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Early Dispatches From the COVID-19 Classroom


The picture of students sitting on the floor, clearly not social distancing, made the rounds on Twitter and Reddit and prompted the university's associate engineering dean to write to all engineering faculty members, calling the incident "unacceptable" because it "created anxiety in the students and placed their health at risk."

Elsewhere, an adjunct instructor at a major university in the Midwest (who, by the way, would have lost her health insurance if she hadn't taught in person this fall) said that while her classroom is set up to ensure that students are at least six feet from one another, at marked spots, "they didn't make where I stand six feet from the closest student." She estimates that as close to the wall as she can comfortably be, she's four to five feet from the students in the front row.

And whether they're teaching in person or online, instructors almost uniformly cite as significant that students are anxious and "overwhelmed," and that certain things they view as important -- especially creating opportunities for interactive and active learning -- are hard to pull off.

But by and large, faculty members say the time they spent preparing to teach in whatever ways they are this fall -- be it in person, hybrid or online -- have them feeling more comfortable than they did in the spring's sudden shift to remote learning, which they believe is resulting (so far) in a smoother, better academic experience for their students.

"It seems like the first week went better than most of us thought it would go," says Lia Paradis, a professor of history at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, who is teaching an undergraduate course on, yes, pandemics.

Even the adjunct mentioned above (who requested anonymity because of her fragile employment status) says that the first week of in-person courses "went better than I thought."


Perhaps the most powerful early assessment of "how the fall is going" comes from Jessica Coblenz, an assistant professor of theology at Saint Mary's College, in Indiana. Her widely read Twitter thread last week offered her observations on the first few days of classes at her Roman Catholic liberal arts institution, and the one she highlighted first and foremost was her students' sense of being "even more overwhelmed than I expected."

Coblenz is teaching three hybrid courses this fall, and an optional "check-in" survey she offered students (she normally does such a survey at the midpoint of a semester, but added an initial one this term, given "the moment") elicited words like "helpless" and "out of control," she wrote. They are "frequently in tears."

Her other overarching findings: classroom conversations are possible in a physically distanced, "mask-to-mask" environment, even "inside with door and windows open for circulation," and teaching three hybrid classes that have essentially required her to split each course in half (because of classroom size limitations) means that she's essentially teaching six separate sections each week.


Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed