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There are going to be a lot of sick people on college campuses in the fall.

This is a pretty easy prediction, because there are always a lot of sick people on college campuses given the very nature of the activities that happen on college campuses. I know I am not the only instructor to look out over a classroom and see lots of empty seats as students are felled by one virus or another.

I remember a particularly bad bout of mono that caught five students out of 20 in a single class and would’ve resulted in a passel of incompletes if I gave incompletes. (More on this in a moment.)

While indications are that the coronavirus vaccines are holding up well against the Delta variant in preventing severe disease, hospitalization and death, even vaccinated people are getting sick. It is beyond frustrating that a virus that could’ve been isolated and marginalized continues to thrive, but for now, as measured by the worst outcomes, we are collectively in a different place than last year heading into fall semester, when attempts to open to full in-person instruction looked pretty doomed.

That said, given that many more schools are going to attempt face-to-face instruction, coupled with the fact that many institutions are constrained by various forces from requiring either vaccination, masking or both, we could potentially be looking at an even more disruptive experience than last semester.

Thanks to the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, we know that what many suspected is true, that COVID-19 is not an equal-opportunity virus and some students’ lives are much more likely to be disrupted than others. There is no universal policy that could possibly address the complexity of what we’re facing.

We appear to be entering a period where we figure out what living with COVID looks like, and it seems likely to me that the virus is going to be a presence on campuses for the foreseeable future, hopefully with a steadily diminishing impact, but we’ve seen enough ups and downs with this thing to know better than offer any confident predictions about the future.

As I’ve written previously, in my view, disruption is enemy No. 1 when it comes to learning. Even though I am personally far more inclined to value in-person instruction, this is why I was nonetheless an advocate for all-online instruction last year, because I thought it was less likely to be disrupted.

Instructors have little to no institutional power to prevent or mitigate disruptions.[1] Even requiring masks in class is forbidden in some cases. I’ve been reflecting on the rooms I’ve taught in over the years at my various stops and realizing that no more than 50 percent even had windows. Of the windowless rooms, actual circulating air was not guaranteed, and the notion that whatever was circulating might’ve been filtered for viruses was a fantasy. If the Delta variant is present in a classroom, even if everyone is vaccinated, someone is getting sick.

What instructors do have control over is their policies and pedagogy, and making it possible to for everyone to succeed even in the case of disruption should be a central concern in planning for this semester.

Some of the fundamental questions I’d be considering at I plan the semester include:

  • Do I have an approach that allows students who must isolate, but are not incapacitated by illness, to continue to make progress in the course?
  • Can students succeed in this course if they are incapacitated for a couple of weeks?
  • Do I have attendance policies that empower students to make the best decision regarding caution over the virus?
  • Do I have grading and makeup policies that reflect the likelihood of disruption?
  • Do I have a plan for students continuing to learn if I, the instructor, get sick or must isolate because of exposure?

Not for nothing, I think these are pretty solid questions to consider whether or not there’s a pandemic going on or not, but this crisis has offered a clear reason for reconsidering practices that had long gone unquestioned, but upon closer examination proved wanting.

Back in March and April as vaccines became increasingly available, it looked like a “return to normal” fall was in potentially in the offing, and I sense a great desire -- one I share -- for this to be true, but our wishes are powerless against real-life events.

The day-to-day operations of higher education institutions are almost certainly going to be disrupted.

But if we keep our eyes on the mission of teaching and learning, we can do our best in the midst of those disruptions anyway.

[1] However, interestingly, faculty at the University of Minnesota are banding together to threaten a potential work stoppage unless a vaccine mandate is imposed.

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