On Dec. 28, after Emory University announced a remote start to the spring semester, the accompanying Instagram post garnered 160 comments from students voicing their opinions about the decision. Most posts receive only a handful of comments. Increased engagement, but at what cost?

Some disgruntled students demanded refunds and accused the University of “virtue signaling. One comment that received 235 likes reads: “instead of ‘as conditions permit’ it should be ‘whatever harvard decides to do we’ll follow.’” Others expressed confusion at the online backlash from students.

Among the latter group was Julius Pugh (24C), who experienced remote learning at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic during his first year at Emory. He said the initial remote-start announcement sounded “reasonable” to him.

“They’re not telling us, ‘You can’t move in,’” Pugh said. “They’re not telling you, ‘You can’t see your friends.’”

 
 
 
 
 
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Andrew Wei (22C) was one of those who returned to campus to see his friends. As a senior in his last semester of college, he wanted to take Zoom classes in a college environment.

But many students have yet to return to campus, leaving some wondering where the funds from absent students’ room and board are being used.

In the comment section of the Instagram post, Rebecca Schwartz (24C) voiced a suggestion to reallocate unused funds toward helping students cover pandemic-related costs such as PCR tests.

“If Emory is going to collect those funds and then not use it to house and dine certain students, I think it just makes sense to put those funds back into the community that is meant to be served in the first place,” Schwartz said.

While some students offer suggestions and critiques, others complain. Pugh said many students made nonconstructive complaints about the remote start rather than suggesting alternatives, which he said was “frustrating.”

“I’m pretty sure that Emory would be open to listening to [suggestions] because, at the end of the day, they still cater to us,” Pugh said.

Ada Demling (25C) tried just that. Her comment on the post asked why the University had not mandated testing before deciding to begin the semester online. She spoke to administrators about mandating weekly testing during the September surge.

“From talking to peers, there’s definitely people who think it’s unnecessary or a waste of money to do that [weekly testing],” Demling said. “But … I think most people are willing to have the inconvenience [of weekly testing] in order to avoid going online.”

Demling feels that testing protocols are not enough, though, despite close-contact and pre-entry testing requirements. She is back on campus, isolating in the Emory Conference Center Hotel. Demling tested negative for COVID-19 a few hours before she boarded a flight to campus but tested positive when she arrived on campus.

“Of my own volition, I decided to get a test when I got back on campus, but there’s no requirement to do that,” she said. “If I didn’t do that, then I would be walking around with COVID.”

Demling said her own experience makes a case for the necessity of mandated on-campus testing for vaccinated students. According to a Jan. 13 email from Emory Forward, only “unvaccinated students, faculty, and staff are required to conduct weekly screening tests.”

Demling agreed with the University’s decision to begin the semester online but voiced concerns about inconsistencies in testing protocol.

“I just wish that they were at least explaining why they aren’t taking it more seriously,” she said.

Wei expressed a similar frustration. 

“Something I definitely hear a lot is that it’s just arbitrary virtue signaling,” he said. “I feel like if they really wanted to keep us safe, they’d do things like have mandatory testing, not having giant campus concerts and stuff like that.”

Whether or not the remote start was necessary, Wei said the online format brought down his overall mood.

“It sucked the soul and the life out of me the moment I got on Zoom,” Wei said.

Schwartz chose to stay home for the online start and faces challenges like background noise, Wi-Fi issues and feeling distant from the Emory community. She said her friends are thousands of miles away.

Demling also finds it difficult to focus on Zoom.

“No one is participating. No one has their camera on,” she said. “The activities and class are not that engaging, and you just feel like, ‘Why am I paying so much money?’”

Wei said while he understands some of the university’s pandemic policies, he struggles to grasp other seemingly contradictory decisions.

“I can justify some, but I can’t justify others,” Wei said. “A lot of it is virtue signaling, but also a lot of it is genuine efforts and attempts to do what is right.”

Pugh is adamant that it is important for students to “speak up” and “offer suggestions,” although he acknowledges another perspective from one of his peers: that students should not have to find solutions for the University’s problems.

“This is unprecedented,” he said. “We’re paying for our education, so we have a say.”