Why are We Rushing Back?
Today’s Chalkboard Life is co-written with by a faithful reader and friend, Cliff Zimmerman, a law professor at Northwestern University in Chicago. It came out of a discussion he and I had several days ago. (If you would like to write a weekly Chalkboard, or co-write one, please get in touch!)
Positive cases of the Omicron variant are still increasing in most of the country, there is every reason to believe these reported numbers are low, and the numbers dwarf the numbers we found shocking and worrisome only a month ago. Yes, it seems to be less severe, but that’s not true for everyone - there are still approximately 2,000 deaths per day. And we have yet to see the peak or decline in the US in key indicators such as ICU patients and deaths. The only good news is that it seems to be peaking in some parts of the world, and in NYC in the U.S. (just this week). But a month ago, 120,000 cases per day was considered deeply troubling, and for the last two weeks it has been around 800,000 cases per day.
In the midst of this, schools are pushing to go back to in-person learning. There may be good reasons for doing so with younger people - say students who are between 5 and 18 and vaccinated, but the reasons K-12 are charging back are myriad and more complex than in higher education. Parents are not teachers or substitute teachers, and work expects their own attention and/or presence (only a limited portion of households are two parents with a single wage earner). Parents are organizing; teachers are organized. And the health issues extend beyond Covid to the detrimental impact on the social and psychological development of children, tweens, and teens. So let’s set them aside for the moment.
Universities saw the dramatic rise in Covid and went online for the first two weeks of school. No one was surprised by this. What IS surprising, at least to us, is that the two-week period ends after this week or next, and many schools will return to in-person learning, consistent with a decision made in late December. But why? Why not push back in-person learning another week or even two, to the point when the peak is fading nationwide- as it is widely predicted to do?
We can’t figure it out. It just does not make sense. If we have learned anything in higher education over these last two years, it is that online learning can be effective, and in many cases very effective. It is like the Remote Work debate, where employers have been pushing to return to in-person work (the pandemic had other ideas) but must admit to a long period of remote work that was very profitable for them. It worked fine, and where it did not (recruitment and training, perhaps) they are addressing those deficiencies not reversing course.
It is the same with online learning. Often disdained (and for so many years) yet without evidence that it was bad, it was just assumed to be inferior. And the pandemic has revealed the overwhelming fallacy of that assumption. Sure, there are places for improvement, but let’s identify those and work on them. Has this pandemic-induced experiment in higher education been a disaster? Affirmatively, no. As but one example to the point, students get lost in large lectures online (a disconnect for both students and teachers) but we are kidding ourselves if we do not recognize that is also a problem teaching in person.
So if it works, why hastily force students, staff, and faculty back into a massive peak of infection? We hear much about the safety in the classroom – everyone is masked for the entire class session, but that is short-sighted when you think about issues between classes on campus, like safely eating lunch. Teachers can retreat into their individual offices, but students cannot take a similar precaution. How can we make sense of this? This is all speculation, but here are a few thoughts, and we welcome yours in the comments.
Are students demanding it? We have not heard that. Yes, they prefer in-person, but as long as the online classes are thoughtfully prepared and presented, we have heard no objections. Surely Deans’ offices have heard some, but are they overwhelming? We have not heard that, if so.
Are parents demanding it? In higher education? What parent wants their 20-year-old son or daughter to be forced into a situation where they might possibly get sick? Who wants that for their child? In higher education the vast majority of students are of majority, which is the real issue of concern. They have choices and flexibility which is puzzling about the hurried shift into the classroom. Adults travel on weekends, socialize regularly, and these are even more true for those who feel the great absence of social contact. If a University is making a science-based decision, then it should consider those implications which seem to bend towards waiting for the larger picture of the virus to be manageable.
Are faculty and staff demanding it? Many faculty were daunted by the abrupt switch to online learning in March of 2020, but that was almost two years ago. University faculty are among the smartest people in the world, and we figured it out. Could improvements be made? Sure. But it works, in most cases, acceptably well. And certainly it will for another two weeks. Many staff members are juggling home care for a sick loved one, or child care for a child home from school or an elder in the household. They have figured out how to do their staff support position remotely, and in many cases, it has improved things for them. So, it is not faculty or staff who are demanding this.
To summarize so far: 1) they can’t say it does not work, 2) students are not demanding it, 3) parents are not demanding it, and 4) faculty and staff are not demanding it. What other reasons could there possibly be?
Is there some idea that it would be *good* for more community members to get sick with Omicron, perhaps forming antibodies to another variant, making the University community more resilient to the virus overall? Perhaps. But we have not heard that articulated as a reason. And of course, there is the possibility that someone gets very sick (even though vaccinated and boosted) and then, exactly where is the Human Resources department to point out the problems with that (not to mention legal)? So it can’t be that.
Some colleges consider themselves a Covid bubble, with lower positivity rates than the surrounding communities, and (mostly) required vaccination (and in some cases, also the booster shot). If they are able to test everyone regularly – and many have – and they are keeping positivity below 5%, the reasoning goes - even when the surrounding community is closer to 30% - then they should be able to go back to in-person instruction. But this is nothing more than a decision based on tolerable risk, and assumes students, staff, and faculty will get sick. Perhaps that made sense when we were still figuring out how to teach online, but now that we know how, and it works, again – why not wait another two weeks?
We are running out of reasons to speculate. But the last two are most potentially troubling, at least to us. Is it possible that Universities are afraid of hybrid learning getting a toe-hold in the undergraduate, graduate, and professional educational space? Do they believe that is an overwhelmingly bad thing? We of course we disagree with that conclusion, and David has written here (and elsewhere) about that extensively and convincingly (that is Cliff’s assessment). That fear necessarily leads to the next one.
Is the fear of staying online for two more weeks actually this: that if hybrid learning gets that toe-hold in higher education it will require a substantial restructuring of the entire financial model in higher education? And the instinct is to avoid that at all costs? We both have been in higher education long enough to see how important the bottom line has become. We do not think of higher education purely in those terms, but others do. So let’s step into those shoes for a second. Traditional businesses have adapted remarkably to survive in the pandemic. Think about restaurants and their adaptations - from spacing tables to space heating to adding carry-out. Many of those changes will remain, not abandoned, whether that is because they work or because these kinds of viruses are not going away quickly. Why is the same not true for higher education, especially if it is a business?
Please let us know if we have left something out, or you have other ideas about why we all are expected to go back right now, instead of next week, or the week after that?
Letters of Recommendation
Do you need a bit of calm in your life? Yeah, I thought so. Me too. In this space, I have recommended other Newsletters that I am following, and I have a new one, but it is not yet more to read. It is music. “Cafe Music,” to be specific. Coffee Shop Music might be another term. The “newsletter” I am recommending this week is calming background music:
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from James Clear, from his book, Atomic Habits, quoting Jacob Riis:
Mastery requires patience. The San Antonio Spurs, one of the most successful teams in NBA history, have a quote from social reformer Jacob Riis hanging in their locker room: “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundredth and first blow it will split in two and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.”