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story.lead_photo.caption University of Arkansas students are shown on the lawn in front of Old Main on the campus in Fayetteville in this file photo. - Photo by David Gottschalk

FAYETTEVILLE -- The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville began its spring semester Monday with some students saying they welcomed a return to more in-person courses after a fall term of mostly online instruction.

"I am excited to be in person. I feel like we need more of that, because last semester it was really hard to focus," said Anthony Mihelich, a junior from Riverside, Calif. He said he did not have any face-to-face classes last semester. This term, his introductory marketing class is meeting regularly in-person, he said.

"I'm paying a lot for the year. So it's like, I kind of want to be on campus," Mihelich, 22, said.

But while the first day brought some back to the classroom, data on course formats provided by UA showed an uptick in face-to-face instruction rather than a large increase, as the ongoing pandemic continues to affect how college classes are taught around the state.

Monday marked the the start of classes at multiple campuses in the state, and some large universities -- including Arkansas Tech University and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith -- reported a mix of online-only and remote instruction similar to the fall.

Colleges around the state are also continuing with pandemic protocols, like requiring face coverings and physical distancing in classrooms.

The spring semester at UA-Fayetteville began with a majority of course sections -- 2,529 out of 4,573, or about 55% -- taught remotely rather than in-person, university spokesman John Post said.

Post said 1,971 sections, or about 43%, are being taught fully in-person or in a hybrid format that involves some face-to-face instruction, with the format not yet determined for a "small amount of classes."

The 55% of sections being taught online is down compared to the fall, which began with about 59% of course sections online.

The change comes after top university officials, including Chancellor Joe Steinmetz, called for more in-person instruction despite the ongoing pandemic. The latest data from the state Department of Health shows a cumulative covid-19 case total of 3,195 for UA-Fayetteville since June 15, mostly students.

Elisabeth Straessle, a UA-Fayetteville freshman from Little Rock, said the spring term is a chance for a new start after a fall semester of online classes.

"Going into the spring semester, I feel more prepared for the online classes and how to navigate them," Straessle, 18, said. She said she's taking one in-person class.

It would have been more, she said, but some in-person courses she signed up for ended up being switched to online.

Straessle said the pandemic has taken away some social opportunities, including getting to meet in-person with the pledge class of her sorority.

"I definitely wish there were more things like social events, but I understand why there's not," Straessle said.

Masako Suzuki, an international student from Ibaraki Prefecture in Japan, said she expects to finish her degree this year. She said she spent the fall semester in Japan taking online classes because of the pandemic.

Last semester studying online, "it felt like I didn't learn anything," she said. "So I'm excited that I have some face-to-face classes."

Suzuki, 21, said she's also excited to be in the United States for her final year of study, despite knowing about the rising number of covid-19 cases.

"I feel very worried, but at the same time, what each individual can do doesn't change no matter where you are. I just try to keep myself safe, and that's the only thing I can do now," Suzuki said, adding that she appreciated the spaced-out seating in her first class and how students are keeping the same seat locations for the semester.

Arkansas Tech University in Russellville this spring will have about 44% of its courses taught in a hybrid format, approximately 33% online-only and about 23% face-to-face, spokesman Sam Strasner said in an email.

"The proportion of in-person, online and hybrid classes is anticipated to be similar to fall 2020," Strasner said.

Totals were not available for UA-Fort Smith, but a spokeswoman said the campus will host about the same proportion of in-person classes this spring as in the fall.

Among private universities, Harding University also began its spring term Monday, and there "is not a significant change compared to the fall as far as the number of in-person [compared to remote] classes this semester," spokeswoman Katie Clement said in an email.

Among other universities that started class Monday, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff began with a shift towards more online-only instruction.

"The semester started virtually except for three areas" -- nursing, military science and student teaching -- UAPB's Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Robert Carr Jr. said in an email.

Carr described the shift as tied to the seasonality of the flu as well as the pandemic.

"Of course, we would prefer to meet the majority of our course face-to-face, but because of health and safety concerns due to the covid-19 pandemic and influenza season, we will wait until after influenza season to reevaluate face-to-face instruction," Carr said.

He said that while the university started the term with fewer in-person courses than in the fall, "if our plan holds, we will deliver more face-to-face instruction at the end of the semester."

At UA-Fayetteville, Caitlyn Bagby, a sophomore, said in the fall her classes were all online "so I was never on campus."

After attending an in-person class, Bagby said she felt comfortable with the spacing measures in place in the class.

"They've done a really good job of making sure everybody stays six feet apart," Bagby said.

"Just staying safe is the biggest thing,"she said. "I think it's important to all of us, keeping our families and friends safe."

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