Challenges for pandemic teaching, Fall 2021 edition


In the fall, we’ll be starting our fourth semester of pandemic teaching. I imagine it will be the last. This is going to be more challenging than the previous semesters of pandemic teaching. Why is that?

In Spring 2020, we switched to emergency online teaching. This pivot was difficult, but we were in the middle of a crisis and the communal priority was to muddle through while keeping everybody safe. In Fall 2020, we knew that we were going to be teaching fully online as early as May, so we had plenty of time to get ready, and that included adapting our expectations. Likewise, this Spring 2021, we knew were were going to be principally online, and while not everybody is enjoying the online learning experience, at least we’re getting the hang of it. I do recognize that a lot of y’all have had universities that completed botched teaching last fall, and I’m grateful that my campus got it right well in advance.

In Fall 2021, w are returning to teaching in person. However, it looks less than half of our classes are going to be on campus*. We have gone through a comprehensive and deliberative process to figure out which courses should be in person, and how we can do this safely and with good pedagogy. I think it will be a relief in many ways and will improve learning, but pulling this off will be hard on everybody.

Why what will make it so hard? We’ll be jugging in-person activities while also doing remote teaching at the same time. Because many students have a challenging mix of in-person and online courses, and this all may not be scheduled to work out well for them. Because teaching in person in a pandemic, even when lots of folks are vaccinated, presents the challenges that so many of us are familiar with. When we teach with lower densities, while reaching the same number of students enrolled in the same number of units, will mean more work for faculty, regardless of solution to the problem.

The good news is that we’re not going to pivot from one instructional mode to another in the middle of the semester. We will know at the start of the summer what we are going to be doing for the whole semester, so we’ll have plenty of time to prepare and make the most of the situation. That makes for effective teaching. Sure, maybe someone will decide mid-October that the pandemic is effectively over and claim we all can just to back to business as usual. That’s not a good enough reason to switch up the mode of instruction in the middle of the semester, which can be unfair or harmful to both instructors and the students.

There’s also going to be an emphasis on creating spaces on campus for students to do academic work safely. Our campus is working to create the capacity for students to park in a place that’s comfortable and with good internet and get stuff done. I can envision that even students who are taking “remote” classes might want to come to campus because it would be less disruptive than whatever their situation is at home. Speaking just for my own family, having three of us simultaneously working and taking classes in a smallish 2-bedroom house with fast internet is challenging enough — and it’s very clear that many of our students are are not as well situated.

Meanwhile, I get that there are a lot of schools — presumably those with higher endowments — that will be able to pull off a full-on ‘return to normalcy’ with maybe facemasks but otherwise, folks will be able to get to return to things they way they used to be. I’m happy for y’all. I lament that our governments (federal, state, local) never developed the infrastructure in the first several months of the pandemic for regular COVID monitoring that would keep infection rates lower and allow education and other high priority activities to continue. So here we will be, with a lot of remote teaching are than six months after vaccines started to roll out. I understand why it’s happening, and I’m glad my university has a history of exercising excellent judgment in this long-rolling emergency, but it’s still really frustrating to still be in the middle of this.

My immediate family hasn’t experienced any deaths or long-term disabilities from COVID, and for this I am thankful. We’ve been managing some very challenging consequences of the pandemic, but considering the possible outcomes, we are quite fortunate. I recognize that many of my friends, coworkers, and students have lost loved ones, and many more have livelihood in peril. When I lament that we are teaching remotely yet again, I remain thankful that our institutions are working to protect our community as best as they can.

*Why not fully return to in-person in the Fall? While the Cal State Chancellor’s office announced a good long while ago that we were preparing for a major return to campus in Fall 2021, the target was having at least 50% of teaching in person. It’s clear to anybody looking at the evidence that it won’t be safe for students, staff, faculty and our local community to return to the pre-pandemic status quo, with about 95% of instruction happening on campus. But fully remote teaching isn’t educationally sustainable, especially when it comes to more intimate experiences such as laboratories, highly interactive courses, creative arts, and such. With very high vaccination rates, it will be possible to start teaching in person again in a safe manner, but we still will have to keep an eye on density. Many students have jobs off campus, and also are living throughout the LA metro area with other people who also work under all sorts of conditions. We are the opposite of a rural residential campus where the spread of a virus can be contained.

3 thoughts on “Challenges for pandemic teaching, Fall 2021 edition

  1. I hear these challenges. Just wanted to point out that not all universities and colleges that have opened up to in-person classes have done so safely, or are in areas where COVID cases have been well-controlled. Take a look at the COVID numbers at U. Notre Dame sometime. They’ve been fully in person the whole 2020-21 year. Huge endowment, could have done this safely, but chose not to – main problem (of many) was severely inadequate testing. As of a month ago, 30% of their undergrads had contracted COVID at some point since the fall. 30%!! They’re all getting vaccines now, so I hope that number will level off. But it’s infuriating to think of the advertising campaign ND used, all about “facing fear” and marching into battle – when I am sure there are low-income staff there who got long COVID or died because of this insanely rich university playing dice with their health and lives to please their rich conservative donors. I guess my point is a large endowment very much does not guarantee any ethics, morals, or caring about science.

    • As a scientist at ND, I’ll weigh in here and say the school made the right call. This is not a “rah-rah” sentiment, as I have never been a cheerleader for any institution that I’ve worked at (least of all ND…I fully subscribe to the “don’t love your university, because it doesn’t love you” mantra). For what’s it’s worth, I’ll also say that I am very much left-of-center. This shouldn’t really matter, but seems to matter to Psycrat since they mentioned conservative politics.

      My opinion is based on facts. Yes, lot’s of students contracted covid. Our upper administration did a $%it job of comporting itself throughout. And many were unhappy with the testing and isolation protocols in the fall. But there has literally not been a single documented case of transmission in the classroom. If it has happened, the rate has been infinitesimally small. All most all staff, faculty, and student cases have been due to transmission in the community, dormrooms, or social interactions. What is hilarious is the notion that had we not brought 18-23 year old students to campus, the outcome would have been better. As if they wouldn’t possibly get covid at home, or pass it on to older relatives. Serious cases have also been incredibly low, because younger people are inherently lower risk. In fact, most of the problem with younger people getting covid is their potential to spread it to higher risk populations. In-person may actually have been smart move despite the questionable motives. I, for one, was initially pretty scared of in-person teaching and was convinced the whole thing would be a disaster. But in hindsight, I was totally wrong. Lastly, regarding impact on the surrounding community (which is probably minimized by how seldom our students venture off of campus), sending them home over the break did not impact the infection rates in our county as would have been expected.

      Regarding Terry’s post, I think he hits the nail on the head that the situation is very different at CSU. An urban school with a highly diverse population of students that live and work throughout the metro area is a whole different ballgame. Many more challenges, beyond just the financial. I also image that vaccine compliance (which has reached >95% here) will not be as high even if access is widespread. Having attended a similar school in my younger days, I certainly can empathize.

      • Hi anonymous, thanks for your response, and first of all, my condolences for working at Notre Dame :)
        Second, check out the COVID dashboard of Duke, one of ND’s “aspirant peers”:
        vs. ND’s:
        Same size school, both super rich, but Duke has done 100K more tests and ND has 4X the cumulative number of undergrad COVID cases.
        What happened at ND is not universal among 18-23 year olds on college campuses, living in dorms. ND could have done A LOT better. They failed big-time.

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