Naive optimism about case numbers and transmission rates won't stop an outbreak.
As colleges and universities in the U.S. are staring down the barrel of a COVID-induced budget crisis, administrators have been grappling with the question of what classes will look like in the fall semester. California state schools made the decision to go online (although dorms will be open) despite the potential drop in enrollment, choosing to protect their student body, faculty, graduate students, and staff. Unfortunately, not all institutions have followed suit.
On Monday, the University of Michigan (expected loss: $1bn) announced its plan for ‘hybrid’ classes in the fall term, comprising a mix of online learning and in-person classes. Students will have the choice to return to campus or to stay fully remote. Fall break (when students may usually travel) is cancelled, and classes are going remote after Thanksgiving. At first glance, this may seem like a good compromise: keep big lectures online to prevent a hundred students from sitting in the same auditorium together, but maintain face-to-face experiences through labs and discussion sections with small class sizes. Sounds good, right?
This hybrid model has some serious flaws, and they’re flaws that the graduate students (through our union) have been pointing out, talking about, shouting about, for months – to no avail. The University administration didn’t include any graduate student representatives in their decision-making, despite the fact that graduate students often hold the majority of close-contact hours (labs, discussions, office hours) whereas faculty primarily lecture. But the flaws aren’t just about the imbalance between who is at risk on the teaching side of the equation; the hybrid model is irresponsible and unsafe for myriad reasons, ranging from ableism to socioeconomic considerations to public health.
A short (and probably not comprehensive) list of flaws and biases in the hybrid plan:
1. Graduate students often rely on funds from teaching for their salary. In the hybrid model, graduate students may have to teach to get paid, even if they are immunocompromised or do not feel safe teaching in person. What extra funds have been allocated for this purpose?
2. Graduate students will have the most contact hours under this model and, consequently, have the most exposure risk among teachers. (Especially if there are more discussion/lab sections than usual, to accommodate smaller in-person class sizes.)
3. Immunocompromised students, or those living with/caring for immunocompromised people, may not really have the option of attending in-person; should they pay as much as their peers? (The question of ‘how much are online classes really worth?’ has been a hot topic since COVID arrived. It's almost like college should lead to tens of thousands of debt...)
4. Even if classes are partially remote, the student body on campus and in the community will still be big, and will still bring exposure risks. Campus staff (e.g., janitors, groundskeepers, building maintenance) will be at massive exposure risk. These essential jobs are commonly held by minority groups, putting minority groups at unequally high risk. These groups are already disproportionately affected by COVID (e.g., by having ‘essential’ jobs and having less access to quality healthcare or equal treatment within the healthcare system); the hybrid model exacerbates this.
5. International, or potentially even out-of-state, students may also not have the option of returning due to travel restrictions.
6. Bringing students back to campus puts immunocompromised people in the broader community at risk, too. The University is not being responsible to its community by bringing students back to campus - we don't live and work in a bubble.
7. While giving students the option to attend remotely or in-person sounds good, it means teachers have to prepare two sets of materials. This could very well lead to an overall reduction in the quality of education, which would exacerbate complaints about the cost of (partially) online classes.
8. If (when) there is a second wave of COVID cases – because thousands of students have returned to campus all at once – and classes end up fully online, students will probably complain of a “bait and switch” (I’ve seen it bandied about by the undergrads already). The administration has already planned that classes will be remote after Thanksgiving, prompting the question: Why bother having in-person classes for two and a half months first? It only raises the risk of COVID being spread on campus, in Ann Arbor, and wherever the students go at Thanksgiving. (The answer is tuition money.) And even if classes are remote after that, many students will still be returning to housing in Ann Arbor. I don't like the odds for all of them doing a 14-day quarantine before venturing out to party.
The kids on reddit tell it like it is:
Universities should commit to going fully online for the fall, and possibly for the entire academic year. It’s upsetting that we are in this situation to begin with; how, many are asking, can universities with billion-dollar endowments and massive athletics programs relying on student-generated revenue to stay afloat?
Why can’t they just lower tuition for online-only classes, take the hit for a year, and move on?
The current budget crises have solidified our knowledge that universities in the U.S. are businesses first, educational institutions second. Would we be in this mess if public institutions received ample funding from the government in the first place? If tuition were financially accessible (i.e., reasonable, comparable to other first-world countries, didn’t result in over a trillion dollars of student debt, etc.) and universities didn’t have to raise tuition every year to make ends meet?
Hopefully, this budget crisis will prompt a re-examination of how higher education is funded. We have to be ready for the next time an epidemic or a pandemic sweeps across the globe.