• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Why We Didn’t Delay Spring

It's all about context.

January 6, 2021
 
 

Colleges around the country are canceling spring break and moving back the start of the spring semester, typically to the first week of February. We aren’t.

Context matters. So here’s why we didn’t delay spring.

First, we don’t have dorms. As a nonresidential institution, there’s no “bubble” to keep people safe. People come and go every day. The idea of having everyone wait out the post-New Year’s surge before entering the bubble, and then keeping everyone there hermetically sealed for months, just isn’t relevant.

Given that, it was hard to make a convincing case that delaying from Jan. 20 to, say, Feb. 1 would make a meaningful difference.

Second, the overwhelming majority of our schedule for the spring is virtual. If a class is online anyway -- whether synchronous or asynchronous -- it’s hard to see what’s gained by pushing the start date back a week or two. I expect that the pandemic will still be in full flower in February.

If I believed that everybody would be fully vaccinated and immune by, say, Jan. 25, I’d happily change my view. But that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

Third, it’s easy to see what’s lost when a midsemester break is eliminated. I suspect most of us have felt Zoom fatigue at some point; a well-timed break can do a world of good.

Finally, and this is particularly true for students in fragile circumstances, uncertainty brings real costs of its own. Many community college students are juggling difficult work situations and difficult family situations along with taking classes. Every time we change the rules, it upends arrangements they’ve made and forces them to start over. We can’t assume that every student has the personal circumstances to be maximally flexible.

That’s part of the reason that we’ve committed that courses that are scheduled to start virtually will finish virtually. Calling everyone back to campus in April sounds lovely, but introducing transportation as a variable a few months into the semester when struggling students have built their routines around not needing it would hit the most vulnerable students hard.

From an academic administration perspective, too, I wanted to minimize the shocks for faculty. Preparing classes takes time, and re-preparing them when schedules change is that much more work. The disruption last spring couldn’t be helped, but this time, we have an option. Given the choice, I’d rather minimize disruption and allow faculty to prepare to the fullest. Here, too, committing that courses scheduled to start virtually will finish virtually gives faculty the confidence that they can prepare fully for one format and go with it.

(The exception to this is the smallish number of sections that will be taught in person. They may have to move online at some point, depending on the virus and the state. But the folks teaching those classes already know that.)

None of this is to suggest that colleges that chose to delay made the wrong choice. Context matters. The Boy is at UVA, which chose to delay the spring semester to Feb. 1. Given the way that the influx of students affects Charlottesville at the start of each semester, I get it. The campus there isn’t a bubble, by any means, but it’s much more tightly contained than most commuter campuses. Keeping most students out of Charlottesville until enough time has passed from New Year’s is a reasonable move. With very different circumstances, different choices can make sense.

Decisions like these, in the context of a pandemic, can only be made through a combination of limited information, best guesses and core values. We won’t know if we were right until later, if even then. My best guess is that the pandemic will continue to thrive for at least a few months, so a delay of a week wouldn’t matter. And my core value is to protect students, faculty, staff and colleagues as much as possible.

I don’t know if this is the right answer, but we’re working like hell to make the answer right.

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