t get the opportunity to turn and run,” Matus said. “Overwhelmingly, the students have said, ‘No, it makes my desire even greater to be a nurse now.’ It’s a calling. It really is.”
Engineering instructor Emmy Tomforde teaches how to get from liquid to vapor and vapor to liquid and illuminates the finer points of boiling points in her thermodynamics and lab class (STG 330).
But learning those concepts has less of a big-group dynamic in the COVID-19 world.
Lab tables in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology have gone from four seats per table to just two to allow for social distancing. And at Tuesday’s lab, where students observed a water boiler to see pressure and temperature changes, “instead of a normal lab where I would have everybody go at once, I had two at a time come up and look at the gauges.”
Then there’s the blended learning model.
Some of Tomforde’s students were in the classroom on Tuesday while the other half of the class logged in online from their residence halls (the two groups will trade places on Thursday).
The students who attended online, “logged on with their phones and did exactly the same thing we did here in class,” Tomforde said.
One of her students, mechanical engineering major Sandra Morales, was ecstatic to be back in class despite having to wear a mask, sanitize her hands and see fewer students around since some opted to continue distance learning.
It was strange in the spring semester, she said, to suddenly go from in-person learning to distance learning. The transition this time around, going from online to in-person, was much easier.
“I prefer in person,” she said, simply.
Tomforde agrees. She said that over Zoom students are more reluctant to ask questions. She also doesn’t get the same kind of feedback she does by seeing students face to face.
“I find it much more energizing to be here,” she said. “In a classroom.”
The first day back to class offered College of Fine Arts and Production students and professors alike some much needed in-person engagement time.
The seniors in Sheila Schumacher’s Digital Design class eagerly took full advantage of the benefits they had come to appreciate from physically being in class.
“This group is kind of trepidatiously moving toward ‘I have to adult now,’” Schumacher said. “Emotionally, everyone was excited to be back. For creative students, they like creating with a crowd better than creating alone, so our work in the Zoom world was going fine but I saw much more student-to-student collaboration.”
They also have a new sense of both the value of working alone and a value of working together, she said.
Coming from a different perspective was COFAP freshman Bryan Weide, who began his GCU journey in the COVID era after graduating from Sunnyslope High School in the spring. His first experience as a GCU student would take place through a screen, so finally getting to explore the campus that he had looked forward to attend makes him feel more at home.
“It’s completely different being here as a student. It’s a big, amazing school, and there’s a completely different atmosphere than most colleges,” he said.
Weide said he had struggled to feel connected to his classmates and professors over Zoom calls, so attending his first in-person class was an exciting opportunity to finally meet the names he had seen on his Zoom screen. Because he is a commuter student, it was important to start building bonds with people on campus.
“Meeting them was nice, and just getting to see everybody in person is completely different,” he said.
Another commuter student, senior Deanna Diaz, was thrilled to be in the Colangelo College of Business Building again even though it means she comes to campus all the way from Buckeye, at least a 45-minute drive with no traffic.
“I would do it every day just to be back on campus,” the business management major said.
Asked how this compared to last spring, when she had to learn online for the first time in her life, the senior had a quick response: “This was a lot easier because we had been told about it and had lots of emails to prepare us. Last spring was abrupt.”
Over in the CCOB offices, Dr. Mark Clifford had an interesting observation after sitting in on two classes Tuesday.
“The excitement of being back on campus translates to the classroom,” said the CCOB Assistant Dean and Director of Sports Business.
Senior Joseph Vaught praised the work of his Worship Arts instructors as they navigated the online environment.
“All of my professors have done a really good job of making class not feel like I’m stuck on my laptop in my bedroom,” he said.
The community feeling is even more important to Worship Arts students, who gather daily in the GCU Recording Studio. “It’s been nice seeing people,” said Vaught, a Worship Arts with an Emphasis in Ministry major.
Dr. Randall Downs, Worship Arts Coordinator for the College of Theology, noticed that seven students stayed after class to talk about local churches. “Everyone was so excited to learn,” he said. “You could tell that they had been champing at the bit to get there.”
Students also have been eager to have more one-on-one time with their instructors. College of Education Assistant Professor Stephanie Nilsen noted that before her first class, which is Wednesday, she did 18 private forums with students, a one-day record for her.
They felt the need for those sessions because classes had been online. “It was all the stuff they normally ask in class,” Nilsen said.
There’s no getting around it: Being in a classroom feels so much better.
Freshman Dawson Moulsong said it felt strange to walk into a classroom for the first time since students were sent home from his senior year of high school in Chandler last spring. But once he entered his psychology class Tuesday morning, he realized what was strange was trying to share thoughts in class in front of a screen.
“It’s really awkward,” said the biology major. “Once you’re in person, it feels normal again.”
Mike Kilen, Ashlee Larrison, Lana Sweeten-Shults and Rick Vacek contributed to this report.