Fewer students have withdrawn from Sacramento State this spring than in 2019 or 2018, despite the University's move to virtual instruction in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)
By Cynthia Hubert
Despite the turbulence caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the vast majority of Sacramento State students are on track to finish the spring semester.
As of Friday, May 8, about 70 undergraduate students had withdrawn from school since the University switched to strictly online classes as part of statewide efforts to curtail spread of the virus. Last year, 91 withdrew during the same time period. Meanwhile, a record number of students have registered for Sac State Summer Session, which also will be conducted online.
The numbers are a testament to the commitment and dedication of both students and faculty members as the University navigates the abrupt pivot to online teaching and learning, administrators said.
They speak to “the resilience and perseverance of our students and their desire to be successful, as well as our faculty and staff efforts and empathy,” said Steve Perez, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs.
Since the middle of March, most members of the Sac State community have been working and studying from home in an effort to stem spread of the virus that causes the potentially deadly COVID-19 illness. The University began preparing for online course delivery about two weeks before President Robert S. Nelsen’s March 12 announcement that Sac State would shift to virtual teaching and learning.
Administrators braced for a rash of withdrawals as students adjusted to online lectures and labs and were forced to study in less-than-ideal circumstances at home or elsewhere. To help ease the transition, Sac State supplied hundreds of laptops to those without them and “hot spots” to those without Internet access. The University also offered a host of other resources including counseling to help students cope with stress and anxiety.
Faculty members, many of them with young children at home, focused on finding ways to keep their Sac State students engaged and excited about their studies.
All of these factors and more likely contributed to an encouraging outcome, said Ed Mills, vice president for Student Affairs.
“The lower numbers of students who withdrew since we went virtual is a surprise for a number of reasons,” Mills said. “First, we thought we might see an increase in withdrawals due to the pandemic. Second, the process of withdrawal is easier for students” this spring, requiring them to fill out one simple form, he said. Yet fewer opted out this spring than did last year and in 2018.
“Our students are working hard to keep going and finish the semester strong,” said Mills. The University is reaching out to students who did withdraw, and has found only a handful did so because of the switch to the virtual environment. “The reasons are mostly medical and financial,” he said.
Despite some initial concerns, faculty members and students seem to have embraced online instruction, said James Dragna, Sac State’s graduation czar.
“What once was considered an alternative concept now has become a very attractive method of teaching,” he said. “Faculty members are being quite innovative in their approaches, and we could not have anticipated that students would engage as well as they have. What the faculty has done literally is heroic.”
Biology Professor Kelly McDonald said the pandemic and the isolation that followed has hit many students hard, but most are finding ways to push forward with help from their professors.
“I do know that school gives students a purpose and some form of community,” even though it is taking a different form this spring, she said. “It’s just a guess that having that normalcy helps during these times.”
Sac State’s Summer Session is on pace to be historic, Dragna said. Nearly 6,000 undergraduate students have registered for summer, 54 percent more than had signed up last year at this time.
“We’re seeing a revolution in the use of Summer Sessions,” said Dragna. “The numbers are climbing at a rate we have never seen.”
In part, the surge may be attributed to the fact that many students will be unable to work this summer because of the pandemic and are choosing to go to school instead. Others may simply be drawn to the opportunity to take classes online. The California State University system announced on May 12 that most fall classes will be held online.
So far, at least, Sac State students are forging ahead toward their degrees, which Dragna said reflects a “change in culture” as the University continues to emphasize the value of graduating in a timely manner.
“It’s phenomenal,” he said. “Our students are displaying the grit and stamina to continue to pursue the things they value, despite whatever barriers they face.”