Zoe Berg, Senior Photographer

A move by University administrators to implement a “residential/remote” model for the 2020-2021 school year, alongside other academic and residential policy decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic, received mixed reviews from students. 

The “residential/remote” model allowed some students to live on campus with primarily remote class instruction. Juniors and seniors could live on campus for the entire year, but first years and sophomores were each only allowed to live on campus for one semester. First years were on campus the fall of 2020, and sophomores were allowed in the spring of 2021. The model drove many students to seek off-campus housing alternatives in New Haven while the remote-learning components of the model and grading system prompted criticisms from some students over accessibility and equity concerns. 

“We’re doing our best to physically survive a pandemic and cope with ungodly amounts of racial injustice, but all anyone expects of us is that we continue to produce work,” Nolan Arkansas ’23 wrote to the News in November 2020. “Is Yale upholding the grading system now because they know their students are too unwell to fight it again?” 

Both semesters saw an increased demand for off-campus housing, with students telling the News that they chose to live off campus to save money and to be able to live with friends despite not being allowed to live together on campus.

About 5,100 students, or 84 percent of the undergraduate population, chose to live on campus during the 2016-2017 school year. During the 2020-2021 school year, however, only 1,821 students lived on campus, with just 36 percent of on-campus housing being filled. 

The drive to live off campus during the pandemic led to surges in demand for off-campus housing. 

“We saw a crazy surge in calls over the summer,” Edward Anderson, leasing manager at New Haven Towers, said in a call with the News at the time. “Parents were trying to grab anything. It was a hot market after a slow period… It was frantic stuff.”

In addition to housing, the school year came with a host of academic adjustments amid the switch to remote learning. Many students decided to take time off from Yale to avoid remote learning altogether. 

Fifteen percent of students declined to enroll in the fall 2020 semester, including about 30 percent of sophomores. Meanwhile, 1,700 sophomores in the class of 2023 studied remotely. According to a May 2020 survey by the News, about half of the undergraduate population said they were likely to take time off if all Yale courses were offered online. A quarter said they were likely to take time off if Yale used a hybrid model.

Remote learning presented challenges to historically underserved students including those from low-income backgrounds, international students, students with disabilities and rural students. Many students raised concerns regarding the disparities in certain students’ ability to access the technology and internet connection required for attending class online. 

These equity concerns led some students to advocate for reforms in grading. Students who supported a universal pass/fail system raised concerns about equity as students had to move into vastly different living situations. 

Despite moving to a universal pass/fail system for the spring 2020 semester, the University moved back to letter grades starting in the fall.

At the end of the fall 2020 semester, students and faculty met the letter grading system with mixed feelings, as the pandemic still greatly affected students’ learning experiences. Some said that the semester was different, as students and faculty had months to prepare for online learning. 

“I have found students to be performing and participating at the very high level that I would expect of Yalies (the pace of my course and the rigor of the diagnostic exercises has not changed from a ‘normal’ term, for example), and their resilience is a real source of encouragement,” wrote Andrew Johnston, director of undergraduate studies for the Yale Department of Classics, in an email to the News.

The calls for equity also extended to limits in Zoom features. 

Closed captioning was only available as a Zoom feature in November 2020, which student disability advocates had been voicing concerns about since classes went online.

“I am hopeful that an unintended ramification of this shift to remote learning will be greater accessibility in the future, for students with and without a disability,” Student Accessibility Services Director Sarah Scott Chang said in November 2020. “Many aspects of university life are being reexamined and adjusted, and these adjustments often provide greater accessibility for all students.”

The switch to remote learning also led to questions of how to best include students who may face difficulties accessing remote instruction including international students and rural students. 

Due to rules from the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, international students were required to take at least one in-person class in order to enroll at Yale.

According to current Yale College Dean Pericles Lewis, who was then a comparative literature professor, most of the University’s schools and departments had created some in-person classes and coursework so international students could study in the United States.

Students who returned to rural communities during the pandemic faced unique challenges with remote learning, with rural students telling the News they had issues accessing WiFi connectivity for classes and felt especially less connected to the rest of Yale.

“I used to be in love with how wide-open with opportunity Yale is and how much is going on, but now because I’m at home and dealing with other constraints and getting used to local culture again I am starting to feel like I cannot keep up,” Sarah Pitafi ’22 told the News. “I think being remote is a huge burden on your social life, but having to adjust to rural culture as well makes that chasm even bigger.”

Amid problems accessing the internet, students also told the News that remote instruction negatively impacted their mental health and restricted opportunities for social interactions with other students. 

At the end of the school year, students described a feeling of “tiredness” and fatigue from Zoom classes.

In addition, students expressed disappointment with the reduction of social and academic life on campus. Students were also upset over the lack of breaks during the semester. The University canceled the 2021 spring break in favor of a later start date to the semester and five “break days” throughout the semester.

“I just didn’t think I wanted to waste my college experience on Zoom because what has made college so special has been the people that I met,” Lydia Chun ’23 reflected. “You don’t get a whole lot of human interaction over Zoom.”

The first day of in-person classes for the fall 2021 semester was Sept. 1, 2021.