What are the criteria for flipping a fall semester into a Toggle Term?

How will colleges and universities respond to on-campus infections this fall?

Previously I have posited three scenarios that describe how academic institutions might proceed during the COVID-19 pandemic.  One of them, Toggle Term, outlines a semester wherein campuses switch from some kind of face-to-face operations to wholly online instruction, echoing the March 2020 switch to remote education.

What would have to happen for an administration to decide to throw the switch?  What criteria need to be met for a Toggle event?  And will that threshold be openly published?

back to school_John Trever Albuquerque Journal 19 Jul 20

John Trever, Albuquerque Journal, July 19, 2020

To get started, the essential Robert Kelchen gives us all this prompt to consider:

If I was a college president, I would be crafting a plan that tied on-campus operations to data on coronavirus cases among the college community and in the surrounding area. Some of the metrics would include:

  • Number of known cases among students and employees
  • Number of known cases in the county
  • Capacity to quarantine on-campus students
  • Available space in local hospitals (beds, ICU space, and ventilators)
  • Fatalities could be a measure, but it is probably too gruesome to include even though all deaths may be impossible to avoid

A very good start for discussion.

What real-world examples are available now? So far most institutions have not openly proclaimed their Toggle intentions, as I’ve noted over the course of the summer.  Which makes some practical sense, since such a proclamation might scare off on-site enrollment.

Yet we can find hints in college and university publications.  Undergrad student and research fiend Benjy Renton found one precedent from Florida A&M, dated to late June.  In it three or more infections would trigger some kind of unspecified administrative response.

Elsewhere, a recent Wall Street Journal article by Melissa Korn and Douglas Belkin notes several potential Toggle triggers.  First, for students: “100 new infections a day has been discussed as one measure for triggering a renewed shutdown.”  That’s for Texas A&M University, which enrolls around 69,000, meaning a threshold of about 0.14% of the population.

Second, a trigger for faculty members: “‘If it was 100 professors a day, it would be game over,’ [Michael Young, president of Texas A&M University] said. ‘We can’t lose 20% of professors and continue to run the university.”  Going by Wikipedia, 100 profs is about 2% of that campus’ professoriate.

Korn and Belkin found several others.  Syracuse University has a set of tiered options based on rising infections by multiples of 10: 1-10 infected, 11-100, more than 100.  The >100 level is actually two tiers, one with “moderate” confidence in identification and tracing, and other with low confidence.  Only the latter amounts to a Toggle.  More than 100 infections with moderate tracing yields this response:

i. Impact on Campus Operations: This scenario may require the curtailment of operations in select programs or areas, but falls short of a campus-wide response. The objective is to reduce ongoing exposures by scaling down specific programs, buildings, and areas. Select programs move back into an online-only environment with non-resident students staying off campus, resident students staying in their rooms and non-essential affected employees working from home.

ii. Impact on Residential Life: Known exposures to quarantine, potentially in bulk (e.g. entire building or more). Infections move to isolation. Others shelter-in-place (stay and study in their rooms).

Note that these numbers are from the entire population, not broken down by profession or sector.

Also in the Korn and Belkin article is another Texan example.  The University of Texas-Austin cites “student death” as an event that “will result in a discussion of closure, partial closure or on-campus reduction.”  I think that’s one student death, singular, based on the phrasing.

UT adds other “considerations” with more detail than I’ve seen elsewhere:

Employee absenteeism with focus on critical areas such as environmental services (ability to maintain a safe, hygienic campus)
Increases in percent positives in testing…
Personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages impacting ability to test and care for COVID-19
Inability to adequately test for COVID-19 due to supply chain issues (e.g., collection kit, processing reagents)
Clusters: If the activity from clusters overwhelms our ability to quarantine/isolate and contact trace; Number, location and type of cluster (cluster in a single hall versus multiple, widespread)
Positive tests in excess of predicted model
Upward trajectory of ILI and COVID-19 syndromic surveillance within a 14-day period over baseline rates
Upward trajectory of documented cases or percentage of positive tests (with flat or increasing volume of tests) for 14 days
Increasing cases of community transmission (no known source) in student population
Degradation of containment capabilities

Note this subheader for the first item: “Acknowledges possible under-reporting by faculty and staff and serves as a marker for illness.”

The University of Washington case suggests a higher threshold for a Toggle.  They endured nearly 140 infections, almost all in fraternity houses, and still maintain a blended (albeit 80% online) fall plan.

On a related note, the NCAA shared its criteria for “the Discontinuation of Athletics”:

A lack of ability to isolate new positive cases or quarantine high contact risk cases on campus.
Unavailability or inability to perform symptomatic, surveillance and pre-competition testing when warranted and as per recommendations in this document.
Campuswide or local community test rates that are considered unsafe by local public health officials.
Inability to perform adequate contact tracing consistent with governmental requirements or recommendations.
Local public health officials stating that there is an inability for the hospital infrastructure to accommodate a surge in hospitalizations related to COVID-19.

On the other hand, maybe we really can’t offer such criteria now. David Feldman argues that we can’t set any such criteria at this point:

Or the threshold should be very low indeed.  I’m haunted by Tressie McMillan Cottom’s tweet:

I can follow up as I learn more.

Are any of you seeing such Toggle criteria?

(thanks to my wife, Lisa Durff, and Todd Bryant for linkage; John Trever link via a scan (I hope it’s ok; I’ll take it down if not))

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9 Responses to What are the criteria for flipping a fall semester into a Toggle Term?

  1. Tom Haymes says:

    This wouldn’t be near as much of a problem for 80% of the courses if we started with a learner-centered model of instruction instead of an institution-centered model of instruction. I proposed such a model (Hybrid Plus) centered on small Communities of Practice and nimble scheduling that would make it possible for learning to happen in small groups, both online and in-person (if possible), that would be adaptable to any situation with minimal disruption. Learning happens in the mind. Minds can be transported virus-free these days. http://www.ideaspaces.net/the-hybrid-plus-strategy/

    Most importantly, this is not a reactive strategy but rather a long-term plan for rethinking how we maximize and prioritize our precious time with students for learning in a Digital Age.

  2. Glen S McGhee says:

    Have you given any thought to measures of quality that straddle both sides of the Toggle? Where can I find online quality standards?
    I was very disappointed with the NC-SARA standards (a rip-off of C-RAC), but even NC-SARA would not apply to Toggle.
    Thanks, Glen

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Quality of teaching and learning: so far there’s a lot of silence.
      Quality Matters is being talked about in some ed tech circles.

      Coming up on the Forum: we’ll host an accreditor.

      • Glen S McGhee says:

        Yeah, I hope that I can make it.
        US Dept of Ed has already told the membership associations to do what they want by waiving existing online standards.
        “We also continue to permit accrediting agencies to waive their distance education review requirements … Accrediting agencies should document the process by which their decision-making body decided to waive or provide expedited review of distance education programs.”

      • Glen McGhee says:

        This report on Covid-era assessment has just been released. https://www.learningoutcomesassessment.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/2020-COVID-Survey.pdf

        Noticeably missing is any discussion of accreditation standards and accountability. In fact, lowering academic standards became a pivot theme.
        From the report, in connection with cheating: One respondent wrote, ‘before students even logged in remotely the first time, faculty believed academic standards were lowered, and that instead of making changes to how we assess students, theyreverted to more historical means of testing, proctoring, and reducing perceptions of cheating as opposed to changing assessment to reflect reality.’

        • Tom Haymes says:

          Sadly, I saw a lot of that with the faculty I worked with. I suggested a variety of more authentic assessment strategies but in the end they went with what they knew. This isn’t all that surprising given the crisis situation. What’s more disappointing is that, despite the time to pivot, I’m still seeing this in the fall. Unfortunately, we’re heading into another crisis semester having failed to plan for the worst-case scenario and now being faced with “unexpectedly” having to go online again. Authentic assessments, if structured properly, are in some ways more rigorous than traditional tests. To cite just one example, I t’s much harder to fake a video than to game a test. It’s also a genuine artifact of work rather than a proxy for understanding. In the spring this was understandable. In the fall it’s inexcusable but faculty have to be shown strategies for doing it. You have to have time for that, which many institutions have now squandered due to wishful thinking. Some faculty have pivoted on their own but a systematic effort was called for here to change the conversation.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            I’m seeing potential signs of that under the flag of mental health. Reduce stress on students.

          • Tom Haymes says:

            The students seem to be at the bottom of most peoples’ lists of crisis points this semester. There seems to be a lot more concern with maintaining existing structures in order to reduce stress on those running the systems. That’s also understandable but is leading to a lot of outcomes that are, charitably, less than student-centered. One of the nice byproducts of enrollment drops is that my institution is planning on running small sections and I plan on negotiating with my students how they want to proceed through the semester given the goals laid out for the class. My assessments were already designed to be as authentic as possible before Covid and with a clear rubric, lowered stakes, and an iterative process I hope to gently chide them through the semester. This worked in the spring, was refined in the summer, and will be further refined and iterated through the fall.

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