As I write this, I am in quarantine and thinking that it would be great if Trump’s lies about COVID were true—that it is but a strenuous flu. In an interesting coincidence, I have been planning this essay for a while—but today seems a fortuitous day to write on this subject.
When the United States finally got around to acknowledging the pandemic (China does deserve criticism here as well) my university switched to virtual classes. This was a challenge for some and an easy transition for others. When the fall semester arrived, most classes were scheduled to be either online or remote (remote means that professors talk at a mostly empty Zoom meeting rather than talking at a mostly empty classroom). I am teaching remotely this semester, which has gone mostly well.
As this is being written the current plan is that all classes that were taught in person in Spring 2020 (pre-pandemic) must be taught in person in Spring 2021. While there was wishful thinking that the pandemic would fade away and there is some realistic hope of a vaccine, the pandemic is currently setting new records in the United States. Based on the 1918 flu (our best analogy) this was to be expected. There is also the fact that the late fall tends to see an increase in illness even in normal times. Trump and his supporters have also contributed to the pandemic. The Trump administration’s response to COVID has been to delay, deny, dither, and lie. While it is true that Trump is not responsible for the virus, he is responsible for the federal response. While it is not always clear whether his supporters are more accomplices or victims, Trump’s rallies have, according to a study, led to over 700 COVID-19 deaths. His current plan involves firing Dr. Fauci—something his supporters cheer.
If Biden is elected, then we can expect a vastly better response to COVID-19. As Trump himself has said, Joe will listen to the scientists. But even with a Biden victory COVID will remain a serious problem for the indefinite future. If Trump holds onto power, he will presumably keep doing what he is doing—so the pandemic will surge until a vaccine is developed or it burns itself out while killing hundreds of thousands more. Either way, COVID will certainly still be around for the Spring semester. So, is it a good idea to compel students and professors to return to the classrooms?
The Fall reopening of campuses did result in thousands of cases and given the COVID infection trends, it is reasonable to infer the Spring would be worse. That said, something significant could change by the Spring, such as an effective vaccine or effective national strategy. It is also worth considering that schools have learned more about COVID and have been working on re-opening plans.
Currently there are various plans being considered. One of the main plans is having HyFlex classes: the professor goes to the classroom and students can decide whether to go or ignore the lecture being transmitted from the classroom. As this is being written, we do not have the cameras or mics to do this—but this could change. While this is likely to reduce contact (I would wager that most students will not show up most of the time) it is not risk free.
There are also plans to have students split into groups that show up in person in rotation to ensure that the classroom always has room for social distancing. This seems needlessly complicated and has various problems such as coordinating the students and the fact that it would seem easier to simply have the classes entirely online. There are also plans to have small classes to allow distancing—while simple, this still allows for contact between people that could result in infections. There is also the problem with offering enough classes to meet student need—my classes typically exceed the capacity of the room and limiting them to half the usual number would mean many students being unable to take the class. There is the option of doubling the number of classes—but this would obviously require paying faculty more and budgets are always stretched thin.
Interestingly, before the pandemic we were mandated by the state to significantly increase the percentage of online classes we offer. This mandate still holds—while we are also mandated to teach all classes that were in person in Spring 2020 in person in 2021. This creates a bit of a challenge, since the first mandate was being addressed in the obvious manner of converting in-person classes into online classes. More new online classes could be created—but there is the obvious problem of securing instructors and funding on top of the classes that must be offered in person. The easy and obvious solution to the problem of COVID and the mandate to expand online classes would be to allow the school to offer online classes in 2021 even if they were in person in 2020.
At this point the reader might be thinking of all the essential workers who have been forced to risk their health and lives working in person through the pandemic. Elitist professors whining about being forced back into the classroom might merit naught by mockery: they need to man up and face the virus like other workers. And, of course, Trump supporters believe (or pretend to believe) that COVID is an overblown hoax—so there is no danger at all from being back in the classroom.
On the one hand, it is certainly fair to be critical of those who do whine about being forced to return to in-person teaching. As the criticism notes, essential workers have been risking their health and life since the pandemic started, and professors would seem to be crybaby elitists if they claimed their lives were more important than those of others. That is, if they made it seem like Joe and Jane should be working at Whole Foods and Starbucks to ensure they can have their kale and lattes while they teach safely from home. I would certainly condemn such elitism that allowed the elites to profit and benefit from the risks taken by and the suffering endured by the working classes.
On the other hand, forcing students and professors back into the classroom during a pandemic seems like a needless increase in risk in many cases. While there are limits to and problems with online classes, these can be addressed. And, as noted above, we have been mandated to offer more online classes—so we would need to address issues raised by having more online classes pandemic or no pandemic. While professors can certainly be elitist crybabies, consider the following analogy.
Firefighters regularly put themselves at risk working in and near burning structures. If a college classroom catches on fire, the firefighters rush to the fire. In contrast, those in the class flee the room. While it is brave of the firefighters to face the fire, it would be stupid and needlessly dangerous for the students and professors to be in the burning room when they have the option of leaving and continuing class someplace that is not on fire. Essential workers are like the firefighters (and firefighters are essential workers): they must work in or near the fire to do their jobs. Professors and students do not. Not wanting to be in fire when that is not a reasonable necessity of their job is hardly whining—it is sensible. As such, it would be reasonable to hold the spring 2021 classes online to the degree that doing so is possible.
If surviving COVID confirmed immunity, I would not be worried about myself in the Spring: I would either be dead (and not care) or be immune (and not worried about myself). But the evidence is not clear about immunity—there seem to be cases of reinfection—which would be a serious problem for plans for herd immunity. In closing, my view is that classes should be online in Spring 2021—unless there is a significant change between now and then. We’ll meet again in a better time. And if not in a better time, perhaps a better place.