Everyone Deserves a Safe Option for Fall

With COVID-19 advancing, and new infections and hospitalizations rising rapidly, Thomas Smith asks, why are so many institutions still trying to force people back onto their campuses?

August 7, 2020

Even as we break daily coronavirus records, and total cases in the United States climb toward five million while deaths exceed 150,000, at least 40 percent, if not significantly more, of the colleges and universities tracked in a database of fall plans are still planning for in-person education.

With the disease advancing in its first wave at an exponential speed, and new infections and hospitalizations rising rapidly, why are so many higher education institutions still trying to force faculty, students and staff onto their campuses?

At University of California, Riverside, where I serve as interim provost and executive vice chancellor, we moved to remote operations at the onset of the pandemic. Like most people, we hoped to return quickly to on-campus operations. The full in-person experience of teaching, student support and housing simply cannot be replicated online. Students’ active engagement with faculty members, in student organizations and with friends plays a key role in encouraging their persistence toward graduation. This is how some institutional leaders are justifying face-to-face instruction in the fall. Another rationale is financial: some colleges and universities could lose as much as half their revenue from continued campus closures.

Our campus decided to let neither the known benefits of the campus experience nor the financial impact drive our decisions about fall 2020 instruction. Everyone deserves a safe option. That was the overarching idea on which we built our instructional plans.

A faculty, staff and student working group evaluating fall instruction established three guiding principles. First, prioritize the safety of all members of our campus community. Second, offer access to education to the greatest extent possible. Third, create flexibility at both the individual and institutional levels.

As we examined our options, we set up a series of virtual office hours, provided regular updates on progress and provided multiple ways for all members of the campus community to voice input. The process exposed new scenarios that reinforced the importance of safety. A student living with an elderly grandmother at home, older faculty members and staff with immunocompromised children are just a few examples of people who expressed worry through our multiple channels for listening. We partnered closely with faculty members for further review of what was possible.

Although our fall quarter classes do not begin until Oct. 1, we believed it was important in this time of great uncertainty to provide clear direction and enough planning lead time for students and their families as well as faculty and staff. We announced in mid-June that all courses will be available in a remote format. No instructor will be required to teach on our campus, nor will any student have to participate in person until it is safe and we return to normal operations. While we may approve a small number of face-to-face classes by exception, any such course must include a remote option to accommodate all students’ progress toward degree completion.

We recognize the importance of in-person learning and extracurricular activities. We are also concerned that remote learning will exacerbate the disparities we actively combat. Nearly 57 percent of our undergraduates are first generation. More than half are from low-income families and eligible for Pell Grants. More than half are also from historically underrepresented groups. Student success remains a significant worry for us, and we must think in innovative ways to provide adequate support in a remote environment. And then we must deal with the financial impact.

Despite our wishes, the virus has not disappeared. The recent upsurge in coronavirus cases shows what happens when people congregate. In the last week, outbreaks linked to church events, weddings and professional sports show how quickly the virus can spread among even small groups. A New York Times article reported that at least 6,600 virus cases are tied to about 270 colleges -- and they’ve occurred at a time when most colleges and universities are not even fully open. We now have data to connect behaviors with transmission patterns and enough information to suggest that colleges and universities with plans to populate their campuses this fall need to reverse course.

For those institutions that move forward with only in-person instruction, I fear steep declines in enrollments as parents and students prioritize health. They might also consider what happens as the virus circulates on their campus, particularly as young people engage with one another as history has repeatedly shown -- probably forcing campuses to close again. Sending students home, when large numbers are very likely to be asymptomatic but infectious, would put families and communities from which we draw our students at risk.

Finally, dedicating resources to in-person instruction ensures a weaker remote learning experience when forced to teach online with short notice. Adjusting to remote operations now provides an opportunity to get creative about student engagement, financial challenges and the myriad other challenges and demands.

Pretending the virus will disappear is not the answer. The time to act in line with truth and reason is now -- before our problems only multiply.


Thomas Smith is interim provost and executive vice chancellor for the University of California, Riverside.


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