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Hard choices

A professor resumes teaching on a campus, with no choice but to figure out how to make it happen

MacLean Gander often contributes to these pages. He serves as a member of the board of directors of Vermont Independent Media, the nonprofit that publishes The Commons .

West Brattleboro

I began teaching my first new class in person on July 13 — four months after the last class I taught in person before the college where I work went entirely online for the rest of the semester.

The need to reopen schools and colleges is a real problem in a time when the COVID-19 pandemic shows signs of exploding in the United States rather than receding. It is a problem playing out across the nation.

A recent article in The New York Times was headlined “Expecting Students to Play It Safe if Colleges Reopen Is a Fantasy.” Whether tight social controls can be maintained in a campus environment seems moot: They can’t at most places.

According to a July 1 Washington Post piece, college and university faculty across the nation are fighting for the right to teach remotely, even as their institutions strive to bring students back to campus and resume some semblance of normalcy.

The challenge is even greater when it comes to elementary and high schools, whether public or private. The question of how young people can be safe in a closely packed public environment is hard to answer.

The CDC recently issued new guidelines for schools to reopen. According to a recent article in Politico, school systems around the country are confused and scrambling as they try to work out plans to keep children safe in a context where viral infection is exploding across the nation.

Many teachers’ unions are considering whether to take a stand against teaching in person in the fall, and in a recent poll about half of the parents surveyed said they did not want their children to be in face-to-face classrooms in September.

At the same time, for many working parents there is a desperate need for some sort of child care, and the ability to support online learning at home can be sharply compromised by a lack of time and access to technology.

Schools and colleges serve social needs as well as educational ones, and in our late capitalist society one of the main functions is to make sure that children and young adults have someplace to go and be socialized while their parents go to work.

Across the country, young people have found themselves living at home again, at precisely the moment they were supposed to learn what it means to be an adult and live on their own.

The burden that remote learning places on parents with children at home can’t be overstated. The same is true for college-age students and their families.

So it’s back to campus. I will make it work, but I don’t feel good about it. I don’t want to die from the ’Rona.

* * *

I know my campus has taken every protection, measuring out public spaces to preserve social distancing, requiring that students quarantine for two weeks and issuing them masks and other supplies, assuring faculty that we have flexibility in how we deliver instruction, and emphasizing that our online platforms should be robust.

I trust the plans that have been made and also those who are making them. The plans are meticulous and based on guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The people making them have been working overtime for months to try to make the right decisions.

I understand the need for us to be a residential college. The value of the educational programs we deliver is based in direct, individual contact.

I’ll certainly work through it and make sure that I stay as safe as I can be — and that my students do so, too.

* * *

I am thinking of how I feel about teaching again, in a visor or a mask, and about all the research and reporting I have done about COVID-19 and its impact nationally and locally.

I am also thinking about the complex, personal, existential question that the virus has posed for each of us.

The virus itself is dreadful and insidious. At each new turn, it shows us how rapid and quick it can be, and how invisible. The disproportionate outcomes for people of color and poor white people say all we need to know about race and class in this nation.

It’s like being in a huge dark room with a lot of people, including a few who have knives and occasionally stab one of us. Where people cluster, out of fear or anger or sorrow, there are more knife strikes. None of us really knows what is happening.

All I want to do is not go in that room.

* * *

Right now, there is an enormous tension between two unprecedented crises: a public-health catastrophe worse than anything we have experienced in a century, and an economic collapse deeper than any since the Great Depression.

The challenge in the tension between economic well-being and physical health is that they involve two different modes of calculation: risk reduction and risk elimination.

In the world of risk reduction, we accept that some bus drivers in New York will die from the disease as they keep working their jobs. We tell people to use masks and observe social distancing when they go to a supermarket. We know that shop clerks around the country have died from COVID-19.

If we follow the rules, we keep groups small and quick, and we try to make sure the room we are in is well-ventilated. We wear our masks, we wash our hands and face, and we carry hand sanitizer in a holster or get it from a wall dispenser.

All of these are ways of reducing risk, and they do work, except when they don’t, or when people don’t follow them.

And the problem is that the risks are catastrophic for some people. Others carry the virus without any symptoms at all, and it is now spreading exponentially in every place that reopened too soon.

At every turn, the virus has outwitted us and exposed deep flaws in so many systems, from national governance to the lack of adequate preparation in terms of hospital beds. I see no reason to expect it won’t outwit us again.

If anything is obvious in the current moment, it is that no one really has a handle on what’s going on or what will happen next, but it won’t be good.

* * *

Risk elimination is a different project that depends on having privilege and money.

You can just stay home, limiting any encounters to curbside pickup and packages delivered by UPS and USPS. If you have the right provisions and can afford the rent, you can just live in a safe place, letting no one in. You can plan to let this tsunami of a virus wash over after a year or two and still be standing.

Because of the nature of my employment circumstances, I am prey to calculations of risk reduction. I can’t easily go the risk-elimination route when I am asked to come in and teach in person, and I am also not sure I should be any different from people who run cash registers or work as nurses or doctors.

I do understand how crazy it makes everyone to not be able to see one another without taking on a certain degree of the risk of dying from a very slippery disease, one we can’t tame yet.

The idea of risking one’s life in order to sell food at a grocery story or teach a class in person is in a certain way simply insane, but without people in low-paying jobs risking their lives everything would fall apart completely.

I’m taking things slow in this, and I signed up to be a journalist and teacher. I do know that if I get the virus it might kill me, or leave me impaired in fundamental ways, either physically or cognitively.

In a time when more than 100,000 Americans have died from the virus, with that number bound to double by the fall, I still have a lot of thinking to do about what I will risk — and what I won’t.

* * *

As I have thought about teaching online instead of face-to-face I have wondered about the relative merits of the two approaches.

I’ve taught long enough to have a theory about what it means to teach face-to-face with everyone wearing masks as opposed to teaching in the Hollywood Squares layout of online synchronous contact.

What we want is the paralanguage that allows teachers to build rapport with students. But physical gestures make sense only within the context of the complex play of emotions across the muscles of a person’s face. Without being able to see facial cues, hand gestures and body movements are essentially dramatic and meaningless.

Looking into someone’s eyes over a mask reminds me of the workshops I once ran for women who wore hijabs, in a couple of consulting stints in Riyadh. All I could read from these attendees was a certain amount of alertness, or maybe desperation.

On the other hand, online teaching actually worked well for me this spring. Almost all my students hung in, and they did great work.

While I understand the drive to go residential at colleges across the country — after all, we all built these expensive campuses — I sometimes think that it might have been wiser to have planned and prepared from the beginning to stay online for a full year.

That sort of step would have required laying off so many people and deconstructing essential elements of our strong academic programs.

So I understand why most colleges, including mine, will bring students back in the fall.

* * *

We are all called on in this moment to make difficult choices with missing information. We really don’t know what is coming next.

Life for all of us changed in fundamental ways, and the recent reopening has been a disaster in many states with policies that have approached COVID-19 with less caution than Vermont’s policies have been so far.

We suffer from a sort of collective trauma that is multi-dimensional. Right now, the coronavirus and the virus of racism are like meat in a pot filled with a stew of political insanity and the seasoning of the fear each of us holds within.

One strong element of these times is the fear of any reasonable person about how easy it is to catch the virus — or, even worse, to give it to someone else.

We have hard days ahead. We all have to make hard choices.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #570 (Wednesday, July 15, 2020). This story appeared on page B1.

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