During the global coronavirus pandemic, educators at all levels have learned many things that will improve what we do and how we can better serve students and society.

The benefits of distance and online learning have been with us for many years, advancing learning and meeting the needs of many students. However, COVID-19 forced everyone to jump into the deep end of the online learning pool. Ready or not.

We were fortunate to have the networks and technology that allowed for remote learning. But now we are hearing about “Zoom fatigue” and stress from being “on stage” or “in a box” during a video conference. Gone are the spontaneous conversations and learning that can take place when we are in the same room, or walking across a college green, skipping on an elementary playground or chatting in a high school cafeteria.

It’s no secret that online learning works better in some disciplines than others. But in the majority of fields — sciences, health, education, agriculture, engineering, arts — optimum learning and discovery require hands-on experiences and work, as well as face-to-face interaction.

At all levels of education, students gain valuable coping, social, service, team-building and leadership skills by being around other students. In one national survey conducted since the start of coronavirus’ spread, nearly two-thirds of college-bound high-school seniors said they have no interest in pursuing a degree online. They expect and want a traditional college experience.

Like several other colleges and universities across the state, Oklahoma State University has announced its intention to return to in-person classes in the fall. We’re still sorting out what that will look like, but we will follow guidance from state leaders and health officials. We will make our return to campus as safe as possible.

I know the pandemic has clouded the future for many students and their families. It meant the loss of income and new economic challenges. Thanks to the support of federal CARES Act funds, donors and others, colleges and universities are compassionately working to limit the hardships brought by COVID-19. I encourage students to reach out to their colleges to see what resources are available.

The pandemic also taught us that despite an emergency that turned our world upside down, teachers taught, students learned and degrees are being earned.

Commencement ceremonies have been canceled or postponed — including our own — but we are still celebrating the graduation of nearly 100,000 high school and college students across Oklahoma. Graduates are not being denied their prized diploma, their passport to a better future.

Of course, these young women and men did not do it alone. Professors, teachers, administrators and staff worked quickly and enthusiastically to make online learning a success. Moms and dads and other family members came alongside to provide support. We owe them all a huge thanks.

This was not the way the final year of high school or college was supposed to end. I applaud the communities and high schools, colleges and universities that are using creative ways to recognize graduates.

Congratulations to the class of 2020! The future is certainly challenging, but with your degree, you are better equipped to meet those challenges now and in the future.

Burns Hargis is president of Oklahoma State University.

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