How Should Colleges Reopen? There’s No Easy Answer

(Bloomberg Opinion) — How parents and students feel about the fast-approaching specter of college reopenings this fall has been debated — perhaps exhaustively — in the thick of the Covid-19 pandemic. Can we do it safely? Should we send them back at all? Will young adults wear masks and abide by social-distancing guidelines? To get a better sense of the other side of the equation, we asked Bloomberg Opinion contributors who are also educators for their views on getting back in the classroom, whether physical or virtual.

Andrea Gabor, Baruch College

I mostly teach journalism to undergraduates at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York, in lower Manhattan. Most classes are taught in 14- and 16-story buildings. Elevator lines are long. A street below is closed to traffic, creating a small common space outdoors that’s often crowded with students.

Most of our 18,000-plus students commute via bus and subway. So do most professors.

Even before we received final word this week that “the vast majority of classes” will be offered fully online in the fall, we were planning our classes on that assumption.

I will teach a freshman seminar on New York City and the arts for CUNY’s Macaulay Honors program. During normal times, our curriculum would include trips to museums, theaters and the opera. Now we’ll find online performances and artists and curators to give us virtual tours via Zoom.

To avoid the inertia that can set in when students are isolated in Zoom squares, I will assign weekly research projects for teams of students to present the context for each subject we study. A unit on murals, for example, could include Picasso’s “Guernica,” the Mexican muralists and the role of protest art — a theme that should speak to our majority minority student population at a moment of racial upheaval.

We will use the city as a laboratory, exploring the destruction of Seneca Village — the 19th-century Black settlement razed to make way for Central Park — and debates surrounding a Teddy Roosevelt statue. Students will explore their neighborhoods for art, graffiti and architecture. During a photography unit, students will take their own photos.

Building trust and connections fosters the intellectual risk-taking needed to learn. So I will organize small-group Zoom meetings and require a few one-on-ones. I may take a road trip to meet groups of students in parks around the city before bad weather locks us in again.

Stephen L. Carter, Yale University

Lawsuits. I’m a law professor, so that’s what comes to mind when I think about the school year that will shortly be upon us: an avalanche of litigation.

Start with grades K-12. Suppose they open, but supporters turn out to be wrong, and the virus winds up spreading through the student body and onward into their families. Lawsuits will ensue. On the other hand, if the schools don’t reopen and instead offer instruction only online, families might sue for a partial refund of property taxes, which would be paying for services they’re not getting.

What about colleges and professional schools? The same caveat applies to what happens if they open for business and the virus spreads. They can take precautions, but they cannot offer guarantees. They might want students to sign waivers, as if they were about to play tackle football or engage in some other inherently hazardous activity. But students asked to sign waivers are less likely to show up. Rock, meet hard place.

Now suppose colleges and professional schools choose to stay entirely online. Then we’ll see a lot more lawsuits demanding tuition refunds. Plaintiffs point to the loss of the opportunity to network with other students, as well as close professorial guidance. They might also argue that their inability to find quiet places to work and study will mean they learn less.

There are reasons to prefer live classroom instruction. But there are also reasons to worry about the consequences. A crisis is a decision with a deadline. When there’s a likelihood of litigation either way, the decision is that much harder.

Cass R. Sunstein, Harvard Law School

Here’s something that troubled me last spring when I taught a large class online: It’s tough to get a feel for how students are responding.

In an in-person class, you can pick up students’ signals, which often register unconsciously: a smile, a laugh, a bored look, a flash of insight, a frown, an eagerness to participate. Faces and posture tell you a lot. You lose that online.

Harvard University is bringing many students back to campus in the fall, but as things now stand, classes are expected to be held remotely. That’s made me think about potential adjustments that I might make when classes resume. Here are six ideas:

Inject surprises and fun. Online classes allow you to do a lot. You can offer cameo appearances by people who wrote the readings, or who did the deeds that are discussed in the readings; videos of real-world events; and slides that are a bit wild. Be as clear as possible. In large classes, you lose students if you give them too many trees and not enough forest. The risk is much higher online, just because distraction is more likely. I’m going to try to be clearer and more organized than I have ever been. Give breaks! My classes run for two hours. That’s a lot of time to spend in an online session. I usually give a five-minute break in the middle; for online teaching, 10 minutes is better. And it’s never a mistake to end a few minutes early. Find specific times to allow students’ creativity to shine, and their questions to be answered. In big online classes, it’s tempting just to lecture (a lot). That can work. But it promotes passive learning. In any large class, students are going to have amazing ideas, and they will raise terrific puzzles. I am going to give them space. Find ways to let the students talk to each other, perhaps through breakout sessions, in which they discuss problems and report back. Online sessions certainly allow for that — and if they work, they could make courses better than ever. Improvise. We’re all trying to learn how to teach online, and a ton of ideas are out there. Stay open to them in real time.

Amanda Little, Vanderbilt University

I’ve agreed to teach my courses in the classroom this coming semester, but I feel strongly that all faculty should be allowed to teach virtually if they so choose — no questions asked. Vanderbilt is pursuing a “hybrid” model for fall: Students have the option of returning to campus or taking courses online. Class sizes on campus will be limited, foot traffic will be patrolled, masks must be worn at all times. Faculty over age 65 can opt to teach their courses virtually; all others must apply and qualify for an exemption from on-campus teaching. So far, about 90% of undergrads — some 6,200 students — have chosen to return to campus. Meanwhile, more than a quarter of the faculty has applied to teach online, and the percentage is growing as Covid-19 infections escalate in our city.

To reopen campus is to accept that the virus could cycle through some of the student body this fall — no amount of patrolling can keep students from congregating socially outside of classrooms. Despite my optimism about the high quality of online education we can give our students, I’m willing to take on the risk of in-person teaching. I’m 46, healthy, and my seminars will be limited to 12 students in a room that can fit 40. I’m less concerned about my own exposure than I am about the morale and mental health of my students. They fear the unprecedented challenges their generation faces, which are as varied as a cratering job market, structural racism, political instability and the looming climate crisis. I’m committed to offering a real-world community to students who need it.

But we must limit the population of students and faculty on campus to those who will benefit the most and risk the least. First-year and international students in particular should get prioritized access to on-campus learning, as should science majors who need laboratory experience. Others should be incentivized, if not required, to participate virtually. Schools should also enact anti-racism policies that will aim to protect Black students and staff who fear being on campus over anxieties due to wearing masks. These are crucial measures for a safe and fair reopening.

Tim Duy, University of Oregon

As an educator, I am very concerned about plans to reopen campuses this fall but believe that we need to try for at least a partial reopening.

I believe many, if not nearly all, higher-education institutions, including my own, are making good-faith efforts to create a safe environment for students and employees. (My university offered me the choice of teaching a smaller class in a very oversized classroom or teaching remotely. I chose the remote option, partly in response to concerns from family members and partly because I could teach a larger class and better satisfy demand.) Universities are fortunate to often have the scientific and technical resources in-house to create robust public-health plans. Many have faced disease outbreaks in the past from which to learn. Moreover, they have a powerful incentive to reopen campuses this fall. Higher education depends on tuition dollars — particularly those from out of state — to survive financially. From my viewpoint, they are devoting more resources and concern to the pandemic than public-health authorities in their efforts to create safe spaces through testing, tracing and social distancing protocols.

Still, I wonder if it will be enough. Student behavior, particularly off campus, is a substantial impediment to safely reopening institutions of higher learning. The messaging surrounding the virus has been that it poses little risk to younger people, and they are at an age and in an environment where it is difficult not to be social. Indeed, social engagement is a reason to be at college. I don’t blame students for their desire to participate in their traditional activities; I have been in this game too long to waste energy moralizing about the normal behavior of young adults. That behavior, though, makes it difficult to protect older — often much older — university employees and their families.

At the same time, I am concerned with the impacts of not having campus open for students who need the structure of education to compensate for difficult living situations or mental-health issues that are exacerbated by isolation. I also worry that we cannot promote our equity and inclusion goals without open campuses. We can’t just abandon these students. We will need to push forward with hybrid approaches that allow some students to return to campus while limiting their close contact with faculty and staff as much as possible. Given time, we will learn how to safely invite all students and employees back to campus, but I don’t think we can shut down entirely until that time arrives.

Tyler Cowen, George Mason University

My home institution has pledged a hybrid reopening, and I expect the exact content of that will become clearer as late August approaches.

My own teaching plans were set long in advance. Well before Covid-19 was a major threat, I had agreed to teach more this past spring semester in return for teaching only one course — online Principles of Economics — this coming fall.

I have spent the last five years of my life, along with my colleague Alex Tabarrok, developing hundreds of videos to communicate the basic ideas of microeconomics and macroeconomics, along with problem sets, exercises and feedback mechanisms. Many of the videos are made by a movie production company, and this effort required us to raise millions of dollars. You can check out the microeconomics videos here, and the macroeconomics ones here, noting they do not represent the full content of the course, as written materials are used as well.

Both Tabarrok and I have taught online this way before, with considerable success and high student evaluations.

In the spring, I had 100 students for this online course, but this time around I expect to have around 900, due to the constraints of social distancing. My personal goal is to teach the course this way to the entire world. The move from 100 to 900 students is a start, and admittedly it will represent a managerial challenge of sorts.

I am excited for the semester to come, and I also expect to be in the office frequently. Of course there is uncertainty, but innovation should not be underrated.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Brooke Sample is an editor for Bloomberg Opinion. She has been a copy editor for Euromoney Institutional Investor, the Virginian-Pilot and Gannett New Jersey newspapers.

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