To Teach in Person, or not: That is the Question

Updated: Jun 9

by Jonathan Coopersmith, Texas A&M University

To teach in person, or not, that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler to expose the body to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous COVID-19,

Or to take precautions against a sea of infections

And by teaching online minimize them.

COVID-19 destroyed the old normal with its daunting but familiar challenges for higher education including a broken financial model, massive student debt, low graduation rates, and poorly prepared students. The reality is that there is no new normal, nor is anything approaching "certainty" likely in the next one or two years except much greater financial pressure. Consider this an opportunity to rethink how to reshape higher education learning and organization because those will happen.

Uncertainty abounds: While thousands of scientists work on vaccines, we learn more about how much we do not understand about the COVID-19 virus daily. For university professors, students, staff, and administrators, the short-term question is whether or not to have in-person classroom, and/or online learning during the Fall 2020 term. Some universities have already announced plans to remain online (e.g., the Cal State system) or resume face-to-face teaching (e.g., Brown University). Most colleges and universities are delaying such decisions as late as possible, both to develop feasibility plans, but also to gain greater clarity about the broader public and economic health of the country. My institution, Texas A&M University, is discussing a range of options, but its goal is to give each student at least one in-person class.

The arguments for the resumption of classroom teaching are compelling: As even the Supreme Court recognized in the 1950 grotesque segregation case, McLauren v. Oklahoma, being with other students comprises a large part of the college experience. Both students and faculty prefer classrooms over zooming. Social distancing protocols can reduce the risk of infection. The personal and societal costs of delaying a traditional education are huge. Economically, a semester, let alone a year, of online education could devastate colleges, as well as their communities.

How dangerous will COVID-19 be? At this point, there is no effective treatment, let alone a vaccine. Even the most optimistic schedule for a vaccine begins in 2021, not this fall. In the United States, your chances of infection and death increase significantly if you are older than 65, black, or Hispanic or otherwise socially vulnerable; in a nursing home, meat processing plant or prison; or have preexisting medical conditions. Enough exceptions exist to those categories to concern the cautious. How much risk is tolerable for your family? For your colleagues? For your students? How much risk would you consider acceptable to impose on others? As parents, how much risk is acceptable for our own children?

The United States is conducting fifty experiments in reducing its social distancing as I write this article. By the time you read this, we may know if a predicted second wave of infections has evolved. If the situation is as bad as some epidemiological models predict, expect that higher education will default to online learning. If the situation is more moderate, then the discussion about reopening with some in-person classes will continue.

What can faculty do? Three lines of action suggest themselves:

Discuss fall teaching options;

Improve your online teaching skills, and

Strategize about the future of higher education.

Regardless of how the federal and state governments react to the future of COVID-19, we should and must be active participants in ensuring current and future university students receive a quality education.

At a minimum we should be discussing teaching options and risks for this fall with our administration, colleagues, staff, and students. Any classroom teaching policy needs to discuss options for handling outbreaks of COVID-19, including targeted isolation, frequent testing, shutting down the campus (again). Apart from the "if" issue of whether we should teach in-person classes (and there are strong moral arguments against), we must be involved in the "then" – traditional and hybrid classes, how to provide and enforce social distancing and other protective measures (including testing and contact tracing), and the myriad of policies and details needed to make the fall semester better than the end of the spring. Texas A&M intends to expand the use of classrooms from 9 to 5 to 8 to 8 and on Saturdays. Like UT, A&M will start in mid-August and end classes at Thanksgiving to minimize student travel.

I ended the semester impressed with our IT staff and unimpressed with my online efforts, a reaction generally shared by many students and most faculty. Regardless of whether we want to only teach in-person classes, learning to teach better online this summer would be a good use of our time. Indeed, many ideas to improve online learning apply equally well to classroom teaching. I intend to work with colleagues, students, IT staff and A&M’s Center for Teaching Excellence. Don’t have a center? Go online and look – many centers exist and they freely reference each other’s webpages.

Finally, make no mistake, COVID-19 will significantly reshape American higher education because it generated a financial tsunami heading our way. Revenues and expenses are going in opposing directions. Teaching online generates significant costs as do efforts to reduce Covid-19 transmission. Revenues will decrease significantly as the number of higher paying international and out-of-state students drops. Public colleges and universities will face severe pressure from state governments which must balance their budgets. The drop in oil prices, resulting both from decreased demand and the price war among Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States, will cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the Permanent University Fund. Even before Covid-19, declining American birthrates and other factors were forcing some smaller, financially weaker institutes to merge or close. Now expect those numbers to grow.

Like so many other facets of society, higher education is undergoing an unprecedented stress test whose consequences are only emerging. Higher education will change: For some provocative thoughts, read Scott Galloway and George Gee. To shape that future, faculty need to participate in these discussions at institutional, state, and national level.

Citations (all the hyperlinks)

Fall teaching

Improving online learning

Future of higher education

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