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For those who are hopeful that we can safely bring students back to campus in the fall, I present the evidence of what is happening with the students who are currently back on campus: one-third of the Clemson football team has tested positive for the coronavirus.

A single night at a single bar in East Lansing, Mich., populated by college students has triggered an outbreak of at least 30 new cases 100 miles away.

Wait, I first drafted that last sentence on Saturday. I’m reading the draft on Sunday, and we’re now up to at least 85 cases from this single incident.

I understand the desire to return to some semblance of normalcy. I understand the need for institutions to collect tuition and fees for room and board in order to stay solvent, but the thinking I see from many leaders around on-campus, in-person instruction seems downright magical to me.

In my view, the chief enemy of learning is “disruption.” Some element of disruption is inevitable during any semester, particularly at the individual student level. I cannot remember a semester where I did not have at least one student partially or wholly derailed by a personal issue or illness (like mono).

Spring revealed what happens when everything and everyone is disrupted simultaneously, and despite lots of people’s best efforts, the experience was clearly degraded.

Many faculty, staff and students have spoken of the emotional toll of the disruption as well. I do not understand why so many schools are flirting with a similar worst-case scenario with this kabuki over opening for face-to-face instruction in the fall.

Writing at his personal blog, Robert Kelchen of Seton Hall University argues that colleges must set “coronavirus thresholds” for the coming semester. The criteria he envisions include (quoting directly):

  • Number of known cases among students and employees
  • Number of known cases in the county
  • Capacity to quarantine on-campus students
  • Available space in local hospitals (beds, ICU space and ventilators)
  • Fatalities could be a measure, but it is probably too gruesome to include even though all deaths may be impossible to avoid

By these criteria, particularly the second one, if school was in session right now, more than half of states would be looking at closure. We are anywhere from six to eight weeks until students are expected to return to campus in large numbers while having at least several more weeks of likely rising case counts in these states. We appear to be nowhere near to bending the curve of these recent flares (if the curve will even be bent).

Here is a hard fact: the virus will be far more present in far more places when school starts in August than it was when most schools shut down in March.

Sure, we know much more about how the virus behaves. We know that masking and social distancing can help mitigate the spread. We know that prolonged indoor exposure to someone shedding the virus is the most likely vector of transmission. We know that young people are much less likely to experience serious courses of the disease. Thus far, none of the infected Clemson players have required hospitalization.

I think we can probably expect students to adhere to masking requirements while on campus. I suppose we can socially distance in classrooms where space allows. I am doubtful about students adhering to the same guidelines when off campus, not because I think students are somehow less responsible than anyone else, but because they are exactly as responsible as everyone else. We are seeing what that looks like across the country right now.

While the disease appears to be less fatal or severe in young people, there’s still much we don’t know, particularly about the long-term effects of the virus. There is already emerging evidence that infection may result in permanent scarring of the lungs, or even trigger diabetes. And of course not everyone on a campus is young, or surrounded by other young people. Many young people also have underlying conditions which put them at greater risk.

All of this is why I believe that an early commitment to online courses, coupled with support for students who lack access to the necessary technology and resources to learn online, will result in more and better learning than the hodgepodge of F2F, HyFlex, hybrid and online instruction many institutions appear to be attempting.

I called for the kind of research that would allow institutions to better support online learning in the fall at the start of the spring lockdown. I hope some schools have done this.

I do not envy the people who must make these decisions for real, but some of the stories of callous disregard for the faculty and staff who must execute the plan are disturbing. Georgia Tech is reportedly requiring faculty to teach in-person while also not requiring the use of masks on campus.

Florida State is reportedly no longer going to allow people to work remotely and care for their own children simultaneously.

The resources necessary for testing, quarantining and caring for students, staff and faculty do not appear to be in place. The presidents of the three largest state institutions in Virginia say they need $200 million to cover coronavirus mitigation expenses. The three campuses say they would like to conduct nearly 20,000 tests per day, which is double the current per-day capacity for the entire state.

This must be achieved in less than two months.

Let’s set all these concerns aside and say that we can pull off an in-person fall semester while adhering to social distancing and other guidelines. What will the experience be like?

Weird. Really freaking weird, alienating, constantly stressful, nearly impossible for students with disabilities. Think how long it has taken many of us to cobble together an acceptable new normal of working from home. How long do you think it will take for students to settle into managing the strangeness of a class of 12 being conducted in an auditorium for 120, of eating all meals to go, of trying to socially distance in spaces like dorms, which are designed for maximum socialization?

For courses like the ones I teach (writing), the things I use class time for -- student collaboration, personal consultation, peer editing and response -- are literally impossible under these conditions. I can consult with a student on their manuscript via video conference far more effectively than if we are six feet apart and masked inside the office I still have to share with two other people on a rotating basis. From a pure effectiveness standpoint, how many courses will truly be superior under the necessary accommodations for face-to-face meetings versus remote instruction?[1]

I hope someone doing the work of keeping track of the miles of Plexiglas, thousands of coronavirus tests, hundreds of thousands of masks and bottles of hand sanitizer schools are spending money on in an attempt to pull off a bizarro world version of on-campus instruction so we can specifically identify the amount of waste we’ve generated when all of it is obviated by a vaccine.

Imagine instead a world where that money went to providing students with sufficient computing power, broadband access, even food and shelter, so they could make the best of online learning. What if we made sure all faculty had health insurance, so if they do fall ill, they will not hesitate to get treated?

I am among the crowd who both believes that online learning can be done quite well, and that there is something irreplaceable about the experiences of face-to-face learning, when that learning is happening under reasonable conditions that is.

These are not reasonable conditions. Do not get me wrong. This is a loss. The experience of community is not the same at a distance or over the internet. It is not necessarily entirely absent, but it is not as present.

When I think about teaching and learning, I first consider the circumstances under which we do our best work, the criteria that must be met. At the top of that list is feelings of safety and security because only when we feel safe at the core can we take the necessary risks that attach to learning and exploration.

This is what it means to work from pedagogy up, rather than operations down. Too many institutions have this whole thing backward, and the harm is utterly predictable and foreseeable.

I hope I’m wrong.

[1] This is why I believe rather than a framework where classes are F2F if at all possible, remote if not, the frame should be flipped to remote as the default, with F2F reserved for courses where it is truly indispensable.

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