Teaching in the Age of Covid

Sunday, September 26, 2021

A month ago I began my thirteenth year of teaching at Montana State University. A number of my friends, seeing the skyrocketing Covid case load in Montana these days, and perhaps having also heard that it's mainly young people who are driving the pandemic here, have asked me lately how things have been going so far. 

To begin, let me say this: even with the end of summer looming, I have always looked forward to the beginning of the school year.  Mainly, I like seeing the students. No matter what else is going on in my life, thinking about the ones who care about learning something really motivates me to get back into the classroom. Seeing my colleagues has also been exceptionally pleasant this year. I've loved getting dressed for work, and even commuting from my new home in Belgrade has been enjoyable.

And this year I even won a welcome back gift-bag!

So, this part of school re-opening has been, frankly, really great. It had been 15 months since I'd spent a full day on campus, and the sense of being back and seeing everybody again was kind of overwhelming--in a good way. 

But things haven't been perfect, obviously, and approaches to dealing with the pandemic have varied across the country, ranging from mask-and-vaccine mandates with expanded options for online learning, to more laissez-faire approaches which merely "encourage" masks and vaccines and provide much more limited online options. 

At Montana State, we started back without a mask or vaccine mandate, and in my first day of classes I had probably 2-3 students out of 40 wearing masks. Two days into the semester our university president reversed course and mandated masks for all instructional areas--which I appreciated. Now, masks are also required for all other indoor areas on campus, including dorms. So, better late than never.

MSU football fans enjoying the action
on September 11, 2021

Yet the messaging has been mixed. Although we're all now wearing masks in class, there's very little social distancing taking place within these classrooms. In the undergraduate class I'm teaching this semester, I've got more than forty people crammed into a small room with no windows that I can open.  

Meanwhile, policies regarding online education have changed, both at my university and at others. Prior to the pandemic, MSU's administration--like those of many schools--encouraged its faculty to adapt more and more of our classes to an online modality--the thinking was that this was what students wanted. Now, however, only individuals who can obtain ADA waivers are allowed to do this. And because almost all classes are being taught face-to-face, smaller classes don't have the option of meeting in larger classrooms in order to socially distance, which is why I'm teaching in a classroom that's much smaller than it should be. 

The decision-making relating to online education at universities in this country stems, I think, from a perception that undergraduates do not want to take online classes right now. And indeed, a number of students complained to me last year about professors simply dumping their lecture notes and reading/writing assignments upon their students, without providing any actual instruction, so it makes sense to me that the university would try to rein this in.  

But online classes do not have to be bad. I know of numerous professors who responded to the pandemic with interesting, innovative ideas for teaching. Rather than prohibiting new online classes outright, I think it would be better to require faculty wanting to go online to demonstrate a plan for teaching those classes well. 

Nor do online classes need to be unpopular. The undergraduate online classes I taught last year were some of the biggest and best I've ever had. My spring 2021 100-level class, which typically grows at a pace of 5-6 students per year, expanded by more than 25% with 30 more students than had been enrolled the year before. This class was big precisely because it was offered online at a time when the university administration was already (in Spring of 2021) greatly limiting online education at MSU. 

I put a lot of thought into my online classes, setting up videos on Mondays, then giving students worksheets to fill out while they watched the videos--which I thought was very helpful in directing them toward the points that I considered to be more important. I also held synchronous discussion sessions over Zoom on Thursdays, and in some ways I felt that these classes were among my most effective ever. Not only did the class retain more students is usually the case, but also the writing my students produced for these classes was stronger than usual, as the online modality allowed more time for reading, writing, and research. The end-of-semester evaluations of my classes last year were all as good or better than usual.

And guess what? None of us passed on a virus to the rest of the class. 

Like most university instructors, I prefer teaching face-to-face to doing so online. However, there are lots of things that I usually do in my face-to face classes that I no longer feel comfortable with--such as putting my students into multiple pairwork and groupwork exercises, or having them move around the classroom to interact with multiple classmates, then getting into a circle. "Kinetic learning," as I used to jokingly refer to my in-person classes, has become a casualty of the virus. 

As a result of this, my face-to-face classes have become more lecture-oriented. Rather than have my students talk to one another in multiple sets of small groups while I walk around listening to what they're saying, now they stay in their seats and raise their hands in response to my questions. That's fine--the students have really been rising to the occasion here--but it also means that I hear less from some people. I used to hear every student--even the quietest ones--talk multiple times over the course of the semester, but now discussions are dominated much more by the minority of students who frequently raise their hands. I could do all of the pairwork and groupwork I want over Zoom, of course, but I have no choice in this matter. 

It feels inevitable that, despite the fact that I'm fully vaccinated, I'll catch Covid at some point during the school year. I'm 52 years old and, as far as I know, in good health, but this is still a concern for me--a fully vaccinated friend of mine has spent the last month getting over his "moderate" symptoms. It would be nice to be able to say that the health and welfare of faculty, staff, and students matter as much as maintaining undergraduate enrollment numbers at schools like mine, but in all honesty it doesn't feel that way.  

I'm hoping for the best, but I'd rather not have to. 


These are difficult times, obviously, and I realize that the sorts of decisions I've been talking about here are not easy ones to make. I'm not trying to demonize anybody. 

But at the same time, it seems pretty clear by now that trying to shoehorn everyone back into pre-pandemic work practices just because vaccines are available was a mistake, and that much more flexibility is needed. In the case of colleges and universities in particular, I think it's important to avoid top-down decision making that ignores the concerns of faculty and staff who, unlike most college administrators, work closely with dozens of students face-to-face every day. 

Universities need better leadership on this issue. So far, it feels like every step of the way we've been responding to events, rather than trying to be proactive in anticipating potential problems and working to prevent them before they arise. That was forgivable in the spring of 2020, but we've been living with this pandemic for eighteen months now. We're long past the point of being able to say we didn't see any of this coming. 


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