POV: BU Should Go Fully Online This Fall
Forcing faculty and graduate teaching fellows back into the classroom is wrong
After shutting its doors abruptly when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March, Boston University plans to reopen in the fall.
In late May, BU unveiled its plan for a hybrid approach to classes under the Learn from Anywhere (LfA) model. In a letter sent to returning students outlining LfA, the University noted that undergraduate students may attend classes remotely or in person, to accommodate those who are ill, cannot travel, or are motivated “simply by a…desire to continue extreme social distancing.”
Faculty and graduate teaching fellows are faced with a tougher choice: Without a valid medical reason, they must teach in person or take a leave of absence. While those who do not fit into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s high-risk groups can apply for a workplace adjustment, such as moving a class to the spring semester, it is still unclear how many concessions will be granted.
There are clear ethical reasons why forcing faculty and graduate students back is wrong. More generally, reopening campus this fall is a mistake, both from a public health and a pedagogical standpoint.
Before we find a vaccine or cure for COVID-19, life cannot return to normal. While Massachusetts has flattened its curve, allowing large groups to congregate—say, on college campuses—will likely trigger a second wave. Inside gatherings—even with masks and hand sanitizing stations galore—are a real concern due to poor ventilation. As immunologist Erin Bromage explains, a COVID-19 infection occurs when you are exposed to enough viral particles. By Bromage’s estimate, just sitting in a room with an infected person for 50 minutes —the length of a typical class—means you can inhale enough viral particles to fall ill. (Note that a mask only blocks larger liquid droplets from a cough or sneeze, not smaller aerosols from breathing and talking.)
This scenario is not merely hypothetical. At BU, Sarabeth Buckley (GRS’20), who just earned a PhD from the Department of Earth & Environment, recently measured carbon dioxide concentrations in College of Arts & Sciences classrooms and found that they can reach three to eight times the normal levels when class is in session, indicating poor ventilation. Other scientists have documented how the virus spreads in confined spaces. For example, one study examined how a COVID-19 outbreak occurred in an air-conditioned restaurant in January 2020. During the time it took an asymptomatic infected person to have dinner with friends, they infected half of the people sitting at their table and 75 percent of the people at a downwind table. The six-foot rule does not apply inside: As Bromage states, “Social distancing guidelines don’t hold in indoor spaces where you spend a lot of time.”
A premature return to campus also puts the community surrounding BU at risk. Flattening the curve is not a green light to reopen. What it really indicates is that through precautionary actions—such as stay-at-home orders—we’ve avoided overwhelming our healthcare system, so far. Remove these precautions prematurely, and we risk undoing months of hard-won work to tamp down the virus. Winning the war against COVID-19 will require a concerted public health effort—and we must do our part. If this means sacrificing the residential college experience for another semester or two, so be it.
A large basis for reopening campus rests on pedagogical arguments: Many BU students feel that online learning is inferior. It is certainly true that learning (and teaching) behind a computer screen is not ideal. But again, we cannot forget that we are in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic—no part of living is ideal during this time. College instruction will be suboptimal, no matter the mode of delivery.
Furthermore, it’s not even clear that holding classes online will be pedagogically worse than having them partially in-person. Picture classrooms in the fall: Teachers will be wearing full personal protective equipment (masks, face shields, gloves, gowns) and trying to simultaneously address a half-empty classroom and a video camera. Students, too, will be in masks and distanced as far apart as possible, making it hard to speak up or for the teacher to gauge understanding. No one can move around the classroom or even drink water, which would require removing one’s mask. And forget partner work or group discussions.
Then, imagine that someone in the classroom tests positive. Anyone who has been in close contact with them—such as their in-person classmates and teacher—will have to be tested and possibly quarantined for two weeks. This situation could happen at any moment.
Consider also the implications of false-positive results—if you test positive but aren’t actually sick. BU’s new testing facility can process 5,000 tests daily. While the false-positive rate for these tests is still unknown, let’s conservatively assume it is 1 percent, based on similar tests. At this rate, 50 people who aren’t even sick would be sent into quarantine per day. Let’s also not forget about false-negatives—or the cases the test misses.
Online instruction has many benefits—and ironically, may provide more of a residential experience than the LfA approach. If classes are fully online, interactions will be far more natural without the barriers of physical distancing and masks and atmosphere of fear. Professors who taught remotely this summer noted surprising benefits—for instance, students who didn’t usually speak up in class contributed more via Zoom’s chat function.
We have less than two months left to prepare for the fall semester. Instead of fighting for the right to teach from anywhere, as teachers have been doing for the past month, this summer would be better spent properly developing courses for online delivery. Remote instruction is not simply a matter of posting a lecture online—there are research-based methods for effective online teaching. Given that a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in the fall is “inevitable,” even if we start the semester with LfA, it is probable that we will have to suddenly switch to fully remote anyway. Teachers will best serve the students by preparing the best online version of their course.
Residential education is at the heart of Boston University, and we all want—and will—return to campus someday. But until we have a vaccine or cure for COVID-19, that day cannot come.
Emily Chua (GRS’22) is a PhD candidate in the College of Arts & Sciences Department of Earth & Environment and a graduate writing fellow in CAS’s writing program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at email@example.com. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.