It is August 19th, 2020, and fall semester is rushing upon American higher education. The past few weeks have seen a series of developments, from schools offering
rebatesdiscounts to some campuses opening up and experiencing infection spikes to others wrestling with criteria for returning online. A large number of colleges and universities changed their minds about fall plans, switching from face-to-face to online. Yesterday we had our first Toggle Term case in the wild.
Things are happening fast.
Everything that follows is drawn from the open web: journalism, press releases, campus dashboards, public emails. I’m also hearing off the record stuff from dozens of people across the country, on background. That influences me, but I won’t cite it. (And some is awful.)
On a meta, personal note: normally I try to write calmly, analytically, without much of myself in the sentences. It’s getting harder to do that now. Potential harms are escalating and becoming more real every hour, and that’s hard to react to unemotionally. I find my prose tending towards rage or sarcasm more than usual. At the same time I’ve been in overwork mode for… months, really since the pandemic began, and I worry that accumulated fatigue will warp my writing. Let me know what you think, dear reader.
So what development have hit in the past 20 hours or so? Like Gaul, this post is divided into three parts. Buckle in, because it’s a long ride:
I. TOGGLE TERM TIME
Several American colleges and universities have switched fall instruction from in-person to online. Rising infections and the case of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill seem to be the inspirations for these campuses to enter what I’ve called the Toggle Term scenario.
To explain: as COVID-19 infections rise, campuses that have re-opened for face to face education run the risk of hosting illness, injuries, and death. They also risk further infections and human costs. Thus the option of switching to wholly online education, as they did this past spring, becomes increasingly attractive.
On Monday I suggested that UNC’s decision might inspire other Toggles.
On Tuesday the University of Notre Dame announced that in-person classes would be “replaced by remote instruction only for the next two weeks” for the next two weeks.
Here is what their own dashboard displays. Note the rising curve:
I wrote “rising” last night. Here’s what the dashboard looked like then:
So Notre Dame will teach online for two weeks. That means if they return to in-person in September, or a second throw of the Toggle.
ND will also do these things:
Until further notice, off-campus students should not visit campus. On-campus students should refrain from leaving campus except under emergency circumstances.
Student gatherings off or on campus are restricted to 10 people or fewer.
All research laboratories, core facilities and libraries remain open to graduate students, faculty and staff.
The COVID-19 Response Unit, the University Testing Center and Notre Dame’s quarantine and isolation facilities will remain fully operational.
All students, faculty and staff are reminded to complete their daily health checks.
Varsity athletic teams that are subject to routine surveillance testing may continue to gather for sanctioned activities according to established protocols and will be closely monitored.
Will Notre Dame return to in person after two weeks, or will that period extend?
I am watching for further Toggle instances. Please let me know if you see signs of others.
II. SWITCHING TO COVID FALL
This week several colleges and universities came close to enacting Toggle Terms, but fell short. They did switch out fall plans, but didn’t Toggle only because they hadn’t yet started classes.
Michigan State University, for example, announced it wouldn’t welcome people back to East Lansing. Note the social logic in that announcement:
given the current status of the virus in our country — particularly what we are seeing at other institutions as they re-populate their campus communities — it has become evident to me that, despite our best efforts and strong planning, it is unlikely we can prevent widespread transmission of COVID-19 between students if our undergraduates return to campus. (emphases added)
They are basing this decision on what’s going on at other campuses. Call it academia’s herd mentality or the science of watching experiments.
In New York, Ithaca College is also taking a COVID fall. Their statement emphasizes unpredictability: “we have learned from watching other communities how delicate this equilibrium is, and how quickly it can be disrupted.” President Collado also warns against a Toggle Term:
it is easy to foresee the likelihood of a public health trajectory that would mandate the closure of the college due to circumstances beyond our control. Bringing students here, only to send them back home, would cause unnecessary disruption in the continuity of their academic experience.
Others have this option available. Here are infection rates from the University of Florida’s dashboard. They don’t start classes for another 12 days:
259. 231 are students. That’s a tiny proportion out of 52,492 on-campus students (Wikipedia), barely 1/2 of 1%. But if that number rises like we’re seeing elsewhere…
III. FACING STUDENT INFECTIONS AND DEATHS
Meanwhile, two universities are still planning on face-to-face education this fall, and are now wrestling openly, publicly, with the possibility – or likelihood – of killing people, including students.
Yesterday a Yale News article outlined that university’s plans to open up, starting by discussing some internal research finding that those plans should succeed, keeping infections under control. It’s not a cheap strategy, as it involves”the University shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars, potentially millions, to set up eight new testing sites within residential colleges and hire extra staff, Dean of the School of Public Health Sten Vermund said.”
Yet at the same time the world could upset those campus plans. “[W]hen it comes to COVID, there is no ‘Yale-only’ bubble. An outbreak anywhere in the region could place the University at risk, forcing a school shutdown before the virus comes to campus.”
That could be a local outbreak:
“Additionally, because the campus is intertwined with the city — even bisected by Elm Street — though undergraduates are tested every few days, there are large swaths of city residents and sophomores living off campus who the school won’t test and who could possibly be part of an outbreak…”
Or it could be regional:
“With the frequent testing I’m positive that we’re going to be able to detect outbreaks, hopefully we’re going to be able to control them, but what I’m really kind of concerned about is not just what’s going to happen here at Yale, but what’s going to happen in Connecticut, in the region,” [Albert Ko, department chair and professor of epidemiology] said. “If we have a big outbreak in New York, I think we’re going to have to make hard decisions and hard looks at what we’re going to do here in Connecticut.”
Perhaps anticipating this, one administrator/professor send a particularly dark email:
In a July 1 email to Silliman College residents when Yale first announced its plan to reopen on-campus housing, Head of College and psychology professor Laurie Santos warned Yale’s “community compact” was not to be taken lightly, treated like some course readings and skimmed for main ideas. She explained that some staff members are from sectors of society that are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and that they do not have the choice of whether to come to campus. At the time, Yale was planning to test returning students once per week — a plan that the University modified several weeks later, when it announced that it would instead test students twice weekly.
Here’s the bit that gets me, that flabbergasts me:
“We all should be emotionally prepared for widespread infections — and possibly deaths — in our community,” Santos’s email reads. “You should emotionally prepare for the fact that your residential college life will look more like a hospital unit than a residential college.”
On the one hand, this echoes Robert Kelchen’s brilliant tweet:
For students who choose to live on campus in the fall, I'm increasingly thinking campus life will be a combination of a monastery and a minimum-security prison. https://t.co/MEFhQrv7iO pic.twitter.com/CiVK36ULJS
— Robert Kelchen (@rkelchen) July 6, 2020
“For students who choose to live on campus in the fall, I’m increasingly thinking campus life will be a combination of a monastery and a minimum-security prison.”
On the other hand… we have a campus leader openly telling students to prepare for infections, injuries (implicitly), and death. Deaths, plural. This is the clearest sign I’ve seen of a university openly acknowledging that its pandemic plans admit the possibility of people dying, and still persisting in those plans.
A BoingBoing poster links this academic statement to a broader sense of American culture and politics:
We’re past the point where the people in charge have decided widespread death is necessary for the financial wellbeing of American institutions, and at the point where they’re calmly explaining to us the terms and conditions of our demise.
Is that right? Is our tolerance for death ramping up, as we see in the history of plagues, but accelerated by politics?
That’s Yale. Penn State comes close to offering another example of this open acceptance of avoidable death.
Recently a group of Penn State University faculty urged that institution to shift to remote learning. That’s because their data and projections augur student deaths. I’m not exaggerating:
That report includes a scholarly paper, published by scientists. I think this is a version of the paper, appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Association. A bit of background on them:
faculty in the College of Engineering and the Eberly College of Science have been studying testing plans and data modeling conducted at other universities. These models include work done at Yale, Harvard, Cornell, University of Illinois, and other institutions, made available by the authors and discussed and debated both within their local university communities and in the Epidemiology literature. Some of these models were used by universities in the Boston area to design their testing strategies.
So we’re not talking about people lacking experience or professional capacity in this topic.
I can’t think of the last time I’ve written about American university faculty calling for a university to shift classes online, because said university’s policy will kill students.
In response, the university’s official spokesperson at first disagreed with the coalition:
“This latest, anonymous communication in their advocacy effort fails to properly account for critical factors like contact tracing and adaptive surveillance approaches. The university has been transparent about its plans, which have been developed with faculty scientists who are health and supply chain experts to significantly exceed the Pennsylvania governor’s guidance for return to campuses. “The university’s plans include a layered approach to symptomatic and asymptomatic testing, partnerships with multiple testing partners, contact tracing, provision of quarantine and isolation space, continuous management through a COVID Operations Control Center led by a qualified and experienced director, and more.”
Did you catch the quick slam on the group for being anonymous? But read on:
After this story was published, Powers added: “The university has developed a model that allows us to dynamically predict, monitor and take necessary mitigation steps up to, and if needed, a return to remote instruction, as was stated in the town hall. This requires constant assimilation and review of the many data sources, which were described by Dr. Barron and Dr. Kevin Black.” (emphases added)
Did you catch that? After this statement went live, Penn took pains to carefully open the door to a Toggle Term: “if needed, a return to remote instruction…” For Penn State University a Toggle Term is officially on the table. I do wonder what occurred after the article’s first version hit the streets. Did enough howls of protest drive the second statement?
There is also a transparency issue here, along with a potential climate problem:
One Penn State professor, a co-author of the reports, spoke to the Centre Daily Times on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution by the university….
They also took exception to Penn State’s claim of transparency, noting that the university has not publicly released its own simulations, which prompted CJU/PSU to run and release theirs.
Penn State declined to provide the results from its own models when asked by the CDT.
How do we respond to such statements and plans?
One university’s faculty took a step:
At Appalachian State University, the Faculty Senate voted in favor of a resolution to hold the UNC system Board of Governors and Appalachian State chancellor Sheri Everts responsible for any illness or death that occurs as a result of reopening.
I don’t know what that amounts to in practice. I could imagine it leading to a no-confidence vote. Beyond that I don’t know App State well enough to forecast.
I know from tracking the Yale and Penn State stories across social media that they elicit outrage and horror. I don’t know how influential that is. If campus leaders are making decisions based on financials and/or politics, bad press won’t impact them unless it yields financial and/or political results.
Summing up: American higher ed is approaching fall through multiple strategies. My three April scenarios are in play, especially COVID Fall and Post-Pandemic, plus the blended fourth. I’m watching for more Toggles. COVID Fall is in the lead, with about one third of colleges and universities doing it, according to the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s tracker.
Still, 24% have yet to make a decision. One quarter of American higher ed hasn’t determined their choice. Even now, as we hit August’s last week!
And the infections mount up. How many campuses will carry that communal viral load into December?