How parents and students feel about the fast-approaching spectre 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 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, theatres 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 neighbourhoods 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 organise 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.
Brooke Sample is an editor and columnist