COVID Check-in: Students Reflect on the Return to Campus

Students have adjusted well to the mask mandate to help keep transmission rates low on campus. || Photo by Alice Mach

Students and staff discuss new routines, old anxieties, and biggest concerns

In August, CU Denver estimated that 63 percent of planned classes for Fall 2021 are in-person or hybrid, while 37 percent of planned classes are remote or online. As of Oct. 13, 2021, the university has made it halfway through the first semester of fully in-person classes. Although most concerns—especially those related to vaccinations and masks—have been addressed by now, some students are still anxious about the rest of the semester.

To prepare for the return, faculty and staff developed several task forces; most prominent among them was the Safe Return Task Force, which operated from late April 2020 until its rebranding as the Lynx Together Task Force in late February 2021. These task forces designed the mandates, testing procedures, and social distancing protocols for the CU Denver campus.

Hailey Dennis, a fourth-year biology student on the pre-med track, was able to see the effects of the original Safe Return Task Force firsthand. She worked as a student assistant for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Office during the pandemic, operating as the office’s in-person liaison. “When I started coming back onto campus [in March of 2020] it was very strict,” she said. “And then everyone got vaccinated and stopped social distancing, and the world was normal for about four months. And then we had to go back to wearing the masks—which I think is a bit hard for some people,” she added. “We were so close to normal and now we’re not again. Everyone’s kind of tired of the masks.”

Faculty and staff agree—but they emphasize that masks are still here for a reason. University Communications director Ryan Huff told The Sentry, “Mask-wearing is great across campus. All of these safety measures are the main factor for why we have not had large case counts.” The CU Denver COVID-19 dashboard supports Huff’s claim; as of Aug. 1, only 44 cases have been reported on campus, none of which were contracted on university property. The Auraria Health Center has conducted 3,879 tests in that same time frame, and 96 percent of self-reporting students have received a COVID-19 vaccine.

In case COVID-19 spreads on campus, though, some faculty have planned ahead. The biology department in particular has shown encouraging flexibility. “I have one in-person class that is a flipped learning style,” Dennis told The Sentry. “It’s in-person to do homework the two days of the week we would have lectures.” Dennis enjoys the community in these flipped classes. “It’s really nice to be able to get the homework help and…have group learning sessions during the day.” If the university pivots to remote instruction again, this class is prepared in advance since “all the lectures, exams, and quizzes are online.”

Instructors were not the only ones prepared for a potential return to remote instruction. Bria Gonzales, a fourth-year English creative writing student, enrolled exclusively in online and remote classes this Fall. Gonzales told The Sentry, “I was concerned that I would choose a bunch of in-person classes and then not be able to go to them.” In the case that school does transition back to online, she wanted to take classes that felt like online classes, not “like ‘I’m taking my in-person class online.’”

Though school is so far still in person, she still feels like that was the right decision. Being online has its advantages, especially as she juggles her job with a full-time course load: “It allows me to be a little more independent; I’m more motivated to be more responsible and on top of things.”

There have been some drawbacks to the online process. Early on, Gonzales was wait-listed for a class; normally, this wouldn’t have been a problem. However, she was removed from the wait-list after doing a week’s worth of coursework, and the Schedule Adjustment Form needed to enroll her in the class was complicated to fill out online. “We had to jump through a bunch of hoops to get [my signature] actually written out on paper,” she said. “I felt kind of uninformed.” While she did get into the class eventually, the experience made Gonzales wish that university offices communicated deadlines and wait-lists more clearly to online students—and that the Schedule Adjustment Form was more accessible.

Students also worry about their faculty’s response to the pandemic. Gonzales admits that, while professors are “very understanding and supportive,” she has had negative experiences with them in other semesters of the pandemic. One instructor would be late to grade exams and profusely apologized to students each time, but Gonzales felt that “if I emailed him and was like, ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t done your work yet, I’ve been super busy,’ that wouldn’t be an excuse for him. Being able to hold yourself to the standards you hold your students to is important.” She did acknowledge that this semester’s experience with faculty has improved since then, though. “I feel like I can email my teacher and get a response that same day, usually within the hour,” Gonzales said.

Dennis has observed similar changes. “All my professors have something built in for being late, being missing, or basically being a person,” she told The Sentry. “It should have been something we’ve done forever. Life is so important outside of school, and if [faculty] don’t acknowledge that, students suffer.”

But even with these improvements as the university focuses on the bigger picture, students like Jeremy Goldman are worried about the smaller details of day-to-day campus life. “There’s no eating inside, of course,” the fourth-year architecture student said, referring to university guidelines for large indoor events and suggested protocol for students. “What happens come wintertime, when it’s 12 degrees outside and thousands of people bring their lunches?” Goldman thinks the focus on a quick, smooth, and efficient return has left the smaller details in the dust. “I guess it feels like smiling through gritted teeth,” Goldman said. “Things like Block Party and Fall Fest are good, but…the distribution of those kinds of events compared to…resources centered around emotional recuperation is out of balance.”

Goldman believes that this problem is not limited to the university, or even to the state. The whole nation, he said, is pushing the message of, “Let’s get back to normal. Here’s extra resources! But let’s get back to the way it was. I think that has always been a fundamental conflict, but it’s now very much clarified through the eyes of the ongoing pandemic.”

Special Assistant to the Chancellor for COVID-19 and Managing Associate University Counsel Chris Puckett recognizes this conflict, partly ascribing it to how little the world knows about what’s coming next. “This is very much an adaptation to a new normal,” Puckett explained. “If this is moving towards an endemic instead of a pandemic,” wherein COVID-19 becomes a disease normal in society like the common cold or the flu, he wonders, “what changes might we want to start considering?”

For now, the university is taking things month-by-month, focusing on safety and compliance. Puckett said that “we still have too many students who haven’t filled out their [vaccine] verification form. On Nov. 1, we’re going to take steps to turn off people’s access if they don’t fill out their forms.” This may tentatively entail “an immunization hold so a student couldn’t register for the Spring semester, not allowing that student on campus, and turning off a student’s ability to use university computing services, such as Wi-Fi and Canvas.” The Lynx Together task force will communicate more information about this policy in the coming weeks.

If students have questions, concerns, or suggestions for COVID-19 communications efforts, they are encouraged to reach out to the Lynx Together team at, or to Chris Puckett or Ryan Huff individually. Further information, weekly updates, and COVID-19-related university requests will be sent to students’ CU Denver emails.

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