Emily Aukamp’s semester has been turned on end over the past two weeks as Delaware Valley University does its part to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Aukamp, a sophomore equine major at the school in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, is one of thousands of ag students across the Northeast who are transitioning to online classes and having to change housing arrangements in the middle of the spring term.
Aukamp started hearing about the coronavirus about a month ago, but the messages were nothing too serious — the stuff of social media and memes.
She went home for spring break two weeks ago with her mind on the hours she’d be working at a horse farm near her home in Lancaster County.
At that point, “I fully expected to go back to school,” she said.
But while Aukamp was tending to the steeds, U.S. cases of the virus crackled upward, and universities quickly began canceling events and shifting classes online, at least temporarily.
College students are generally at low risk of serious illness from COVID-19, but public-health officials worry that people who are little affected by the disease could spread it to others who are gravely susceptible — older people and those with chronic medical conditions.
DelVal, in one of the first Pennsylvania counties to record coronavirus cases, extended spring break by a week and will conduct classes online from March 23 to 29, with plans for the rest of the semester to be announced by March 26.
Like her friends in the music and nursing programs, Aukamp takes a lot of hands-on classes for her major. She works at the barn, observes veterinary procedures and rides horses. Those aren’t exactly activities that lend themselves to virtual learning.
“I’m really interested in how they’re going to do it,” she said.
Aukamp is hoping her professors post the assignments with deadlines and allow students to do the work when it’s convenient.
Professors could choose to hold online meetings during their scheduled class times, but that would break up her day and limit the amount of time she could work at her local horse farm.
Aukamp has taken online classes before and said she’ll be fine with the delivery method, but she thinks less motivated students could struggle.
Like many students, Aukamp had left textbooks in her dorm room over spring break. She went back last weekend to pick them up, along with some clothes.
One of her friends went even further, completely moving out of her room. “She thinks were not going to go back” this semester, Aukamp said.
Though DelVal hasn’t ruled out returning to on-campus instruction this spring, the university has canceled A-Day, a late April festival that in a normal year would be Pennsylvania’s first official fair of the season.
Aukamp was planning to have a minor role at A-Day helping at the FFA booth, but her friend on the planning committee had to email the vendors to tell them the event was off.
Aukamp thinks the economic damage from the coronavirus — falling stocks, straitened trade — could end up being worse than the scale of the illness itself.
“I think it’s absurd how the whole entire world is shutting down because of a harsh flu, if you want to get basic about it,” she said.
COVID-19 is a concern because it’s new, meaning no one has immunity, and a vaccine is not yet available. The mortality rate could also turn out to be higher than for most flu strains, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Aukamp believes DelVal had little choice but to make drastic changes to its schedule, though she sympathizes with her fellow students who lost out when study-abroad trips and sports were canceled.
Aukamp herself was supposed to compete at the college Western riding semifinals in Oklahoma this weekend. It, like so many events, is canceled because of the virus.
“A lot of us are frustrated and angry, but we don’t have anyone to be frustrated at,” she said.
At Penn State’s beef and sheep barn, the student workers are taking the disruptions in stride.
Student workers are overseeing calving and lambing at reduced staffing levels, similar to winter or spring break.
Under normal circumstances, all 10 students who live in dorms at the barn complex would work the morning shift, and four to seven would take the afternoon.
Each shift has been cut back to two or three people, with the students sorting out how the hours are distributed.
“It’s harder to get everything done,” said Samantha Gollmer, a student worker there.
Gollmer said the situation feels a little odd, but she thinks the changes make sense given the circumstances.
Land-grant universities and ag colleges have changed their plans frequently over the past two weeks as virus concerns grew and administrators sought to work around spring breaks that were soon starting or about to end.
Schools initially posted guidelines for travel to high-risk countries, promoted good hygiene, and discouraged group gatherings.
By the end of last week, though, the ag schools across the Northeast had announced they would shift to online learning, at least for several weeks.
Since then, the universities have issued near-daily updates to clarify procedures for working remotely, accessing campus services, and retrieving belongings from residence halls.
A number of schools, including Penn State, have decided that classes will remain online for the rest of the semester.
At Virginia Tech and Ohio State, students had to sign up for time slots to move out, a rule intended to promote social distancing.
As an example of how fast the situation changed, University of Maine Chancellor Dannel Malloy wrote on March 11 that “Maine is a safe place. We do not at present have any confirmed COVID-19 cases, although that will undoubtedly change in the near future.”
A week later, Maine had 14 cases of the disease, and a part-time faculty member had tested positive.
Cases have also been detected in people connected to Rutgers and the University of Delaware, according to the universities.
The scheduling changes continued this week, as schools modified previous policies and put off even more events.
Ohio State, Penn State and SUNY Morrisville plan to postpone commencement. The University of Pennsylvania will hold its ceremony virtually, and the University of Connecticut has canceled its festivities completely.
While schools have tried to move as many classes online as possible, laboratories and hands-on training have been challenging.
SUNY Cobleskill had announced this week that labs would continue in person, but later said all classes would go online after a case of COVID-19 was found in the county.
Concerned that supply chains may be disrupted, West Virginia University has encouraged research faculty to order a two- to three-month supply of lab chemicals.
The University of Massachusetts has asked researchers to consider suspending nonessential research, secure dangerous materials, back up data, and develop contingency plans for housing research animals.
Universities’ services for farmers have also been scaled back during the coronavirus response. Penn State Extension has canceled all events through at least May 15.
The veterinary schools at Tufts, Penn and Virginia-Maryland have limited the cases they are handling at their teaching hospitals, and clients will not be allowed into the facilities. Instead, staff will meet clients in the parking lot.
Lancaster Farming continues to track scheduling changes at Northeastern ag schools. For the complete list, go to bit.ly/LFcoronavirus1
Courtney Love contributed reporting.