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.