Wednesday, April 22, 2020

A Case for Virtual Fall Term 2020 (and Probably Spring 2021)

These are my thoughts. I'm a Math Educator, speaking as a college faculty person. I'm using my own logic. I'm not an infectious disease epidemiologist. Some of my opinions will change as we get new info. This is written on April 22, 2020.


Emotionally what I want is to go back to normal. I am sure we all do.  I have been in lockdown for 6 weeks. I spent my birthday in lockdown. I am zoomed out. Virtual teaching is not why I got into the teaching profession. My kids miss their friends and teachers.

Despite all that we have to be responsible and meet this historic challenge. We have a moral responsibility to ourselves and each other to make good choices.

Risks are asymmetrical, and this is a key point I want to make clear. The downside risk of a contagion on a campus is far greater than the downside of virtual teaching.  Sadly, the range of choices we have is between bad and horrific. But people don't like bad, so it is understandable that we want something better. I fully understand that teaching via zoom in our bedrooms with kids at home is not a good situation. But this is the coronavirus era.

We are in a global humanitarian crisis. It’s a giant problem that unfortunately comes with a large basket of problems. The item in the basket this post primarily focuses on is in-person vs. virtual fall 2020.  I make a case for virtual fall 2020 and likely spring 2021.

A list of points and comments organized in a list.
  1. We don’t have a vaccine. ETA is March 2021, according to FDA (as of this writing). How we roll out 7+ billions vaccine is a manufacturing challenge, beyond the scientific challenges. Not sure we will get this before spring term. 
  2. Equity is a big concern in general in this crisis and specifically with respect to vaccines. When it comes to vaccines and treatments and access to healthcare, we will likely see income disparities. So if a college knows that vaccines are out, and plans to open in-person next spring, then will it also have in place vaccinations for low-income students and marginalized groups so that every students has access to treatment?  If not, then the college could force poor students to make the choice between missing school or their health. The children of NBA players and movie stars will get vaccines before the children of gardeners and housekeepers.  But schools might be wanting to open, when treatments are announced or starting to become ready, and leave behind or force into a tough decision students who are at the back of the line.
  3. Testing is still not up and running to a level where we can do surveillance testing as of this writing. In CA, we are testing people with symptoms, but will we be able to test all our students before they arrive, after they arrive, during the term,...?  If yes, then this is a good start. It is one of the things reported that we need in order to open up society.
  4. Treatments (other than vaccines) are being tested as of this writing. These may help, but they are not here yet and it's hard to plan on anything now for something that might help later. Widespread availability is another factor. Even if a treatment is shown effective in clinical trials, will your specific region have it in quantity and will it cover all students, faculty, staff, and the wider community?  
  5. Travel is a massive issue facing colleges that does not affect K-12 schools nearly as much. Merely getting college students physically to campuses in the fall is a significant risk due to long distance travel. Colleges and universities generally have students from different regions, some students are international. At the start of fall term, hundreds of thousands of students travel from their homes to different cities, often with parents or family.  The situation where millions of people traveling AND being able to do so without spreading the virus seems impossible. 
  6. Once on campus, hundreds of thousands of students across the US will live in dorms or apartments in close proximity to one another. Many eat in dining halls or other campus dining serving thousands of meals per day. The HVAC systems in buildings may be connecting the air between rooms.
  7. Even if somehow we get everyone to campus 100% coronavirus free, it gets messy from there. Do we let students go home on the weekends? What about Thanksgiving and winter break?  What if a family member of a student is in the hospital - do we let this student go home to see their family? And when the student returns is it to a 14-day quarantine?
  8. Students also do things like go into town and to the market. The university is not closed off from its region.  So the virus could be transported to the community or vice versa.
  9. Thought Experiment: How would a college town feel if 20,000 students from China and Italy are coming in August?  Ok, maybe not China and Italy, but maybe Los Angeles and New York.  We need to think about the communities around the colleges and their reactions (right or wrong). 
  10. Winter break is especially concerning without a vaccine. Are we going to send people home for 3 to 5 weeks in the middle of flu and possibly a coronavirus resurgence, and bring them all back again for winter quarter/spring semester in January? If yes, then we need to replay the fall scenario again in a tougher environment and less time to prepare due to the winter holidays and length of winter break.  
  11. Classrooms and labs force very close contact between students, with no option of proper distancing. Take a look at this image from one of our math classrooms. There's maybe two feet between desks. Plus we pack in 35 students into this space.  After you get a 6 or 7 people in there, you've used up "6 feet of distance" between people. Classroom buildings have HVAC systems that could be moving air from room to room.
  12. Classes are used multiple times a day. A single seat or desk may see as many as 10 or 12 different people using it each day. It seems unrealistic that we will sanitize each desk completely during each period. We'd need to hire hundreds of staff to do this massive cleaning job. This is unlikely given budgets are expected to go down. Given that we won't expand staff, then we won't do the cleaning needed. Therefore, we will have a petri dish in each classroom. 
  13. Thought Experiment: Student A sneezes on a desk. Gets up after class. Next class period, student B sits in that desk and gets infected. 
  14. Universities are not setup with staff and equipment for daily testing, tracing, isolating, etc.  One question is, "Who is going to do this work for thousands of people regularly?" And if a student has to go on quarantine, then what about their roommates, classmates, instructors?  
  15. If instructors get sick, then how does the class proceed, especially in areas that require specialized expertise, where there may not be a qualified expert able to step in? If staff get sick, then how does the university function if a large number are home sick?
  16. Each day, a university is like an all-day concert or sporting event. It seems more clear that we should not be having concerts or sports events until a vaccine arrives. The same logic applies to colleges and universities. Thousands of people engaging all day in close quarters, sitting in the same seats hour after hour, and then going to the library in close quarters. 
  17. College parties are another issue. Are we going to ban parties? Even if we can legally (not likely), then how will it be enforced especially if students live off campus? If it does happen, then what is the consequence? Quarantines?
  18. Thought Experiment: Suppose student A goes to a "corona party" and gets coronavirus. Student B sits next to student A in a class, and get coronavirus. Student B is in an at-risk group and is hospitalized or dies. Student B washed her hands, wore a mask, did everything right, but also depended on all other students on campus to follow through with the guidelines.  This then raises the issue of putting at-risk students into harm's way. And telling them to wash their hands isn't going to ensure they are safe, because safety in this crisis depends on everyone.  Even if student A was being responsible, student A could get the virus from the grocery store or a humanitarian mission.
  19. In Education we talk a lot about safe learning environments.  A psychological factor is also in play during the coronavirus era. When someone sneezes or coughs, it'll come with a tinge of fear. "I just sneezed - do I have coronavirus?" Or "My group mate just coughed! Am I going to get it next?”  The fear of illness and death is not a foundation to build a safe learning environment. It's literally a potentially physically dangerous learning environment.  It's hard to fully focus on a task or exam, when stressed about personal safety. 
  20. Will we enforce a no-attendance policy campus wide? What I mean is that faculty cannot have attendance as a requirement or part of the grade. Here's why this is important. If an instructor breaks ranks and requires students to show up for class as part of the grade, then the incentives for students to be in class are at odds with health concerns. Students in this case will be forced between choosing their grade and health. It's a horrible dilemma that students should not be forced into.
  21. Similar to above, but "attendance" replaced with "exams." What if a student is sick and it's midterm day? Then the student might have to decide between taking the exam and their health and the health of their class. And even if a college has a policy on make-up exams, how will it get monitored and enforced?                                                        
  22. Marketing Risk Thought Experiment: Assume a college rolls the dice and goes for in-person fall term. That campus then gets an outbreak in October, when thousands get sick and dozens die.  First and foremost, there is a huge human cost that could have been avoided. And second, there is the reputation of the institution, which will be trashed. Who is going to go to Coronvirus U next year?  Why trust what they do or say after that? What parent will want to send their kid to a place where dozens died unnecessarily.  It's very easy to destroy the reputation of an institution.
  23. If instead, the marketing is, "You will still have 3+ years of amazing, in-person, hands-on learning. But safety and health for you and everyone else matters most. So we will be working our hardest to do virtual right and then to open up when it's safe."  That would be more honest, and we'd get the kind of students we want anyways, who share our values. Those who are understanding and want to be at Cal Poly or wherever for what makes your institution special. That does not go away, if we hold true to our values. 
  24. Sports will likely be governed by conferences or NCAA. So I won't comment on this.
False Dichotomies
False dichotomies are bad. They also seem to have grown in number exponentially this year. Here are some examples.
  • The lockdown has created a rise in domestic violence. So we need to end the lockdown. (Choosing between lockdown and dealing with domestic violence).  
  • If we do not run in person, then enrollment will be down and budget will be a problem. (Trade lives for money.)
  • We need to save lives or save the economy.
All these are poor logic.  Pandemics are a basket or package of problems, not an "A vs. B" scenario. Pandemics attack your whole society from top to bottom, from left to right. It's a systemwide set of problems. This means every part of society gets affected and disrupted. So splitting up issues into coronavirus and non-coronavirus is poor logic, since it's all one giant set of problems, and more importantly these false dichotomies can lead to bad decisions.

Here's an example. Let's focus in on domestic violence issues. Domestic violence is a real problem and we need to fix this like right now. But the solution isn't to lift lockdowns early as a "solution" to address the rise in domestic violence. If we do that, then the disease might spread and you have more suffering in other areas of society. We should think of the rise in domestic violence as *part* of the crisis, and act accordingly. We should do both (a) reduce domestic violence and (b) keep people safe from coronavirus. For example, communities can start to do deal with domestic violence issues, by providing housing for victims in hotels, and offer moving services and security. A major conclusion is that false dichotomies lead people to make bad decisions, by improperly framing the problem into a choice between two (bad/incomplete) solutions.

Money Issues at Colleges
One major false choice facing universities are budget vs. lives.  It's not presented like this. We talk about it in terms of enrollment.  Lower enrollment should be expected for fall. Some students might prefer to take a gap year. Maybe their parents lost their jobs or have reduced income, and they can't go to college for financial reasons, whether virtual or in-person. Economic downturns of this speed and magnitude will create lower enrollments.  When 10%+ of workers have filed for unemployment in just a few weeks, that is going to affect college enrollments. I don't think virtual vs. in-person is the kicker here. It's more likely money and a tanking economy. We are in something like the great depression, and fewer people can afford college. That's just a fact. We should expect lower enrollment.

Colleges are not immune to broad, deep shifts in the economy like the one we are experiencing now. But some administrators may think virtual means lower enrollment and in-person means higher. I don't think that's a clearcut case or even true.  I understand budget concerns are real.  A real, systemic solution is for state and federal governments to bail out colleges and universities. We did this for airlines and other industries.  We did this for banks during the last financial crisis.  Why not protect the future of our younger generations?  Of course I am not naive. That's not happening. But this line of reasoning illustrates the folly of chasing dollars to address a wider societal failing, by trading the health of our communities, faculty, staff and the students we serve to run in-person classes during a pandemic (all the while assuming this is palatable to students and their families).

Some have argued on my campus that we need to keep businesses and the economy going. So bringing students here is worth it. The gist of their thinking is that some are going to die anyways, so you might as well save the local economy.  I think this is wrong and immoral.

Let's start with the fundamentals. Education is a social responsibility to our youth. It's not a business. We aren't maximing profits. Educational institutions do not have in their mission statements the goal of supporting and upholding the regional economy.  People try and spin education in materialistic terms, but education fundamentally is a social responsibility. Thinking of students as consumers or bags of money is wrong or at least significantly incomplete.

We also can't just ignore the bodies in the corner and get on with taking tests and doing labs. If people are sick and dying, even if it's "just a few dozen," it's not going to feel like a learning institution. At least it won't for me. Maybe others are harder and tougher that I am. But if I am losing colleagues and students to coronavirus, I'm not going to be all excited and happy to go to my next committee meeting and act like all is normal. The fear of death or illness has a way of souring the mood, amping of stress levels, and killing morale.  I can't think of many ways other to make a community feel more like a disposable cog in a machine than pushing them into the middle of a global pandemic.

If faculty and staff feel like they are disposable cogs, the ones with outside opportunities (i.e. the ones who get more grants and publish more) will leave or get poached by savvy institutions. It'll be harder to recruit good faculty and staff, and the quality if the institution would take a hit.  Students who don't feel safe will not attend or go elsewhere.  So going down the route of in-person fall term has serious long-term risks, beyond easily quantifiable things such as positive test cases and number of fatalities. 

Here's a hard pill to swallow. The key societal mistakes were made before we arrived at the present day. We did not invest in pandemic preparedness, we responded slowly and with disorganization as a society, and we have gaps in our society that are being laid bare. It's like we are on a raft and the river is leading us to a dangerous section. The college is in the raft and decision makers in the past put the raft in the river. We like to think colleges are independent from society. In some ways colleges are highly autonomous. But we are in the "river of the society" we have, and what happens to the world happens to us. The tough part is we can't do anything about upstream decisions. We are now left with a set of hard choices and tough realities, ranging from bad to horrible.

I don't like virtual college. We are not supposed to like it. It's going to be the hardest period of our careers.  I hate thinking of the long slog back up the hill, and this is if I make it. But this reality is the definition of living during natural disaster. In the grand scheme, we are the lucky ones, given that we live in a modern, advanced nation and still have jobs and paychecks. We have opportunities to revamp and update some things that need to be fixed. We can be creative and human for our students during this time, and teach them about morality, community, solidarity, and steadfastness during difficult times. There exist things we can teach virtually in this environment that are both sorely needed and would have been scoffed otherwise. So while I see virtual (and the pandemic) as an unwelcome reality, I also see upside in the opportunity it presents and most importantly a clear, moral case for why going virtual in fall 2020 is the right choice.

Stay safe and stay healthy!

Edit: An different version of this blog post is published in the Chronicle of Higher Ed