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Senior Vice Dean Steven Cohen: Back to School During a Pandemic

When we left campus and began teaching on Zoom in mid-March, many of us assumed by September, COVID-19 would be behind us. We were wrong.

I can hardly believe this is still going on, but the virus persists and while we wait for medical technology to save us, we walk around with masks and awkwardly keep our social distance. Politicians all over the world have tried to balance reopening the economy against eliminating this virus and many got it wrong. Few did as badly as U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration and as a result, the United States has more disease and death than any other nation in the world. We have over 6.2 million cases and nearly 190,000 deaths. Here in New York, we have succeeded in driving down the rate of infection and death, but we are terrified that we will fall victim to visitors from other states who refused to take the draconian steps that we did and will come here after Labor Day and bring their disease with them. Universities typically welcome students from all over the nation and all over the world in September, but this fall finds universities like the one I work for opening gingerly, with care and great caution. Some of those that failed to open carefully have already closed down. Students violating health rules are being expelled from school.

Nevertheless, we are slowly reopening schools in New York City and State and part of our teaching will involve face-to-face (or mask-to-mask) education. At Columbia University, we have invested millions of dollars in equipment, training and staff to deliver what we are calling hy-flex classes. These are classes that students can attend in person (sitting in class, mask-clad with laptop computers), or virtually — participating on Zoom or watching a class recorded on the university’s website. I am fortunate that my university has the resources and the determination to continue functioning in this difficult environment. Most of our new students have decided to begin their studies and nearly all of our continuing students are returning to class this week. But too many have been forced to defer their education. While strict testing and quarantine practices could allow students to safely come to New York and study here, travel restrictions and the State Department’s glacial process of approving student visas have prevented many international students from traveling here. Many will join us online, but a large number have decided to delay their studies.

In some cases, students and their families have suffered health reversals due to the pandemic, and in other cases, the damage they’ve incurred has been financial. Some students moved back with their families at the start of the pandemic and are helping with childcare, eldercare or otherwise helping their families deal with the impacts of the pandemic. Some of these students have told me that they would not feel right leaving home to pursue their own education and professional advancement while their families struggle. Some of these students are dropping down to part-time study online and will juggle home and school responsibilities this fall.

While universities may manage to function during a pandemic, K-12 education faces more significant challenges. One of the roles of all education: K-12, college and graduate school is socialization and personal growth. All of us, in school and out, feel a sense of loss and isolation due to our need to practice social distance. But there is little question that for young children the need for social contact is most acute. For young children, online learning is a particularly inadequate substitute for classroom learning. Children from families without wealth face issues related to inadequate nutrition, nonexistent broadband, the absence of a computer, and the lack of a quiet workspace. Moreover, the children of front-line workers who cannot “work from home” are at a grave disadvantage in learning outside of classrooms. While some schools have far more resources than others, for many children, even poorly equipped schools are safe havens where they can interact with peers and educators.

Schools all over the country have been spending scarce resources to make their facilities less prone to virus transmission. They are adjusting their schedules and layout and trying to ensure testing, isolation and tracing. The absence of national policy and federal resources has ensured that in many, if not most places, schools have failed to prepare properly to prevent disease transmission. Many parents are afraid to send their children to school and in many places, they have reason to be scared.

While New York City’s testing, tracing and isolation program has been slow to start and is riddled with problems, at least it exists. This past spring, New York State and City had the highest rate of virus transmission in the United States, now we have one of the lowest rates. Most New Yorkers remember the horror of March and April and wear masks and practice social distancing. I haven’t been in (or even outside) a restaurant since March. But as we begin to congregate in classrooms and as colder weather requires us to spend more time indoors, all of us need to be careful to protect each other from this virus.

With educators and students slowly emerging from their homes and yards, our governments and institutions must keep close track of the number of positive tests, hospital admissions, and deaths due to COVID-19. We need to do now what we failed to do at the start of 2020. If the disease spikes, we need to take steps to alter our behaviors. Until a therapy or vaccine is developed, we will find ourselves at the mercy of this difficult and highly contagious virus. As educators and scholars, we are determined to move forward and continue to create new knowledge and teach what we know.

Tonight, I will teach the first session of my fall semester course in Sustainability Management. Eighty-five students are enrolled, and about 45 have opted for face-to-face learning, while 40 will learn online. Even though the classroom I am teaching in has 110 seats, only 25 people can be in the room adhering to social distance rules, and so my face-to-face students will attend in person every other week and attend via Zoom when they are not allowed in the classroom. Everyone in the room will wear a mask, will have been tested negative for COVID-19, and filed a report that day on an app that questions them about their health.

My class meets from 6-8 PM and involves discussion of management cases and concepts. In a pre-COVID world, students faced each other in the classroom and could discuss the class informally as they travelled home or out for dinner. This year, the out-of-class interaction will be different. Informal communication is replaced by more frequent arranged appointments. I use Zoom’s breakout rooms to facilitate small group discussions. I find that students learn as much or more this way but are less happy with the experience. Like many others, I find that teaching this way requires a determined and sustained effort. While I’ve been teaching for over four decades, I find that many of the teaching techniques I’ve learned over the years must be modified in this environment. Still, being in a classroom, even with a mask and with many of my students online, provides a semblance of normalcy and I am grateful for the opportunity. I’m sure many other educators feel the same way — a mix of anxiety, fear, curiosity and relief as we slowly find the “new normal.” 

 

This post was originally published on The Earth Institute's State of the Planet Blog. 

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