What about the fall?

I’m not quite done with grading — genetics is complete! — but yeah, I already have to think about Fall semester? Yikes. I’m expecting a resurgence of the coronavirus this summer that will be worse than what we had in the spring, because we a) don’t have adequate testing, b) don’t have a vaccine, and c) have a country infested with idjits who want to get a haircut no matter how many other people’s lives it puts at risk. Meanwhile, the universities are dithering about what to do. I have no idea what I’m expected to do come September, although we’re kind of mumbling about contingency plans.

This is a fairly clear-eyed view of the immediate future.

Higher education as we know it is approaching economic collapse. I appreciate the frantic gestures college presidents are making to prevent their own campuses from failing. Many intend to open their campuses for the fall term and avoid economic ruin. It is the wrong call.

Even the most optimistic of epidemiologists have two opinions about the remaining months of 2020: mass gatherings should be prohibited, and people over 55 and/or with pre-existing conditions should continue to stay indoors. We also know that individuals under 25 are least likely to become sick with the coronavirus and are most likely to flout requests to stay indoors, wear masks and avoid public places such as beaches and parks.

College presidents are unsure about what to do with their campuses in the fall, and uncertainty breeds anxiety. No one has a crystal ball, but with what we know, what should happen on the nation’s campuses in the fall is increasingly clear. The option of students returning to campus in the fall is not viable, regardless of the economic implications.

The author has some suggestions about what to do if we are open: cancel all those big stadium football games, make special provisions for faculty and students over 55 (we have to teach online, while the younger faculty teach in classes? I think he has an elevated opinion of the safety of young adults), constant testing (we don’t have a reliable, affordable test), and maintain social distancing in the classroom. OK, so I looked at my list of registered students for the Fall to see if that is feasible. Enrollments are down everywhere, right?

I’ll be teaching cell biology, which typically has about 50 students. It’s down a lot right now, with 35 students registered, although it will probably go up a little bit more over the summer. I’ve been assigned a huge lecture hall, so social distancing in class will be easy — I can put them in every 3rd or 4th seat, every other row, and have room left over. Lecture will be easy.

The problem will be labs. I have 3 lab sections for those 35 students, and we generally have students work in groups. That’s not going to work. Making it work would require major restructuring — break up the labs into more independent study sections, so we can separate them more? Even there, any infected students are going to spray fomites all over the microscopes and spectrophotometers. Need I point out, though, this is where the students who will one day be the front line in dealing with future pandemics will get their start?

I imagine our administration is freaking out.

Greater than 5 percent of the more than 4,000 U.S. colleges and universities are likely to close because of falling enrollment, according to Robert Zemsky. Many observers now predict that enrollments will shrink by 15 percent. The pandemic and the Trump administration’s xenophobia alone will shrink foreign student enrollment, especially from China and India, by 25 percent, the American Council on Education has estimated. Meanwhile, some states like New Jersey are already clawing back money from campuses that has been allocated for this fiscal year; next year’s budgets will be worse than the recession in every state. Philanthropic giving will take a nose dive. Summer and auxiliary enterprises will yield next to no additional revenue.

College presidents have a right to be terrified. But opening campuses in the fall is the wrong move if the primary motivation is to avoid bankruptcy. Public health comes first.

Right. Public health must come first. The answer ought to be a massive public investment in educational and medical infrastructure to keep us all limping along until this disease is overcome. Will we get it? No. It’s hard not to feel a sense of impending doom when we witness the government overseeing this disaster.

So, right now I focus on finishing this last semester, which already ended in a colossal pratfall. Once that’s done, maybe I can think about how to manage the next one.

Hey, rigorous training in how to clean and sterilize a workspace would be an appropriate first lab in cell biology, right?


  1. raven says

    Everyone is hurting during this pandemic, one way or another.
    The year 2020 will be a lost year for everyone.

    So how long is this pandemic going to last anyway?
    The estimates started out until March, 2020, by the illustrious almost MD who is president of the USA. “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear” in late February.
    Then it was the summer, then the fall.
    Maybe in a year. Maybe in two years.
    The latest guesses is maybe 4 years.

    No one knows when the Covid-19 pandemic will end.
    We should plan for a long, protracted campaign to get the cases down as far as possible, while we learn to live with what is now an endemic virus that is never going to completely go away.

  2. says

    Maybe I should have filed my retirement papers. My college has announced we’re fully online in the fall, with the possible exception of some in-person lab classes, if they can figure out how to do those. The campus has been buttoned up since March 18, with the exception of construction sites. (Good news! The STEM building will be ready on schedule. I was supposed to have two classes in it that won’t be meeting there after all.) In addition to my and other community college districts, the California State University and the University of California have announced online plans. It’s going to be a rough fall.

  3. raven says

    The universities should IMO, stop worrying about whether they should reopen or not, and start planning to survive for the next year or two.

    As dismal as this pandemic is, we will eventually come up with some combination of antivirals, vaccines, and strategies to coexist with the Covid-19 virus.
    We’ve done that with a lot of infectious diseases; the Black plague, measles, polio, HIV-1, TB, malaria, etc..

    The solution of internet remote learning is certainly going to be an option for many people.
    But it’s not going to work for every one.
    What if you don’t have a home to go to, with high speed internet?
    It happens.
    You left home to escape abusive parents as soon as you could. Your parents were old, and are now dead or in assisted living. Or they downsized and don’t have space. Or they are fundie xians and hate atheists and you have deconverted. You live with your partner.

    One huge population even now is foreign students.
    When the local universitiy closed down, they had thousands of foreign students, mostly from China.
    They are still there, commuting by internet from their Dorm housing.

    It’s probably going to be a mixture of remote learning and some sort of on site population.
    And, everyone is going to be making it up as they go along.

  4. Kevin Karplus says

    Bio labs are probably the easiest to restart, as you already need to teach sterile procedures and wear PPE. Adding masks to the PPE and requiring wiping down the benches and equipment before and after each lab is not a big change (and may improve student lab results, as they pay more attention to sterile techniques). Assuming 3-hour lab sessions, you lose about 5–10% of your time to the extra cleaning.

    Electronics labs are a little bit harder, as the only PPE we’ve had previously are shared safety glasses when soldering. We can go to individual, rather than shared glasses, but getting students to mask and to clean benches will be more difficult than in bio labs (assuming we can even get the necessary cleaning supplies). For my electronics lab, we can probably get one copy of the lab equipment per student (at a cost of about $400/student—though we already have enough equipment for about half the expected Fall class), but more advanced labs require equipment that we can’t afford to get multiple copies of.

    You have only 50 students normally in Cell Bio? Our freshman course has about 200–350 every quarter, and the junior-level cell bio course has around 90–250.

  5. Sean Boyd says

    It’s not just about the number of students present, but how to move them from place to place safely. My college will run in-person labs for health sciences majors over the summer (everything else will be remote.) Some of what they are requiring seems reasonable (filling out online questionnaires about health the night before), others less so (having temperature taken when arriving and leaving campus – not that it’s bad in and of itself, but by that point in time, the infected person has likely been spreading the wee beasties for a few days.) And, of course, there will be the standard distancing/hand washing/face covering requirements as well. But aside from just how to keep people getting unnecessarily close while IN labs, how do you get them from place to place? The plan for buildings on our campus is to have designated entrances and exits, to prevent cross-traffic. But many (most?) classrooms only have one entrance and one exit, and the same with most restrooms. And these are the logistical nightmares just for summer quarter, with only a small percentage of enrolled students needing to come to campus for any reason. When fall quarter hits, and we’re back at full enrollment, how can that be sustained, even if just for lab courses? Will lab sections have to be reduced in size to accommodate distancing? Can instructors keep up with so many lab sections, all while trying to keep lectures going as well? (Community college here, no grad students to run labs or recitations.)

    Bits of this remind me of a MOOC I took way back when edX was getting started. In fact, it was still MITx at the time. They offered 6.002, which is MIT’s introduction to electrical engineering class. It was interesting, I suppose. MIT made a big stink about how this was the “same” quality course material they offered in person (translation: MIT was hoping to make money, and way over-marketed the quality of the curriculum), which could only be considered true in the sense that it was an MIT professor organizing the lectures, and the same textbook as used on campus was available online. But HW was a joke…each question provided 5 attempts at a correct solution. Same on exams. (I’ve seen this with pretty much all online math classes…no testing of process, with complete focus on getting the right answer, as if that’s all math is about.) And the labs…it’s just not the same building electrical circuits by moving icons all across a monitor. Plus all of the in-person skills lost, like learning to solder and the like. And that’s for EE, which as lab courses go, is relatively simple to go online.

  6. garnetstar says

    We’ve already been asked if our fall classes are “essential” for in-person teaching, and to justify our response. I’m just lecturing, so that means I’ll be online all fall.

    But, in the spring, I’ll have a very crucial chemistry lab, that is needed to fulfill both chem major and univeristy requirements. Well, I can do everyone in masks, and, I hope, chemical face shields (they’re blast-resistant too, that never hurts), and they’re already in lab coats and glasses and permanent (not disposable) thick gloves the whole lab.

    Then, there are a million (well, 48) hoods in the room, the students work only in those and not on the benches, so the ventilation ought to be pretty good. And, we can just spray acetone or bleach (don’t I remember an expert recently recommending that?:)) all over every surface or just use them as air fresheners. Or hydrochloric acid: that ought to work. I wonder why no one’s ever suggested that we ingest that to cure the virus?

    My university has an emergeny fund, many millions, that they’re supposed to use only for “a one-time financial crisis”, but they’re refusing to use it now, they prefer to lay everyone off. I’m wondering what they’re waiting for, global thermonuclear war?

  7. rhebel says

    My biggest question as an educator is why EVERYONE who was eligible to retire did not? In my great state of Wisconsonssippi, educators aged 55 and older as of the school calendar year could have retired, and yet at least 50% of my colleagues who are of age did not. Granted, we have a fully solvent (well, as of last look) retirement system, and many states do not, but why would your risk your life going back if you don’t need to? (And don’t give me any bullshit about your love for the students/education/etc. I have that too, but am a few years away–if I could get out, I would–maybe it’s just my own self preservation at work) Any thoughts, those of you who could have gone but did not?

  8. garnetstar says

    rhebel @8, I lost of lot of my retirement money in the crash. I wasn’t quite where I needed to be beforehand, now I’m behind. I don’t have a pension system, my money’s all invested, and the state’s quite broke anyway, I don’t think they’ll be paying almost anyone’s pensions.
    So, looks like I’m here for more years.

  9. nomdeplume says

    And back in the real world the US President, whose name I forget, is boasting about a new sooper dooper missile “17 times” faster than the present ones. Apparently the new Russian ones will only do 5 times, so U.S.A./U.S.A. MAKE GREAT MISSILES AGAIN! The man (is it Donald something?) is a rocket scientist, right?

  10. auntbenjy says

    I’m a teaching tech in a first year pre-med class. We have over 2000 students in the first year. We are well placed for lectures, as we already had them recorded from last year, but labs are another beast entirely. We normally have 108(ish) students in lab streams that run over 2 week cycles. To distance enough, we’d have to drop that number down to 36, and run 1 hour labs instead of 3 hour labs. The PPE required will destroy our budget. If we can’t run labs, there is literally nothing for me to do until next year, so bye-bye job. I still think it would be better not to run labs.

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