Well, suppose that the current shelter-in-place orders are done by sometime in June. Without the go-ahead for at least gatherings of fifty people or so, it’s really hard to imagine how you can even think about re-starting teaching, even on a partial basis. What do you tell students come June? Are you starting face-to-face or not?
Part of the problem is that different faculties face different challenges with respect to physical distance. Music faculties, for instance, arrange their instruction so that there is quite a lot individual or small group work, and they could probably make their programs work with max gathering rules at 25 or so. But clearly that wouldn’t work in Arts faculties. There are similar kinds of difficulties with respect to other areas of university services. Lots of services that deal with individual students (e.g. career services) could probably work in a max-gathering 25 situation, but you sure as heck could not run a big library that way (though conceivably smaller, faculty-specific libraries would work, if your campus still has those). Of course, any kind of large cafeteria or food court is right out. All of this suggests that even inside institutions, a return to normal is going to be staggered, and institutions need to think about how they would respond to different levels of reduction in distancing rules.
But, here’s maybe the bigger problem: this is going to be a dynamic process. What if we’re at max 50 in September, but we get the go ahead for any size of gathering come mid-October. Great , right? Maybe we would have to start the term in a remote teaching mode, but come October, we can just pivot right back to face-to-face! Certainly, this seems to be the hope of a number of people I’ve talked to, especially in the Sciences, where it is felt that this kind of arrangement might allow them to save the term with respect to ensuring that students can still do at least some labs in their courses.
But hold on a second, because this is less straightforward than it looks. The idea that you can pivot to face-to-face as quickly as we pivoted away from it last month rests on an assumption that students are actually able to show up on relatively short notice. And that’s an extremely dubious assumption. First of all, you have international students who probably can’t get to the country quickly, and second you have both international and domestic students who do not have permanent addresses in the institution’s immediate vicinity. I mean, just think of all those institutions with a couple of hours of Toronto (e.g. Waterloo, Brock, Queen’s, Trent) with student populations drawn to a substantial degree from the GTA: many of those students have gone home to live with their parents for the duration of the pandemic and will not have anywhere to live near campus if you suddenly tell them after Thanksgiving, “oh by the way, you need to be here next week”.
In this scenario, there are two ways of proceeding. You could try running courses in parallel (on face-to-face for those who are local, and one online for those who are not), but that seems like an awful lot of extra work to do well. Or – and this is where I think most institutions will end up – you could just say that however we start the next term is how we are going to finish it. If the institution is not able to go face-to-face to start the fall, it will not move back to face-to-face until January.
Now, just absorb that for a second. We are probably not going to have labs in fall term . I think a fair number of co-ops, internships, practicums, etc. are off the table until January as well. There are going to be some implications for graduation requirements here, with which everyone will need to grapple (do you really want to hold up a student’s graduation because their final internship is made impossible by an economy still in emergency-recovery mode?) But more importantly, there are a lot of courses which, as currently designed, simply cannot work this way. Lab classes are going to have to un-lab, basically. Or people are going to have to re-design both their fall and winter classes for next year, shifting more theoretical material to the fall and the more lab-based stuff to 2021.
This is an enormous drag. Which is why there will no doubt be pressure both inside and outside the institution to ignore all this nonsense and go back to face-to-face as soon as possible, to “save” the term for as many students as possible (I suspect, for instance, that local students might get quite annoyed at not being able to return to school because all those people from away – whether domestically or internationally – can’t get back quickly). And yet, I genuinely think that the right course, and indeed the one most institutions will end up taking, is to simply take the position at the outset of the term that if terms starts online, it is going to finish that way, too. It is neither feasible nor desirable to leave large numbers of students out of the return to face-to-face. Whatever else they might be, universities and colleges are communities. And communities need to stick together.
Unpalatable? Yes. The amount of work required this summer just to offer a semblance of reasonable provision in the fall is going to be immense (but face it, what else are you going to do this summer? Go to the beach? Travel?). But during a pandemic where healthcare workers and others are risking their lives every day, the post-secondary education sector will be judged harshly if it does not work hard to serve its students as diligently as humanly possible this fall.