Last Friday was National College Acceptance Day, the day when colleges traditionally ask students to plunk down their deposits for the next school year. Though many schools have extended that deadline, they remain in a race against students and coronavirus: Many universities keep insisting that campuses will be open in the fall. It’s hard not to hear this as an empty promise designed to get students to commit now, before the death rate ticks up in two weeks and surges past 100,000 by August, when classes start.
Despite what higher ed administrators are saying, it’s unlikely to be safe to bring students back to campus en masse by fall. And by “safe,” I don’t mean that we are aiming for zero risks; I mean we see that the infection rate is falling; that hospitals have the beds they need and front line workers have the equipment they need; we can isolate those who are ill and quarantine those who have been exposed to them; we can use contact tracing to find people who have been exposed; we can test everyone who needs a test; and we can accommodate those who need to continue to work remotely for personal and medical reasons.
Those are not supports that campuses can put into place. They require a much broader effort, including a cultural effort to recognize the reality of this danger and participate in mitigation efforts. Not only does the US not have this leadership–we have the opposite.
But here are some specific reasons why colleges will not be able to safely reopen:
1. Universities are not going to hire the faculty necessary to reduce classes or housing to the size needed to practice physical distancing. Running classes at half or one-third or one-fourth capacity is untenable. You will need to hire twice as many teachers to radically increase the number of courses taught or demand more from faculty who are already stretched thin. Yes, a person teaching a 1-1 can be given a 2-2 without it being a huge burden, but many of us regularly teach 4 and 5 classes each semester. Cutting our classes into two sections just won’t work unless you hire more of us, which universities have decided not to do for the last 30 years. Any university serious about reopening should be draining its endownment and shaking down donors and state legislatures to hire more faculty. Of course, the real situation is the exact opposite: layoffs, furloughs, and department closings.
2. Universities don’t have the space or time for doubling course offerings. Even if you had the faculty, where will you put these students? Large lectures halls that hold 500 will now hold 250–so you run two sections of all the courses that need that hall? Classes will be running from 6 am to 11 pm. You’ll need to increase faculty pay to compensate them for these unusual hours.
3. Nor will they have the janitorial capacity. Who is going to clean each of those desks between classes? Are we going to trust students to sanitize the space as they exit? Ask your favorite janitor how well students do at keeping things clean.
4. Opening, closing, re-opening, closing again strains students. If campuses reopen and have to close again within the semester–a best case scenario for many schools–they will create cracks in the student-university relationship, and some students will fall through those cracks. The massive task of moving students in and out of campus takes time (and risks exposure since it’s hard to practice physical distancing while moving thousands of people at once). How many days of break will students need to move in and out? Two? Three? Four? We’re losing precious instruction days. And out-of-state students do not have the resources for multiple moves.
5. You cannot control student activity. Students living on campus will not practice staying 6 feet apart or wearing a mask when in public. Know how I know? Because every year students at conservative Christian colleges get pregnant or get others pregnant, even though many of them have signed university honor codes prohibiting sex. They are risking losing their place on campus, an unplanned pregnancy, and their eternal souls (Okay, not quite–but you can imagine that the student who attends such a school faces a lot of family, church, and peer pressure to abstain from sex, or to at least not get caught doing it..) And they still have sex! If students at those universities are still having sex, do you think that students at other universities will forgo high fives, hugs, and studying too close together?
6. Policing physical distancing will make campus very unpleasant. Will the rules about physical distancing be rules, regulations, or recommendations? What will be the consequence of breaking them? Who will police this? Who will review cases? How will that be done in a way that doesn’t replicate the kind of racial bias we see in other kinds of COVID policing? Will students be expected to report other students who violate these rules? What will be the process for remediating faculty who do not comply? Don’t like words like policing and remediate and do not comply? Me neither.
Above, Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (18801881) shows more than a dozen people enjoying a lunch together. Bottles of wine, dirty dishes, and fruit litter the table in the foreground. A woman blows kisses at the terrier she has brought to lunch. A man straddles a chair, sitting backwards. People flirt–and others interrupt them. Some men are in their undershirts, but others are dressed to match the finery of the women. One even wears a top hat. Imagine being the campus police officer who has to break up this party–only dozens of times every day.
7. Students who practice physical distancing will be at the mercy of those who don’t. Think your mediocre students hate the students who set the curve high? How will your students who are now paying double for their dorm room feel when the jerk next to them returns from a weekend of partying to give the whole class COVID?
8. On-campus teaching leaves all those behind who cannot return to campus even if it opens. This includes students as well as faculty and staff who are immunocompromised, those who care for elders, and those who will likely be juggling closed K-12 schools. Others who have undetected underlying health problems will return and become sick or die. Years of efforts to diversify campuses will be erased.
9. It’s better to close for a short time and move online than to close forever. Think this coming year will be financially difficult? What happens when 1000 students are infected and 20 of them die?
10. Even if all the criteria for a “safe” reopening were to be met, students will not be able to learn as effectively in a climate of anxiety and policing as they would be able to learn in a steady online course.
Brown University Chancellor Christina Paxson argued in the NYT last week that campuses not reopening would be “catastrophic.” She writes that even if open campuses looks a little different next year,
students will still benefit from all that makes in-person education so valuable: the fierce intellectual debates that just aren’t the same on Zoom, the research opportunities in university laboratories and libraries and the personal interactions among students with different perspectives and life experiences.
Paxson is right that debates on Zoom aren’t the same as in real life and that you can’t do lab research at home like you can in, well, a lab.
(She is wrong about being able to have personal interactions across lines of difference; this is one thing that online courses can often allow us to do better than on-campus ones, because campuses themselves are not accessible to as many people as are online courses. How many swing shift workers attend Brown? How many mothers of young children? Adults caring for their aging parents? Americans living abroad? People in treatment for cancer? National Guard members doing hurricane or tornado recovery? Prison guards now pulling double shifts as COVID sends their co-workers home for weeks at a time? All of those folks can engage deeply and meaningfully in an online course but could not show up to campus. I teach every one of these kinds of students every semester, and my online classes are places of rich, deep engagement. )
Imagine yourself in the classroom that Paxson describes: half the number of students as a typical section, so you are missing half the students in the academic peer cohort that develops as you enter upper-level classes. While in an online class, you would still be interacting in many of your upper-level courses with the other Class of 2021 sociology or history or computer science majors, in a physically-distant F2F course, half of those students are now gone.
You sit six feet apart or more. No more sitting around a seminar table. You will be shouting at each other from across a large classroom.
You want a rich discussion. But most students or educators in the US are not acquainted with how to generate that when faces are covered; with time and opportunity, more of us can learn to listen and speak through masks this way, but it’s not our norm.
How rich is a conversation about literature or philosophy or politics in this setting? Not very. The work to create a safe enough campus (a goal that cannot reasonably be achieved) won’t even produce the outcome that Paxson wants–but it still takes great risk.
Even if an open campus is preferable to fully online courses, a physically-distant campus–even if that were a thing that could be achieved, which is it not–offers much less than a robust, thoughtfully-designed online semester.
I don’t want to rush students or faculty through the grief of this situation. Closed campuses are, as Paxson writes, a catastrophe. I agree. We are choosing which catastrophe we can best manage, weighing the risks and benefits of each while recognizing that none of them are what we know to be best for students. That means that we recognize, ideally sooner than June 1, when students matriculate, that closed or partially-closed* campuses have to be an option. To be fully confident that they’ll be open is to be fully of baloney; to tell it to students is to be a bit of a con artist.
*My strong suggestion for most schools is a switch to 4.5 week blocks of courses, which would allow multiple pivot points for campus closures if needed and multiple entry points for students to start classes if they are not ready in August or need time off in October. They would also allow small groups of students to return for short periods of time for classes that truly could not be completed online.
**This post has been updated to consider feedback about the possibilities for emotionally-engaged conversation through face coverings. Thanks to my scholarly friends in religious studies who provided it.
Like what you read?Support it.