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Op-eds, Opinions

Litman ’20.5: Remote Learning Won’t Be Easy, But It’s the Safest Option We Have.

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Sunday, July 5, 2020

Lately, I’ve been imagining the next time things will feel “normal” again, and the visions I conjure up are blurry, ill-formed and inexact; watercolors with murky paints and flooded lines. Take a survey of these past months alone: millions infected, hundreds of thousands dead, people wielding arms in state capitols, Black people murdered and their names chanted on the streets, police tear-gassing and clubbing protestors and journalists alike, a stock market rising while the number of unemployed grows, masks, gloves, averted eyes. The only comfort I take in this disorienting time is the thought that, maybe, this is what change feels like.

But even amid the necessary social and cultural upheaval, I seek a return to normal, at least back to the time when I could hug my friends instead of waving from my car window, when the news wasn’t just an updating ticker of how many have been infected and how many are now dead. I bet everyone at Brown does too, given the recent University polling results: 84 percent of returning students said they would enroll next semester if the University proceeds with a “normal academic calendar and welcome(s) all students back to campus in the fall.” But I’m not sure that reopening campus will bring us the relief we hope it will. The Brown we return to, whenever that may be, will look drastically different than the one we left in March. Colleges planning on in-person fall semesters, such as Middlebury, Yale and Cornell, have already instituted physical distancing guidelines, mask policies, take-out only dining halls, hotel housing and single-occupancy dorm rooms. For colleges — institutions designed to encourage face-to-face discussion, academic and club gatherings, a shared-living experience as well as a collaborative learning environment — a physically-distanced and mask-enforced semester seems antithetical to their entire purpose.

With cases rising in the South and West of the United States, I hesitate to rush to reopen campus in the fall. President Paxson’s April op-ed in the New York Times juxtaposed the wellbeing of students with the economic wellbeing of Brown as a private university, glossing over the professional and financial incentives she has as University president to reopen campus. And this kind of rhetoric, that things “must” reopen, only rushes and undermines the safe reopening of public spaces, potentially overwhelming local and state hospitals and jeopardizing public safety.

In a May New York Times opinion piece titled “No One Knows What’s Going to Happen,” Columbia professor Mark Lilla wrote that we are living in a “state of radical uncertainty.” There is no telling how many of us will become infected or when a vaccine will become available to the public. But Professor Lilla argues that instead of speculating on the future — Will we still shake hands, kiss each other on the cheek, say “God bless you” after a sneeze? Or will we grimace, shift away and keep our distance? — we should focus on our present actions: how we behave, how we test and how we treat. It’s easy to get caught up in what the future will look like but we first have to grapple with our present. If we rush ahead, then we risk causing further harm. Daily cases are at record highs in places such as Texas and Florida, likely because state officials underestimated the virus’ ability to spread and began their reopening processes too soon.

I worry about the University’s ability to test and trace in a pandemic, and admittedly, our ability as a student body to follow the health guidelines on and off-campus, at parties and gatherings. Are we really going to turn someone away from a space if their presence crosses the 25 or 50 person limit? While the University likely plans to test students upon arrival and conduct random testing throughout the semester, testing is only one aspect of containing this virus. What happens when a student gets sick? The virus’ effects are generally mild among a student demographic, but what if a handful of us get infected and the virus spreads to other parts of our community, like faculty, maintenance staff, dining hall staff or the larger Providence community? Last March, we had to abruptly move out due to an increase in cases in the area, which included a faculty member. What if that happened again? What’s changed besides a run of 45,000+ daily new cases?

In a press release detailing Cornell’s plans to reopen campus in the fall, their President Martha E. Pollack stated that, “‘Residential instruction, when coupled with a robust virus screening program of the form we intend to implement, is a better option for protecting the public health of our community than a purely online semester.’” I remain unconvinced as to how bringing back students from across the country and placing them in a small residential community is the “better option” for safeguarding public health. A screening program does little to mitigate the effects of becoming seriously ill, or of falling behind on coursework as a result. If colleges are mostly relying on testing to keep their campuses safe, I fear for the person who eventually gets sick.

I recognize that for many students, remote learning was awful and remains an unfeasible option. During a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting communities of color, in a country where the wealth gap between the richest and the poor is growing, learning on your own without adequate resources is a herculean task. In the midst of a pandemic, education, supposedly the great equalizer, is exacerbating and exposing the inequalities that hinder far too many folks. It should be no surprise that those who are the most routinely marginalized are the ones suffering the most in a pandemic. The wellbeing and safety of all students, but particularly those who might identify with these circumstances, should be the University’s highest priority. If the University pursues an online semester, those students should be able to return to campus if they want to and be provided housing and dining. The University could create small “family” groups for these students and arrange for them to have a faculty advisor/mentor who frequently checks-in. Even then, there is the possibility that those students could contract the virus. But it would be easier to contain the virus’ spread among a couple hundred students rather than a couple thousand.

While remote learning might seem like an undesirable option, as only 47 percent of returning students said they would complete an online semester, there are ways to make this format as effective as a limited, on-campus semester would be. For students like myself, who are lucky enough to have safe homes to go back to and the time and space to dedicate to coursework, it would be up to us to reach out to friends and peers alike who might be struggling or who we know are struggling. Make discussion groups that meet after class a few times a week; check in with classmates regularly; have book clubs; supplement the curriculum with movies, articles, workshops. This can even translate into the communities and people outside of the University: offer up a spare room (if you have one) as a study space for neighbors and friends of friends; tutor; check in on those around you. While the federal response to the virus has been lacking, we can institute the reforms and plans we want to see in our local communities and care for those the system often neglects. I believe this kind of outreach and initiative would be necessary regardless of whether we’re separated by computer screens or six feet of space. A time of “radical uncertainty” calls for radical empathy.

I don’t think any option for the fall semester is perfect, but I think the safest option we have for next semester is to continue online learning. With a few months of experience on Zoom, and a summer that hopefully produced new ideas from faculty on how to create a more engaging and supportive learning experience, I don’t think the fall semester would be a wash. The responsibility lies on us as members of the Brown community to ensure that it isn’t one, to support our peers and feel a shared responsibility for the well-being of those around us, regardless of what learning option the University decides to pursue.

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