Nov 2nd, 2020, 04:22 PM

Was Going Back into Lockdown Inevitable?

By Leila Roker
Students in a Lecture, Image Credit: Shutterstock/1734106484
After just five weeks, AUP is back to remote learning. How has the pandemic affected staff, students and faculty?

I can remember the evening of March 12, 2020 like it was yesterday. French President Macron was scheduled to speak at 8 PM and social media was atwitter with speculations as to what the speech would be announcing. 

Tensions had been building for days. President Trump had already announced that he would be closing the US borders to 26 countries, including France. Many American students abroad were already booking flights to get back home. I chose to stay in my Paris studio apartment. By staying in Paris, I hoped, I would be able to maintain some semblance of normalcy in my life. With the rumblings of a lockdown, grocery stores in Paris were teeming with frazzled customers stocking up on pasta, rice, canned goods (and of course toilet paper) but the streets of Paris felt empty. As I walked back to my apartment after class that Thursday evening, the City of Light felt incredibly sober, with a foreboding briskness looming in the crisp pre-spring air.

After Macron’s announcement, I held onto the hope — like many others — that confinement was a precautionary measure that would last two weeks and feel more similar to that of a mini-vacation. Just two hours later, American University of Paris president, Celeste Schenck, sent an email to the entire student body with a major announcement: “I am tonight announcing that every single AUP student will move to remote learning beginning next week Wednesday, March 18.”

As at many universities, remote learning was new at AUP. Students and professors alike were forced to begin immediately acquainting themselves with AUP’s remote learning app, Microsoft Teams. Many professors were forced to re-evaluate their original course syllabi to adapt to the new circumstances. Online classes were now recorded to accommodate those in different time zones.  As time slowly crept on, days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. When the semester was coming to a close in mid-April, residents in France were relieved to know, finally, the date they could begin slipping back into “normal” life. Déconfinement would begin on May 11.

The city of Paris began to test its new limits, and again we were allowed to reunite with friends and loved ones, and eat food somewhere other than our own apartments. But with the uncertainty of the summer, school administrations were now forced to consider what the potentially ongoing Covid-19 pandemic would entail for fall classes. Now that we are midway through the fall term, this issue is even more urgent amidst the second wave. Universities need to take their sanitary measures gravely seriously for the safety of their students, faculty and staff.

Study Hall, Image Credit: Shutterstock/1781341652

In the US, in-person classes have been a heated debate. Schools throughout the US have come to various decisions in terms of how to handle this year. Many schools reopened, and were then forced to quickly shut down due to Covid hotspots onset by parties and large get-togethers. AUP was placed in a unique position, at the time, France’s Covid numbers were more conservative after confinement, but the question remained: would putting over 700 students on the same campus cause a Covid-19 hotspot?

At AUP, President Schenck sent several emails over the summer outlining the plan for what would be the new protocol and schedule for the fall semester. “We decided to hold classes in-person in response to our unanimous feedback that learning was simply not the same remotely,” President Schenck told me over a Teams call (in line with AUP’s social distancing protocol.) “AUP is luckily situated in a country where there’s a centralized approach to public health,” Schenck added. “Due to AUP’s small size we have an advantage in terms of our agility and dexterity to adapt to the French government’s changing protocols.” 

In May, Schenck had already announced that the fall semester would be starting three weeks later, on September 23 (in line with French public schools) to allow for students abroad extra time to secure their visas and quarantine if necessary. To make up for these three weeks, classes were extended by 15 minutes. Over the following three months, France’s number of Covid cases hovered below 2,000 per day. In August and early September, however, numbers found themselves closer to 10,000 some days. With the anticipated spikes in mind, AUP adapted a hybrid approach to learning this fall semester. For many students, including myself, I wondered how long the in-person part of the hybrid would last with these rising statistics.

“We realized that some students, due to personal or familial reasons, wouldn’t feel comfortable coming back to campus, so we wanted to give students a choice”, said Kevin Fore, Dean of Student Development. “We realized that if we had a very strict mask protocol, implemented social distancing, and adapted the spaces on campus, these would all be effective measures to ensure student, admin, and faculty safety. And once we learned that students would be allowed to travel back to France, we began considering that in-person classes could be a real possibility, and we could welcome students safely.”

To adapt to the challenging circumstances, AUP invested in equipment resources for each classroom such as new cameras and microphones, to allow for remote learners to follow along better. The university also implemented some blanket protocol guidelines for staff and students alike. 

Hand Sanitizer and Books, Image Credit: Shutterstock/1746877289


Blanket Guidelines: 

  • Buildings and maintenance team go all across campus to assess spaces
  • Blanket attendance policy, but faculty can choose to adapt that
  • No eating in the classroom
  • Wearing masks at all times (no eating aside from designated areas, can take a sip of water)
  • No handshakes, no hugging

Thanks to these rigorous regulations, student anxiety about potential contact has been minimized. “In the beginning, I was pretty paranoid about the start of classes because the Covid numbers in France were rising,” said Alayna Amrein, a junior history, law and society, and Environmental Studies double major at AUP. “But in my experience, I’ve noticed people really respect the mutual mask-wearing so I feel safe on campus.”

Another AUP student, Jasmine Cowen, who is a senior History major and student advisor, said, “I’m not very concerned about getting Covid at university because I personally take a lot of precautions to ensure that I’m properly spaced from others in class and on campus.”

However, depending on the professor, some protocols are implemented to different degrees. In my own experience, some professors encourage proper social distancing measures, while others keep tables closely together to keep an intimate environment, putting the responsibility of social distancing onto students that wish to follow these measures. 

Student in library, Image Credit: Shutterstock/1729466689

The level of autonomy professors have in the classroom is an issue for some students. Some professors take the Covid-19 protocols more seriously than others. “I do wish there was more cohesion in terms of protocol because in some classes,” said senior Jasmine Cowen. “We’re allowed to do remote learning if we’re not comfortable with coming to class that day, but other classes, professors will call you out for not coming into class. I think we’re smart enough to assess the situation and decide if we feel comfortable.” Cowen added that it can be awkward in hands-on classes or labs being forced to tell professors they’re getting too close, or that breaking out into groups feels counterintuitive to safety protocols.

From October 5 to October 16, AUP implemented a hybrid of A and B groups to alternate remote learning classes, as advised by the French health minister. Some students found difficulty in remote learning, “I actually prefer working in-person because I often find that when I’m online, there’s a microphone malfunction or it can be a little bit more difficult to follow along,” said Alayna Amrein. “That being said, although online learning is a bit difficult at times, I really liked the A and B group schedule because I felt like campus was a lot less crowded, so I was less stressed to use campus resources like the library,” she added.

In terms of numbers, AUP has had 28 positive Covid-19 cases since the first of September, according to an email sent to the student body by President Schenck on October 19. AUP’s Health Office says that the first flare up was during orientation. 

This academic year, AUP also implemented a new housing option for freshmen. After professional differences with the company Blue Stripe, AUP needed to find a new housing arrangement for incoming students. The solution chosen was hotel residential housing, in: Le Fiap, Mode Aparthotel, Hotel de la Motte Picquet and the Citadines. These options allowed for single and double housing options, something that wouldn’t be possible with Blue Stripe. One problem with this kind of lineal housing, however, is that it mimics the American system of putting many students in one place where students can hold parties — and increase the risk of contact cases.

Victoria Welch, a freshman who lives in Citadines hotel residential housing said, “The Mode Aparthotel residence had quite a few contact cases of Covid-19 because there have been a lot of big parties. At my residence, we haven’t had as many Covid outbreaks due to parties, but rather due to people going clubbing.”

Meeting, Image Credit: Shutterstock/1819892306

Officially, AUP can only identify contact or positive cases by the honor rule, meaning they can only know if a student has contracted or come in contact with the virus if the student notifies AUP on their own. Testing has been somewhat of a headache for many students this year, as the lab locations often change. “I think AUP has done a good job given the circumstances, but on many campuses in the US, Covid testing is made available on campus, which I think could help alleviate some students’ stress about finding laboratories to get tested,” said junior Alayna Amrein.

Given the city campus landscape of AUP, the university outsources Covid-19 testing, but that means students need to stay up to date with which laboratories test for Covid. “The temporary centers put in place by Paris required social security information, which students don’t have, so students need to find private labs that operate without prescription or an appointment,” said Anne-Laure Jardry, an AUP Health Office coordinator. “AUP has made resources available as to where students can find these private laboratories on AUP’s website.” Jardry additionally noted that this semester, AUP has partnered with general practitioner, Dr. Patricia Nizard, to serve as an on campus resource for students regarding general check-ups two afternoons a week.

Concerning Covid prevention, many schools across the US have put in place student conduct codes with various levels of punitive consequences. As of today, AUP does not have a social conduct contract. Students are encouraged to follow social distancing in their personal lives, but are allowed to throw parties or go to crowded restaurants if they so please. 

“I think AUP could have a safer environment if we had a stricter student conduct code. Lots of students throw huge parties, and are bold enough to post about it, but to me that feels very threatening, as I'm an immunocompromised student knowing that I’m going to have to see them on Monday. All these actions have an impact on all of us,” said Jasmine Cowen.

President Emmanuel Macron, Image Credit: Shutterstock/1681482586

There is no not one form of learning that will please everyone during these difficult times. With Covid-19 cases in France reaching as high as 52,013 some days in October, AUP is ready to transition back to remote learning if they have to, but many are hopeful this won’t be the case. During the 9 PM - 6 AM curfew, for many students, getting on campus was the only time they could see their friends or socialize during the week. 

“I hope we don’t go back to online learning because I live in a nine square meter apartment, so I really appreciate having the resources on campus, move my legs and have a schedule,” Alayna Amrein said. 

With the breaking news of the reconfinement announced Wednesday October 29, 2020, students are back to where they were in March. This lockdown being even more abrupt than the last, with just 24 hours notice, leaving many students feeling uneasy. For students in a lab or studio art class like myself, there’s a big question mark around how these non-remote friendly classes will be held. AUP has since sent an email informing students in these classes to stay tuned for potential class exceptions. However, we still have yet to hear where we would be getting these attestations to get around the confinement protocols.

Many students feel that this lockdown will be more difficult than the last, after having had a taste of normal life after the first confinement. With this full-circle moment, I can’t help but feel hesitant towards the “15 day check in” President Macron spoke about, considering the first lockdown French residents were sitting on their hands for 14 days only later to hear the confinement would extend for two more months. The reconfinement feels more like a limbo lockdown. The duration of this lockdown is unclear, and feels more like we’re waiting for an undetermined decrease of cases to get back to our semi-normal, but masked lives. Just like March, April and October, all we can do is wait for President Macron’s last address.