Some Tentative Suggestions for Safely Restarting In-Person Teaching at Universities

Universities around the country are pondering the question of whether and how to resume in-person teaching during the upcoming fall 2020 semester. In-person instruction has major advantages over the online version many of us have experienced this spring. But it would be foolish and irresponsible to ignore the risks of spreading Covid-19. I don’t have anything approaching a comprehensive solution to this dilemma. But in this post, I offer some tentative suggestions for how in-person teaching can be restarted, while minimizing risk, while also avoiding creating an unbearable dystopian on-campus environment.

I readily acknowledge two important caveats to these suggestions. First, I am not an epidemiologist, and it is possible that new epidemiological evidence will invalidate some or even all of these ideas. Second, different institutions have different needs; ideas that may work well for some schools may be non-starters for others. My goal here is not to present a comprehensive one-size-fits-all plan that works for every institution, but rather to offer suggestions that a variety of schools could potentially consider. It may turn out that individual schools can adopt some of these ideas, but not others.

The proposals I offer rely on three key ideas. First, the advantages of in-person education are far greater for some types of classes than for others. Second, there are ways to protect faculty and students who face especially high risks without moving to a fully on-line model for the classes they teach or take. Third, discussions of the risk of in-person classes tend to implicitly assume an unrealistic baseline in which students will completely or almost completely avoid risk if they stay off-campus.

I. Exploiting Variation in the Relative Advantages of In-Person Teaching

For reasons I describe here, in-person teaching has important advantages over online instruction. Among other things, in-person teaching makes it easier for faculty to make eye contact and otherwise gauge the reactions of students, and to make sure that the latter are “getting” what the instructor is saying. Being in class also makes it easier for students to stay focused and effectively interact with each other.

I base these conclusions not only on my (admittedly limited) experience this semester, but also on years of prior experience teaching law students and undergraduates at several schools in the United States, and also at universities in Argentina and China. That experience includes a number of online classes and lectures, as well as many in-person ones. Still, these conclusions would be worth little if they were just my idiosyncratic views, based on perhaps unrepresentative experiences. However, recent surveys of students indicate that they too overwhelmingly prefer in-person instruction, and believe it makes it easier for them to learn.

I have not seen a good coronavirus-era survey of faculty members on this subject. But a 2018 survey found that large majorities are skeptical that online instruction can be as effective as the in-person kind. For example, “[e]ighty percent of instructors said digital courses were less effective than face-to-face classes in their ability to reach ‘at-risk’ students, and 65 percent said the same about ‘rigorously engag[ing] students in course material and ability to maintain academic integrity (60 percent).”

But these differences do not affect all courses equally. In particular, for reasons I summarized in my earlier post on this subject, the advantages of in-person courses over online ones are much less significant for small courses with, say, 15 students or fewer, than for large ones. In a small class, it’s far easier for the professor to keep track of all the students online, make eye contact with them, and ensure everyone is focused and able to participate. It’s also easier for students to interact with each other.

Thus, schools can potentially keep smaller classes online, while reserving limited classroom space for bigger ones. This may seem like the exact opposite of what might be useful for maintaining social distance. Obviously it is easier for a small group to do so than big one. But by moving smaller classes online, schools can free up a lot of classroom space that would otherwise be used for them. That in turn can allow them to split up larger courses between two rooms.

The professor can be in one room, along with however many students can fit in there with while maintaining social distancing. The remaining students can be in the second room. They can watch the professor (and other students) on a large TV monitor set up at the front. The professor can in turn see the students in the second room on a monitor set up in her room.

The obvious objection to this setup is that it risks replicating the flaws of online teaching. But initial appearances are deceptive. The professor’s attention in this scenario is divided in only two directions: the room she is in and the one she can see only through the monitor. That’s far easier to manage than having to look at (and scroll through) several dozen different faces on Zoom or Webex. Moreover, the students in both rooms can benefit from easier interaction with their classmates in the same room, which can also make it easier to stay focused. Furthermore, the classrooms  won’t have the distractions that often make it hard to focus on classes at home.

Moreover, students can rotate between the two classrooms, so that those who are in the monitor room on Day 1 of class can be in the professor’s room on Day 2, and vice versa. That enables everyone to get regular in-person time with the professor—including, where needed,—time to talk before or after class, so long as everyone stays the requisite six feet from each other.

Structuring classes in this way can also minimize some of the dystopian constraints imagined by co-blogger Josh Blackman, among others. For example, social distancing in classes will be easier if they can be split between two rooms. Similarly, there will be no need for students to constantly disinfect the spaces they use, or to worry much about “touch points.” With many fewer students on campus at any given time, disinfection can be done by specialized staff between classes (my understanding is that this in fact what many schools already plan to do).  The ability to distance in class and disinfect between classes will also reduce the need for constant tests and temperature checks, though it probably cannot eliminate such tests and checks entirely.

I would add that experts seem to be coming around to the view that touching surfaces actually poses relatively little threat of infection. If this solidifies into a consensus, it would further reduce the touch point/disinfection problem (though again not completely eliminate it).

The distinction between small classes and large ones on which this idea is based is not universally valid. Some small classes may require in-person interaction (e.g.—science classes that require students to do lab experiments). Some large classes may be exceptions to the generalizations made above. But it can be useful as a general rule.

II. Protecting High-Risk Faculty and Students.

By now, everyone who follows these issues knows that Covid 19 poses far greater risks to some categories of people than others. In particular, it is far more dangerous for those over 60 years old,  and people with certain types of preexisting health conditions. This creates a difficult dilemma for universities, since many faculty are over sixty, and there are others on campus (both faculty and students) who have health conditions that make them unusually vulnerable.

The obvious solution for such cases is to confine them to purely online instruction. But there may be other options that preserve some of the benefits of the in-person version. For example, high-risk faculty can potentially teach from home, but the students in their class can be gathered in a single room at the university (or two rooms, if need be), as described above. That makes it easier for the professor to see and keep track of all the students at once. The students, in turn can see the professor on a monitor in their room, and can also interact directly with each other.

I have used this method several times over the years to give talks at schools I could not, for various reasons, visit for an in-person presentation. It does not give me as good a feel for the audience as traditional in-person teaching. But it is vastly preferable to trying to keep track of several dozen different boxes at once on Webex or Zoom. I also find that students in such settings are more attentive and better-focused than when everyone is sitting at home using Zoom.

I do not have a comparably simple solution for high-risk students. If the rest of the class is held in person, they might have to “attend” online, which will necessarily put them at a disadvantage. But if, as seems likely, such cases are relatively rare (as students are generally a young and healthy group), it will be easier to give them the individualized assistance they may need, than if everyone is online, and support resources are spread thin, as they certainly were at many institutions this spring.

III. Mitigating the Dangers Posed by Dorms

The above suggestions address the potential risks posed by teaching in-person classes. But at many schools, dorm life may pose a much greater threat. Students in dorms often live close together, and share bathroom facilities, for example. This is not a major issue for law schools (like the one where I teach) and other graduate programs, as most law students and grad students live off-campus anyway. But it is an obvious problem for undergrads.

I do not have any simple solution for this issue. But one possible suggestion is for schools to give housing vouchers to some of their students, which could take the form of reductions in tuition large enough to cover the difference in cost between paying for a dorm room and paying for off-campus housing. There could perhaps be an extra payment to compensate for the social and other disadvantages some may experience from having to live off-campus. In this way, the dorm population can be reduced enough to bring the risk of dorm life down enough to make it comparable to that posed by “normal” living arrangements.

The voucher/payment system could also help sort students such that those who value dorm life least would be most likely to accept the voucher, while those who like it the most would have an opportunity to continue to live on-campus.

Obviously, this voucher system could be costly for schools, especially those located in areas where rent is high. For some, the cost might be prohibitive. But the cost should be weighed against the likely loss of revenue from students who choose not to attend, select a rival institution, or defer a year because of their strong distaste for online-only instruction.

IV. Using Realistic Baselines for Assessing Risk

Discussions of the potential dangers of in-person teaching often implicitly assume that students would face little or no risk of infection if only we stick to online instruction. In that event, the students would stay home and rarely if ever go out, except when absolutely necessary. Thus, any risk of infection created by in-person teaching would be a net increase in overall risk.

This assumption strikes me as implausible. Young people faced with another entire semester of isolation from campus and their classmates are unlikely to stay home alone indefinitely. Many will understandably begin to go stir-crazy, and otherwise feel starved of social contact. As a result, they are likely to begin to go out and take some risks. Those risks could easily be as great or greater than those they would face on campus, where the system described above can facilitate social distancing, while still enabling considerable interaction.

Those who object to in-person teaching on the grounds that students can’t be trusted to obey social distancing rules on campus should ask themselves how those students are likely to behave if forced to stay away from campus entirely. The latter scenario could easily turn out to be more dangerous than the former.

Some of those students forced to live at home during the semester may end up living together with elderly or otherwise vulnerable relatives. That is particularly likely for lower-income students, who are more likely to live in crowded conditions. If these students begin to take risks and go out, that could put those relatives at risk, as well—potentially far more so than if the students instead live on-campus or in housing funded by the voucher system described above.

It could still turn out that in-person instruction poses much greater risk than keeping students off-campus. But the issue must be assessed using a realistic baseline, geared to the actual likely behavior of young people forced to stay away from campus.

As Josh Blackman points out, the issues addressed here could turn out to be moot if government officials order another strict lockdown during the semester. But it is far from certain that will occur. Although the issue remains contested, there is now considerable evidence that severe lockdowns do not create benefits anywhere near great enough to justify their enormous costs. That—combined with the already perilous state of the economy—might make officials reluctant to reimpose them. Hopefully, also, by the fall, many jurisdictions will have in place less draconian methods of managing outbreaks, such as more effective testing and contact tracing.

Like many other industries, higher education will face difficult choices so long as the Coronavirus continues to be a serious threat. But, given the severe limitations of online teaching, we should at least consider options for resuming in-person instruction, particularly for those courses that can benefit from it the most.

The suggestions I offer will not “solve” all the problems universities face, or even come close to it. But I hope they can at least be useful contributions to the ongoing discussion of these issues.

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