Ending Face-to-Face Instruction Before Thanksgiving Break


Earlier this month we looked at the University of South Carolina’s plan to offer in-person courses this coming fall term. The university has now updated its plans by announcing a change to the fall term schedule.

In an email to the university community last night, University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen announced that in fall 2020:

  • there will be no Fall Break
  • all face-to-face instruction will end on November 24th, two days before Thanksgiving.
  • There will be two more class days following Thanksgiving break as well as a reading period and final exam but these classes and all exams will be conducted remotely.

Caslen said that “two critical pieces of information informed these changes”:

  • the public health risks associated with thousands of students and faculty returning to campus after Fall Break travels
  • models that predict a spike in COVID-19 cases at the beginning of December.

Faculty at South Carolina were given more information last week about what face-to-face instruction in the Fall will look like. Among the crucial details are:

  • Owing to space and scheduling constraints, classrooms will not be set up to facilitate students being seated 6 feet apart from one another (though some number of courses will as a matter of fact end up in rooms that allow for this kind of distancing, owing to their enrollments)
  • Students and faculty will be required to wear masks in the classroom.

Apparently faculty are tasked with enforcing the mask-wearing rule in their classrooms. (There was some pushback on this so that might change.)

I provide this information about what’s happening at South Carolina as an example for discussion of various options available to universities and colleges in the fall. Feel free to share what you know of your own institutions’ plans.

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Insa Lawler
Insa Lawler
11 months ago

UNC Greensboro and NC A&T College made similar decisions. Classes end before Thanksgiving. All finals will be online (exceptions are possible). https://reg.uncg.edu/calendars/fall-2020-academic-calendar/
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ND
ND
11 months ago

Notre Dame is doing something analogous. We’re also starting earlier than usual. (August 10.)Report

krell_154
krell_154
11 months ago

These plans seem reasonable. It’s a good way of resuming as many normal activities as possible, before a more permanent solution emerges (therapy, vaccine, successful containment…)Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
11 months ago

When you evaluate your institution’s carefully constructed plan to open for in-person classes in a safe way, here are a few things to keep in mind.

(1) Notice how quickly compromises are made in. In less than two weeks
“We will ensure that large class sections will either meet in smaller sections or in online formats and create alternative academic offerings to accommodate safe class gatherings”

has turned into

“Owing to space and scheduling constraints, classrooms will not be set up to facilitate students being seated 6 feet apart from one another”

(2) Think about this story from a local college, describing an unauthorized graduation celebration:
“As the parade took place, a large number of students living in the area turned out to watch it, most of whom were not wearing masks or practicing social distancing. After the parade, several parents stayed and mingled with the students, also without masks.”

(3) Remember the students who failed to read or follow basic instructions from your syllabus, and remember that you’ll be counting on those students to comply with your college’s social distancing, contract-tracing, etc policies. Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Derek Bowman
11 months ago

Excellent comment.Report

postdoc
postdoc
Reply to  Derek Bowman
11 months ago

These are indeed worth keeping in mind.

I think it’s also worth considering whether your university’s plan is informed by a risk assessment that factors in:

(4) risk of suffering non-lethal long-term health problems from having the disease (e.g. see https://www.vox.com/2020/5/8/21251899/coronavirus-long-term-effects-symptoms), and
(5) the fact that people in ‘low-risk’ age demographics tend to have more and better years of life to lose from death or long-term health problems.

I think uncertainty about (4) could easily resolve between now and the fall semester in a way that should affect university plans (at least for those that are not plans to do everything remotely). So, I’d be worried if a university plan is insensitivity to such developments.

I’d expect failing to take (5) into account to lead to underestimation of risk in a university setting, and in turn to plans that are more dangerous. I fear that such failures will be prevalent. (5) is hard to take into account, partly because of the uncertainty surrounding (4). Less uncertain, easier-to-quantify factors (such as fatality rates) that neglect (5) are available for use as proxies for risk, and it may be tempting to build risk assessments just upon them. I’d be less worried about this if I thought university policymakers never opted to make policies based on precise, easy-to-use metrics that are inappropriate.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Derek Bowman
11 months ago

I seem to be much less worried about these plans than many other people. Maybe I’m wrong; if so please explain why. But here’s why I’m not (as) worried about the above concerns:

1) Either the relevant regulators will say that a 6′ distance needs to be maintained, or they won’t. I expect they will, and universities will just need to comply. I am NOT advocating just starting things like normal on campus. That would be dumb. I’m saying that IF the relevant guidelines allow for in-person instruction with whatever precautions, I’m in favor of in-person instruction while taking those precautions. (This assumes that the guidelines are sensible, of course.)

2) Yes, people will not all follow the rules. But having students on campus makes for easier enforcement of the rules, so there’s probably a public health argument for having them on campus. (Also because it keeps them away from their parents and grandparents.) If there’s an infectious masked student in one of my courses who stays at least 6′ away from me, I think the chances of me getting symptomatically-infected from him/her are negligible. I think this is the key issue–if there’s good evidence to the contrary that would be important to know and would likely change my position. (I say “symptomatically-infected” since if exposure in such circumstances is such low dose that people don’t get ill but just develop antibodies, that would actually be good! I don’t know how likely that is but I do think it’s important to distinguish “being somewhat likely to get exposed to *some* amount of virus” from “being somewhat likely to get ill with C19”.)

3) Again, yes, they won’t all comply. Some students getting the virus is probably inevitable. (I mean, that’s true even if we stay online!) The questions are (a) how many students will get infected?; and (b) how likely are infected students to transmit to vulnerable populations? I think we can make it be true that the answers to those questions are (a) not that many; and (b) not very likely. (Both as compared to a scenario where they’re living at home.) If those answers turn out to be wrong then I would need to reevaluate my position.

4) This is a very important consideration, but if it turns out that young people are getting serious long term damage when they contract the disease (even asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic people), that would be a major reason for universities not to have classes in-person. I would also think that the relevant regulatory bodies would prohibit it if this turns out to be the case. But the 18-29 hospitalization rate is .something like .015%, I think. Still, this is something to keep an eye on.

5) Yes, but I’m not sure why you think universities aren’t paying attention to this (at least with respect to fatalities). I think universities know that it will be a PR disaster if people in the campus community are dying of C19 at a rate higher than baseline. (It’ll probably be a PR disaster if anyone dies at all.) But it’ll be a much bigger PR disaster if a student dies than anyone else, ceteris peribus. (If it just turns out that people suffer subtle long-term damage but don’t die, that’s less of a PR disaster. But that goes back to (3) and (4). Those are both things we should think about! I’m just not currently convinced of pessimistic answers to them.)Report

Wildcat
Wildcat
Reply to  JDRox
11 months ago

Just on (1): *I* expect that universities that have strong financial incentives to reopen without social distancing will engage in special pleading for exemption from the guidelines. I expect that in at least some states, legislatures and/or governors who have financial and political incentives to make everything look hunky-dory will grant those exemptions, or commit to insulating universities from the consequences of failing to comply with social distancing guidelines. As evidence, I submit the following: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/05/15/colleges-seek-protection-lawsuits-if-they-reopen. The special pleading has already begun, and the political incentives are already aligning.

There’s also good reason to think that (2) is false, at least at residential schools. After all, it’s not just about maintaining social distance in the classroom, but maintaining it everywhere. There are a ton of situations where that will be extremely difficult, physically impossible, or physically possible but unenforceable. Also, most students are no more than two degrees of separation from most other students on campus (https://osf.io/6kuet/ – I’m less confident in the broader conclusion because this ain’t my area, but the basic network analysis seems sensible to me), which means it doesn’t take many slips for the virus to spread widely through a campus. Basically, it’s not *your distance* from one other person in the classroom with you, or even your distance from every person in the classroom with you. It’s the vast number of interactions beyond that zoomed-in case that *all* have to be done at a distance if social distancing is to work.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  JDRox
11 months ago

I think some administrators anticipate that, if they reopen with face-to-face courses in Fall semester and there’s a coronavirus blow-up, they can get out of it with boilerplate like the following:

‘We are deeply saddened by the loss of the 200 students who caught COVID-19 while on campus this semester, and by the 500 other students still recuperating in the hospital. As is well known, ours is one of hundreds of campuses across the country plagued by similar rates. Truly, this is a time for national mourning for all COVID-19 victims everywhere, and our hearts and prayers are with the families and friends of the deceased.

‘The decision we made in July to open again was a difficult and gut-wrenching one, but in the end we were moved by the fact that many of our students, including a disproportionately high number from marginalized communities, demanded the option of face-to-face instruction. Many of them also begged us to be able to return to residence halls. We listened respectfully to these students, some of whom had very moving stories, and decided to open our doors again. At the same time, our school has been a leader on the international stage at pushing for more online learning for those who prefer that.

‘We did our very best to make sure that those who returned to campus would be as safe as possible. We originally planned to spend the summer constructing new buildings with classrooms that could accommodate 50 students at once, and in which each student would be guaranteed to be 6 feet away from every other student at all times, even when entering or leaving the room. However, [blah blah not enough money but you should maybe donate some to make this a possibility later]. So we did our best with what we had, [blah blah maybe rather than blame us you should have a little respect for the fact that students everywhere died in the big Fall 2020 uptick].’

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Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
11 months ago

With the rising corporatization of the university over the past few decades, high-level administrators who make decisions on the basis of the public interest or the long-term interest of their students grow rarer and rarer. At nearly all colleges and universities now, matters of principle are thrown out the window. Instead, we see a customer service model that encourages unprepared students to take far more courses than they can plausibly give due attention, and then subtly pushes instructors to inflate their grades and get the students out the door with increasingly worthless diplomas whose value becomes weaker still as safeguards against academic fraud and dishonesty are eroded.

Besides this emphasis on profit over principles, most of today’s university administrators seem to show little backbone when faced with ephemeral threats to their reputation. If angry people attempt to eliminate a faculty member, even one with tenure, most administrators now seem to decide on their reaction by weighing the scandal of keeping the target on against a possible scandal caused by firing the target.

Given this, I would imagine that most university administrators will approach the re-opening problem as follows: first, how many student/customers will we gain or retain by offering face-to-face courses again in Fall semester? Working this out doesn’t need to take into account the health risks or permanent medical harm caused to students: one just has to survey them to see what they want. Second, if we offer the courses, will there be harm to our reputation, either because people find it scandalous that we reopened the campus or because the faculty protest having to teach the courses face-to-face and that leads to bad publicity? That will be a tricky one to figure out. But if enough colleges and universities do it, it’s less risky.

Neither of these calculations seems apt to consider the risks to students and faculty as important in themselves, unfortunately.Report