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How Professors and Staff Really Feel About Colleges Reopening

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College students have expressed a range of emotions about COVID-19 impacting their school year: discomfort, concern, fear, frustration, and disappointment. But how do professors and lecturers feel about returning to classrooms?

TheBestSchools.org interviewed a mix of professionals who will be teaching either in-person or online-only classes in the fall. Their responses were as varied as their students.

Some are skeptical that students will follow safety protocols to limit the possibility of outbreaks on campus. Others are eager to resume face-to-face instruction, though they expect it to look much different from before.

They also spoke about the financial pressure on schools to reopen, the risks of being infected by students, and the reputation of online learning.

These interviews have been edited for clarity.

How do you feel about colleges reopening?

"I feel mixed about it. In-person learning benefits are well understood and appreciated by most people, both generally and on college campuses. However, we're grappling with a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, so it's a complicated matter. Given our experience over the past few months, we know this virus has a way of surging back when we let down our guard. I think we must be careful."

—Lora Sabin, associate professor of global health, Boston University

"I am personally opposed to colleges reopening this fall. Barton is doing everything possible to make conditions safe: social distancing, mask requirements, deep cleaning, wiping desks after each class, etc. But I do not think it will be enough because the evidence is that the virus is spread through the air more than through surfaces."

—Alan Lane, associate professor of history at Barton College

"I support the reopening of the campus. In my opinion, the best way to learn for students is on a person-to-person basis. The best way for the instructors to deliver the course materials is to deliver the materials in classrooms. As long as we can reopen safely, we will do that."

—Xiaoping Sun, professor of chemistry, University of Charleston

"I am personally concerned about the safety of students, faculty, and staff if colleges open up too early. It puts too many people at risk."

—Ruth Sandberg, Leonard and Ethel Landau professor of Rabbinics, Gratz College

"Colleges are truly caught between a rock and a hard place because they are not built to turn on a dime, yet they are trying to react as quickly as possible to a barrage of updates."

—Robert Elliott, senior lecturer in computer information technology, Indiana University

Do you believe students will follow safety protocols?

"After 30 years of college teaching, I have no faith in students making safe decisions outside of the classroom. They will go unmasked in the dorms; they will hug old friends; they will party. In just the short time that athletes have been on campus at some universities, we have seen that this will occur."

—Alan Lane, Barton College

"We know college students are generally eager to return to campus, but do they understand what 'in-person' learning is going to look like and feel like this fall? Will they be willing to forego the social activities that make college life fun? I'm a bit dubious — partly because I'm not so old that I've forgotten the enticing challenge of breaking the rules and the thrill of feeling invincible."

—Lora Sabin, Boston University

"We don't know yet. We will enforce the rules, and if the students don't follow the rules, I think they will be asked to leave the building."

—Xiaoping Sun, University of Charleston

What do you think about the risks of teaching face-to-face?

"If the school in question did the things we know make a big difference (physical distancing of students and faculty in classrooms, mask-wearing, etc.), I would feel reasonably safe. It is not completely safe, since the risk of infection is greater than not teaching on campus, but it's reasonably safe. My bigger worry is about whether the protocols are so confining that we can be effective educators. I think it will be hard to be in a classroom in a mask for three hours straight, for instance, and to keep students apart."

—Lora Sabin, Boston University

"I will feel safe for myself. I'm going to put on a face shield. We'll all wear masks, keep social distancing, and take everybody's temperature. Students will be tested."

—Xiaoping Sun, University of Charleston

"With COVID-19 continuing at high levels in North Carolina, it would be better to stay online."

—Alan Lane, Barton College

"I would not personally feel comfortable teaching in person right now. Even with masks and social distancing mandated, there is always a risk that someone will forget to wear a mask or will get too close to other people. As long as we can teach effectively online, I think it is the safest way to learn and teach."

—Ruth Sandberg, Gratz College

Image of teacher in classroom wearing a mask with students behind them Image of person holding a backpack and mask Flat lay image of mask, hand sanitizer, and school supplies

Are hybrid courses practical?

"Hybrid courses are challenging, but they can be done very successfully. My primary concern is that it's casually tossed out as an option without much thought behind what it means. Classroom and online courses are designed with the context of their delivery in mind, and hybrid courses should be designed in the same fashion. You cannot just set up a webcam in a classroom and expect that remote students have a similar experience."

—Robert Elliott, Indiana University

"I honestly have no idea. In theory, they seem like they are — but we're talking about human behavior, and people do unexpected and odd things sometimes. As I noted above, I worry more about whether the necessary protocols for hybrid learning will work educationally."

—Lora Sabin, Boston University

"We need a very good organization for students to know when they need to come to class and when they shouldn't come to class. They need to be on top of that, or else it's going to be a mess."

—Xiaoping Sun, University of Charleston

What's your take on remote learning?

"I hope that all the schools that are learning about online education will realize that it is not an inferior way of learning or teaching. It has many positive aspects, especially for those students who cannot receive an education any other way. It is ideal, especially for adult learners who have jobs and family responsibilities, because they can fit their learning into a time that works best."

—Ruth Sandberg, Gratz College

"In general, online courses have gotten a bit of a bad rap. They can be done extremely well. Students need to understand that the spring semester was not 'online teaching' but rather 'emergency remote learning' and isn't a fair introduction to online coursework. I know first hand that online education can be successful if designed with intention. I honestly believe that our online courses for the fall will be executed much more smoothly than in the spring, simply because we won't be in emergency mode."

—Robert Elliott, Indiana University

What do you think colleges should do?

"When colleges began preparing for the fall and the 'second wave,' many of them — including Barton — moved their calendars forward to start earlier and avoid coming back after Thanksgiving. But with the reality that the first wave is continuing now, it is time to rethink this new schedule and start later. Colleges should also think about innovative scheduling of classes, like one-at-a-time, one-month, intensive classes to lower the risk from students continually meeting with new groups of students. This can't be resolved by minor tinkering."

—Alan Lane, Barton College

"I worry about how in-person learning will be. As a professor, I'd be thrilled to be back in a pre-COVID classroom with students, but current plans to reopen seem like a grand and stressful experiment, despite the incredible lengths to which colleges and universities are going to make it safe. If it were up to me, I'd probably opt to stay virtual in the fall, even though it would mean more financial pain for institutions and their employees, and a disappointed student population."

—Lora Sabin, Boston University

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

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