Desks in an empty classroom

This week, the nature of higher education in America changed, at least for the rest of the spring. Nobody knows what the long-term effects will be, or whether the choices our institutions have made will turn out to be worthwhile. Indeed, given the complexity of the situation, we may never get to be sure.

As recently as Monday morning, I could muse aloud that I had seen very little public discussion of the effects of spring break—when countless thousands of young Americans (and often their families) travel long distances at about the same time—on the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. Within hours, I could no longer say anything of the kind.

By Wednesday, most of my friends working in higher education, and many of my friends working in primary and secondary education, had seen their employers announce extraordinary measures to minimize the threat of viral infection on their campuses. Usually, this meant their face-to-face classroom courses would be “taken online,” at least temporarily, so that most students could be sent away from campus.

In the best cases, faculty members have a couple of weeks to decide how to convert their courses to an online format. In the worst case I heard about, faculty members had only two hours’ notice that their campus would close that afternoon.

I’m pretty lucky so far. On Thursday morning, my current employer announced that our spring break will be extended an extra week. After that, we will have at least one week of remote (online) instruction in lieu of face-to-face class meetings on campus. This means the earliest I may see my students in person again is April 7, but there’s a chance, however slim, that we will be able to finish the last month of the semester more or less as planned.

My students agree with me, however, that we should prepare for the possibility of another announcement extending the online instruction period, probably through the end of the academic year.

I’m honestly not sure what to think about college administrators’ decisions. A lot may depend on how far COVID-19 has already spread through our college populations. On one hand, infections spread very easily on campus, and many colleges are located in dense urban areas with international airports. On the other hand, most (but certainly not all) “traditional” residential students are likely to be in less danger than other groups of people, and their campuses are typically located in areas with relatively good emergency services. So if many of them are already infected, sending students away from campus in large numbers may only disperse the virus to more vulnerable populations (especially older relatives) and deprive many students themselves of optimal care. And of course, different colleges and universities have different environments to consider; a campus full of local commuters or “nontraditional” students is different from a campus full of young students living in dorms.

There are also many other factors to consider. In sending students “home,” for example, colleges are assuming a lot about how students live outside of class. Many college students may actually have no idea where they’re going to live (or how they’re going to use the Internet, find any privacy to study, or get any work to support themselves) during the time that we’ve upended their lives. We also have many unanswered questions about how many campus employees will be laid off (thus also losing health insurance) or otherwise harmed when campuses close or cut back on their operations. Then there are the academic programs that require laboratories, computer workstations, libraries, work placement sites (e.g., for student teachers), and other local infrastructure that students cannot access remotely. For that matter, colleges and universities are often important providers of local community services.

Frankly, it’s a mess. And it has happened without any clear central direction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention apparently had nothing to do with any of these decisions, and I think it’s fair to say that public health experts and state-level officials have been offering contradictory advice. It’s probably fair to say that things have happened the way they are happening because administrators lack faith in American public institutions to offer coherent guidance right now. They have responded with extreme institutional risk aversion.

It’s entirely possible that they have done the right thing. But the circumstances are disquieting.

As I see it, the first job of faculty members right now is to make what’s happening, including the uncertainty involved, as transparent as possible to our students. Many of them are frightened; we should make sure they understand that the actual risks are still unknown, and while the worst-case scenario for uncontrolled transmission across the United States is truly terrible, we have no reason to assume the worst will happen. They should know that decision-makers are trying to balance many different interests, and what seems best for one group of people may not be best for others. Students should also understand that for many of them, their primary responsibility is to help protect more vulnerable people from infection, which is something they can do mostly with ordinary sanitary practices. They should keep in mind, too, that if they start to become sick right now, they almost certainly just have a common cold or the seasonal flu, even though they should take greater care not to infect other people than they ordinarily might.

We should also remember that as far as students are concerned, we faculty members are official representatives of our institutions. Even if they understand that we aren’t making the high-level decisions, they know we are making most of the crucial decisions about how to proceed in our own courses. We need to listen to our students, acknowledge that their lives and the lives of non-faculty staff members may be upended by this situation far more than ours are, admit that we will make mistakes during the coming weeks, and ask for help detecting and correcting those mistakes.

Most importantly, I think, we can offer appropriate perspective from our scholarly disciplines that doesn’t contribute unnecessarily to either panic or cynicism. There’s plenty of both in other places.

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