Open-but-Physically-Distant Campuses are Unworkable (And You’d Probably Hate Them)

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.

Luncheon of the Boating Party - Wikipedia

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.

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18 thoughts on “Open-but-Physically-Distant Campuses are Unworkable (And You’d Probably Hate Them)

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  1. “consider feedback about the possibilities for emotionally-engaged conversation through face coverings” Can you tell me more about this? What are some thoughts or suggestions for achieving this?

  2. I believe this opinion piece to be well reasoned, and I agree with most of its points and conclusions, even if I do so with a saddened heart at the general prospect.

    Speaking as one from the business of in person assembly – live theatrical production – I would suggest this statement to be extremely optimistic. “Large lectures halls that hold 500 will now hold 250–so you run two sections of all the courses that need that hall?”

    In professional organizations where we are currently discussing the challenges of re-opening theatres and other places of assembly the ratio of seating that is safely useable with 6′ physical distance is more likely 15-35% of original capacity. This is true even when spacing seating to accommodate groups 2-4 people who cohabitate, and are therefore safe sitting together. This strategy helps keep capacities on the higher side of the ratios mentioned above – closer to 35%. But given that lecture halls pack in students, and we can’t count on college age students to appropriately space themselves, your 500 person lecture halls will now become 75-125 person lecture halls at best. Now you need 4 -7 sections for that former large lecture.

    Thanks for the thoughtful writing.

    1. This is incredibly helpful—and of course it comes from a theater prof! You all better understand the challenges of restricting physical interaction more than most!

  3. 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.

    Please remember that teaching over Zoom feels just like this—but even more so—for those of us who are inexperienced with online teaching. I don’t doubt that your “online classes are places of rich, deep engagement.” But this is probably in large part a result of experience, talent, and circumstances that not all online educators enjoy.

    The rest of us will get used to Zoom in time, but it will probably take longer than getting used to speaking through a mask.

    1. Oh, Zoom is the pits. It’s no way to teach, and I wouldn’t advocate for it or any other video conferencing software unless you are working one-on-one or in a small group on a specific problem where you need joint attention on something visual. Need to explain how to do a calculation and need students to be able to interrupt in the moment to ask a question? Use Zoom for a tutoring session.

      Otherwise, I avoid it.

      But rich conversation online can still happen—asynchronously.

      Like we are having now! Or you have with friends on FB. Or like how people used to write letters.

      1. Agreed. But rich conversation can also happen through a mask at six feet, after one has had a little time to get used to it.

        My point is that we should be even-handed about which obstacles are portrayed as insurmountable and which as merely difficult-but-solvable. Here, the two obstacles in question are

        (1) having a rich discussion that is nonetheless well-coordinated, on-topic, high-level, and yet engaging to people encountering the topic of conversation for the first time, all while online and asynchronous,

        vs.

        (2) having a rich discussion that is nonetheless well-coordinated, on-topic, high-level, and yet engaging to people encountering the topic of conversation for the first time, all through masks at a distance of 6+ feet.

        Both are difficult, neither is impossible. Nonetheless, I would guess (but I could be wrong!) that (1) is harder than (2). Yet your piece treats (2) as if it’s an insurmountable obstacle*, while (1) merely takes practice and is a clearly better way to do things anyways.

        * You do say that people will get better at speaking through masks with practice. But, if I’m reading you correctly, you believe that the lack-of-richness is permanent: “How rich is a conversation about literature or philosophy or politics in this setting? Not very. The work to create a safe enough campus…won’t even produce the outcome that Paxson wants”—not even, presumably, after people have had some practice speaking through masks.

        Otherwise, if having rich conversation while online or while masked is just a matter of practice and acclimation in either case, then this is a burden that both strategies bear, and so it doesn’t count in favor of either strategy over the other.

      2. I think you raise a great point. And neither are insurmountable—and if we are eventually going to return to campus but masks will remain part of our every day life, then perhaps we should start with that sooner than later.

        I suspect, though, we are already more comfortable asynchronous than we realize. When I think of the colleagues I have the most stimulating conversations with, it’s not my peers I see every day in my department (not because they’re not great but because we all work in different subfields)—it’s colleagues who are focused on the same thing as me, even at a distance. While we do have great conversations at conferences, I suspect that, for many of us, our intellectual community is already dispersed.

        Which isn’t particularly new, either! How many great thinkers worked out their ideas in conversations with others conducted through letters—and incredibly asynchronous way of exchanging ideas!

      3. And you’re probably lucky to have small class sizes. (Arkansas State has a ratio of 17:1.) At Arizona State, it is not uncommon to have classes with a hundred, or several hundred, students in it.

        And using Zoom to proctor an exam? As they say up north, Fuggedaboutit! Zoom can only show 49 screens at once (and that’s if your device has enough CPU power; otherwise, the limit is 25). And the first 20 minutes of a 2-hour Final Exam usually involves taking care of people who have trouble logging in (or “joining the meeting”), so you need at least one helper, at the very minimum.

        At Arizona State, in the School of Math at least, you only get a second helper if your class has at least 100 students in it.

      4. Or Usenet.

        (Email didn’t used to be that fast, either, when communicating across oceans. To make things more efficient, messages between — for instance — the United States and Europe would be collected and sent over as one bunch, every 12 or 24 hours. This was in 1990, btw.)

        But we live in a world with shorter attention spans and a desire for instantaneousness (Is that a word?).

        For lectures (especially for math and science), the best approach might be a combination of synchronous with asynchronous. The basic lectures would be recorded on video (asynchronous) and several times a week, there is a discussion / problem session (synchronous).

        Of course, this assumes that you have a class that is comfortable watching videos to learn … which is a whole other can of worms.

      5. This is how I taught stats this spring: recorded lectures, then a weekly synchronous tutoring session with my Academic Assistant.

        I think math online can actually be a lot of fun, if students have the opportunity to do online exercises where they get instant feedback. Lots of possibilities for gamification that can be motivating!

      6. Yes. WeBWorK has made all that possible. It’s not so good at checking students’ work (although you can create problems where the students have into include the intermediate steps), so we still had to assign written homework. (This was 15-20 years ago.)

        WeBWorK allowed us to randomize the problems and give immediate feedback, so we knew that students weren’t copying the answers from someone else.

        Incidentally, Blackboard’s problem-checker checked the actual string against the answer. So if the answer was 2, and you typed in 1+1, your answer was “wrong”; if you typed in 2.0, your answer was “wrong”; if you typed in 2 and hit the space bar, your answer was “wrong”. (You can find images online where MyMathLab is doing the same thing.)

        Blackboard got a bad name in the School of Math because of that. Then Moodle came along, and became the preferred course management system until ASU (my ASU) adopted Canvas a couple of years ago.

  4. Thank you for writing this. I agree completely. I plan to teach online in the fall. I hope that all my friends and colleagues will be offered the chance to do the same, and take it.

  5. I struggle to see how your strong suggestion of creating blocks alleviates, in terms of teacher workload, the issues you present in point 2. Now, instead of teaching each of my courses once in the semester, I’m supposed to teach them back-to-back three times in a row at three times the pace? How does that not significantly increase workload? Not to mention, this seems like a registrar’s nightmare.

    1. Three ways:

      1. Since most of us don’t have three online courses already prepped and vetted, if we teach 3 at a time, we will make all our rookie mistakes in three classes—and then have to live with them until December. If we teach 1-2 at a time, the impact of those mistakes on our teaching (and our students) is lessened. By the third courses you’ll be pretty good at this! And it’s less work, I think, to teach ever-improving classes than to be constantly tweaking classes that were built with mistakes in them.

      2. You will be dealing with 1/3 of the students at a time. As veterans online teachers will tell you, it’s the email that takes the most time. If you are teaching one class at a time, you will get far less email—and you won’t have to use a lot of cognitive energy managing it because it will all be focused on the class.

      3. If you are only teaching 3 classes, depending on how a university schedules this, you could have a mid-semester break. I’m a fan of 4 4 1/2 week sessions, which would give campuses 2 1/2 days to rotate students who HAVE to be on campus (if doing so is safe) off and clean. You could teach August, September, and November, for example—and take October off.

      Given that many of us will be juggling parenting and elder care duties, I think that flexibility is a big deal for faculty.

      As for the registrar… I know, but it’s solvable.

      Most importantly, lots of students aren’t going to enroll in August but might in September—and many won’t be able to hang for 5-classes at a time for a 16 week semester. They aren’t disciplined into being online students, and they are going to be facing huge burdens and challenges, many unforeseen. If most faculty are offering “doggie pancake” classes for the whole semester (all of us making our rookie mistakes all semester, in all the classes a student takes), we’re going to lose them.

  6. “Many universities keep insisting that campuses will be open in the fall.”

    My feeling is that it’s about 50-50 right now, but if there’s a mutation, all bets are off.

    “The real situation is the exact opposite: layoffs, furloughs, and department closings.”

    Here at Arizona State, we haven’t heard the L word yet, and I haven’t heard of any departments closing, even though it happens every now and then anyway. (The Kinetics department got absorbed into something else, a few years back.)

    “Who is going to clean each of those desks between classes? Are we going to trust students to sanitize the space as they exit?”

    ASU is ahead of the curve on that one, because starting a few years ago, they put bottles of sanitizer near the doors to the buildings, and some classrooms.

    “Opening, closing, re-opening, closing again strains students.”

    Don’t forget that it strains us teachers, too! 😎

    “You cannot control student activity. Students living on campus will not practice staying 6 feet apart or wearing a mask when in public. […] Students who practice physical distancing will be at the mercy of those who don’t.”

    ****, we can’t get get full-grown *adults* to wear masks in public. And there are some other “full-grown adults” who have actually insulted and assaulted people who *do* wear masks. (Incidentally, even in non-religious settings.)

    “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.”

    It’s also been shown time and time again that abstinence-only sex ed does not work. Students who take this type of sex ed course are more likely to get pregnant, pass on STDs, etc.

    “How rich is a conversation about literature or philosophy or politics in this setting?”

    Or math or science, for that matter. My presentations are usually pseudo-power-point presentations. Live, they go up on a screen, and I’m there as well. Online, it’s just the PPPP. So the students are already missing out on seeing me.

    It’s a problem the other way around, too. It’s harder to tell when a class is lost when you don’t have the visual cues. Even with a generation that is more tech-savvy, it’s still hard to juggle taking notes and typing questions at the same time.

    “A physically-distant campus […] offers much less than a robust, thoughtfully-designed online semester.”

    Especially if you have to build a physically-distant campus on the spot (which is what was done in March).

    Physically-distant schools show up every now and then in science fiction. This raises a question: Have sci-fi fans adapted to the changes better than other people, having seen them put into a familiar context?

    “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.”

    Some classes are easier to break up into units than others.

    As for Arizona State’s plans for the fall, here’s a report from our Academic Senate: “Scenarios under discussion include “virtual lectures” where some students are present in class and the rest attend remotely; remote as well as in-person lectures by instructors; take-home food service only; some courses conducted entirely online; and a delayed start of the fall semester by 2 to 6 weeks with a “summer session D” inserted in August and September. No decisions have been made on any of these.”

    1. “Have sci-fi fans adapted to the changes better than other people, having seen them put into a familiar context?” – This is a great question! I’ve been wondering about a correlation between those who have had cross-cultural experiences and those who have adapted better to the abrupt transitions and disruptions. But it would be really fascinating to explore any connection between Sci-Fi and (at least) the technological shift that the pandemic brought.

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