The Prospect of Teaching in August Gets Real

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

This is my last blog until school starts in August. My friends and colleagues look to this newsletter for thoughtful comments and clear analysis. I have neither. My effort to write something definitive has been derailed numerous times over the last week by new information and a rapidly changing landscape. The reality of planning a 25-student interdisciplinary graduate seminar for the fall has added to the confusion. As a result, I have many questions but very few answers, and I know I am not alone. Two days ago, a colleague from the University of Virginia told me he would probably wait until the week before classes to decide whether to teach in-person, online or in some hybrid form. Campus leaders are in the same boat. Plans to open campuses with online and face-to-face classes were announced a month ago before the latest surge in new cases of the virus and before those plans were fully vetted. So, as of the last week of June, the only thing I know for sure is we are going to be living with a great deal of uncertainty for the foreseeable future.

The uncertainty is fueled by external and internal factors. To begin with, the results of our battle with the virus are discouraging at best with record numbers of cases being reported daily. Plans made a month ago for a late summer opening assumed we would be seeing a bend in the curve of new cases and hospitalizations by the time classes started. That is far from a certainty. The dramatic increase in infections among college-age students further complicates the situation. Limited attempts to bring football teams back to campus for conditioning have resulted in far more new cases than anticipated notwithstanding the small number of athletes involved and the relatively controlled nature of the experiment. This new reality dramatically influences any determination that it is safe to open the campus as planned.

Even if the experts continue to believe it is theoretically possible to open safely, a host of issues must be confronted as institutions move from bold aspirations to the hard job of implementation. Notwithstanding the opinion of experts, undergraduate students are willing and even eager to return. I suspect the desire to leave home, be with their friends, and graduate on time are the motivating factors. College-age students have demonstrated over the last several weeks they are not particularly concerned about contracting the virus. Although surveys indicate that students prefer face-to-face over online courses, it is less clear that in-person classes are what is driving their interest in returning to campus.

This enthusiasm to return to campus is not shared by many on the faculty. Petitions not to reopen abound nationwide and the sentiment seems to be picking up steam as trend lines of new cases and hospitalizations bend upward. At a recent campus-wide conversation on re-opening, many of my experienced faculty colleagues were skeptical that students would abide by the safety standards required for reassembling the campus community. Pictures of crowded bars and beaches give graphic credibility to their concerns. Many colleagues are worried not so much about their own safety but that of their immediate and extended family. Childcare and family responsibilities were also raised as impediments to on-campus teaching in the absence of the reopening of schools and daycares. Even the most dedicated and committed teachers are concerned about safety. If they teach some or all of their classes in person, I suspect they will spend a limited amount of time on campus during the fall semester.

Another unknown that has been added to the mix is the unprecedented racial reckoning sweeping the country. The fact that COVID-19 disproportionately impacts racial minorities will shape the dialogue on faculty and staff safety. The prospect of putting at risk those who are most vulnerable will no longer be acceptable, and this point will be articulated forcefully throughout the campus community. If reopening gets to be a close call, many schools will choose an additional semester of online classes over the inequitable treatment of people of color. This is written as the drama of forcing faculty and staff to work in what they perceive as an unsafe environment is beginning to play out. I suspect faculty will prevail because, at the end of the day, they are required if classes in any format are to be conducted and online classes are better than no classes at all. Staff is another matter. The appropriate treatment of the front-line workers necessary to open campus and keep it safe may be the most intractable problem facing a campus hoping to open in the fall.

I will end with an interesting idea from the University of Massachusetts. Why not let students come back to campus and resume campus life as safely as they can but with most, if not all, classes conducted online. Such an approach would address many of the student’s concerns about the need for an on-campus experience without placing the health of professors and their families at risk. It would also lessen the risks to university staff because the exposure to virus carriers would be drastically reduced.  As the first day of classes approaches, more and more faculty will become reluctant to wade into a sea of newly returned students and will request or, if necessary, demand to teach online. As events unfold in the next week or two, it may be time to consider opening the campus to students but extending social distancing for faculty from six feet to at least several miles.

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