Students Should Not Be Reunited in the Fall on Campus

The reality—and risk—of going back to school

covid classroom
While the “flipped classroom” has been discussed in pedagogical circles for years, it is now a must. Kacy Burdette

With coronavirus cases hitting new highs in recent weeks, the reality of bringing together millions of Gen Zers from all over the country while expecting social distancing and mask protocols to be followed is likely a fantasy.

Despite the risks, universities have good reason to strive for in-person instruction. An entirely online model could lead many students to either take a gap year or sit the semester out and hope to return to normal in 2021. That would cost universities billions. (It is no coincidence that Harvard and Princeton were two of the first universities to announce an online only model; they have the highest endowments and are better poised to weather a financial storm.)

Another reason is that college is as much about the social experience as it is the educational one. The connections you make not only with your fellow students but with your professors last a lifetime. Those are challenging to build and maintain virtually (sorry Zoom). As difficult as it was to shift to an online learning environment in March, trust had already been built with my students. We truly felt like we were all in it together. As someone who also teaches online, building those relationships virtually is not impossible, but it is different and difficult.

While online learning may be different, it can still be valuable. And lives depend upon it.

All of that, however, ignores the real risk posed by reuniting thousands of students on campuses around the country. Universities are using their codes of conduct and pledges to encourage students to follow all of the social distancing systems that are being put in place. Those include single-only dorm rooms, hybrid classes where only half the students are physically in class, arrows in the hallways like your local grocery store and admonitions against large parties. All of these policies make sense—on paper.

The universities are truly between a rock and a hard place. Fully online classes puts enrollment rates at risk and can be seen as an over-reaction and delivering an inferior learning experience. Those who are bringing students back to campus are betting on the ability to control behavior and manage the risk of infection. If they are right, they will benefit from delivering on their promise. However, if they’re wrong, they risk being seen as reckless.

If one of the advantages of returning to campus is the social aspect of the college experience, why would you come back and not socialize? Many who support a return to in-person classes often rely on the theory that young people tend to suffer less severe cases of Covid-19 if they do contract it. Whether that is true or not, they will still be carriers who will be interacting with people who tend to be older. According to a study by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, over a third of faculty members are over the age of 55, and college professors are twice as likely to be over 65 (13% versus 6% in the total U.S. workforce).

The students also participate in the local economy, another upside of bringing them back to campus. But is it prudent to bring populations from areas where cases are surging to cities and towns that followed stringent guidelines and have brought the pandemic under control?

Whether your university or your child’s year starts fully online or in person or as a hybrid model, if protocols are not maintained, there is a high likelihood that we will end up as we did last spring, back to online learning. I don’t think that is a bad thing.

Anyone who graduated from college in May can attest, today’s working environment requires strong virtual work skills. Most of the major tech firms have announced that working from home will be a permanent fixture, whether mandated or optional. Many companies are seeing higher than expected productivity from WFH, which foretells future savings in travel and real estate costs. Learning those skills now will be beneficial in the future. I saw tremendous creativity from my students last spring in presenting their final projects via Zoom.

I am also seeing a great deal of creativity from professors as they find ways to engage students in an online environment. While the “flipped classroom” has been discussed in pedagogical circles for years, it is now a must. Many of the innovations being tried in the virtual classroom today could and should be carried into the future when in-person learning is once again safe.

The future will bring a greater reliance on tele-conferencing than was accepted in the past. That means that the students of today will have to learn how to present themselves, build relationships and perform in a virtual environment. Online learning is a great place to begin to hone those skills. There is no shortage of stories of people who seem to have forgotten that they are in a professional setting and the camera is on.

We all want to hit the reset button on 2020, but I am reminded of the parable of the Chinese farmer: “We never really know whether an event is fortune or misfortune. We only know our ever-changing reactions to the ever-changing events.” While online learning may be different, it can still be valuable. And lives depend upon it.

@MadAdProf Beth Egan is an associate professor of advertising at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and is a member of our Adweek Academic Council.