With COVID-19 still lurking, educators around the United States are preparing to return to classrooms, and in some places, their return is already underway. At Columbia, I direct the Master’s program in Environmental Science and Policy, and over sixty students have been in our classrooms since the day after Memorial Day. We are all tested and vaccinated, and we all wear masks in class. While I could do without teaching in a mask, it still beats Zooming. Some of our international students were slow in arriving due to visa and travel restrictions, but as our summer semester ends, all of them have arrived. This summer, we’ve taught all our classes in “Hy-Flex” with both video and in-person instruction, but next semester, all our required courses will be completely in person.
In the other program I direct, the Master’s in Sustainability Management, about half of our courses will be “Hy-Flex” this fall to accommodate those students who will not arrive in time to begin the semester and to help those students whose first year of graduate study was completed online. We’ve all learned a lot about teaching online, and I believe it has an important place in professional graduate education, but I also know it is less useful for K-12 and undergraduate education. This is because pre-graduate education is as much about socialization and growing up as it is about “book learning.” In low-income neighborhoods, education is also about ensuring the health, nutrition, and well-being of students. This requires that people be together in a school that provides a range of crucial services.
These past eighteen months have been painful for young students denied live access to teachers, classmates, and classrooms. We are a social and tactile species. We learn from each other’s expressions and body language. The impact of the absence of in-person education for young children has not been fully studied, but I would be surprised if much good has come from this period of isolation. Many of us have adapted and managed to adjust our lifestyle to these changed conditions, and our creative adaptations will certainly provide long-term benefits. But they were choices made of necessity and we should not confuse them with choices made when we had real alternatives.
For graduate professional education, there is a whole industry designed to sell students on the idea that online education is more convenient, less expensive, and just as good as face-to-face learning. It’s not. It has a place in teaching and learning and it is useful when face-to-face education is infeasible, but there is no substitute for live interaction. I often say that in graduate school, I learned more in bars and cafes than I learned in classrooms. And that’s not to say the classroom time wasn’t incredibly valuable. But the out-of-class interaction with other graduate students often focused on more detailed discussion of concepts introduced in the classroom. Sure, we spoke about sports and social stuff, but we were all going through a collective learning process, and we often debated and taught each other. An accommodation to the need for face-to-face interaction has developed in many of Columbia’s (and other universities) online programs. These programs begin and end with a short period of residency at the university, where students meet and engage with colleagues and faculty. These intensive residencies help make the online classes and associated group work more effective. During the pandemic, we had to shift these “residency” sessions to Zoom, and they worked well but still did not accomplish everything that in-person meetings are designed to achieve.
To keep our students and faculty safe, educators all over America have worked very hard to develop alternatives to in-person learning. America’s teachers have put in long hours, made house calls, and struggled daily to educate and connect with their students. There are many success stories, but sadly many students, particularly those from underprivileged households, have suffered. For many young students, school is an island of structure, sanity, and safety in an unsafe, chaotic world. The teacher is an empathetic, authoritative, and rational adult whose importance should never be underestimated.
Public officials have heard from parents, and many are insisting that schools reopen. A number of schools are encouraging and even requiring vaccination, masks, and testing in their determination to keep children, staff, and teachers as safe as possible. My hope is that the vaccines are soon fully authorized by the FDA and authorized for younger children as well. Of course, there are some pandering political performers like the governors of Texas and Florida who have decided that public health mandates are the first step toward fascism. Let’s hope these fools don’t decide to take a close look at traffic laws like speed limits and bans on drinking under the influence of alcohol. Freedom does not grant you the right to harm other people. We need to reject the idea that people should have the freedom to spread this virus at will. While vaccinations and masks do not provide perfect protection, they reduce the odds of serious illness. Amid this pandemic storm, we don’t have the luxury of picking the color and shape of our lifeboat. We just need to jump into the ones we can find.
I am fortunate that the university I work at has navigated this pandemic with enormous skill. Testing and vaccination are required, free and convenient. When we had to leave campus, we did, and when we were able to slowly return, we did that too. For graduate professional education, face-to-face instruction is a necessary but not sufficient step in our return to normal. We also need to sponsor and attend the many career networking events and co-curricular conferences and talks that provide our students with essential tools for professional development. We’ve been holding those sessions online, and the convenience of Zoom has enabled us to include alums and friends from all over the world, but a virtual happy hour can only go so far.
Originally, Columbia’s return to campus allowed mask-less interaction on September 9th, with only Columbia faculty, students, and staff (vaccinated and tested) allowed on campus. Due to the Delta variant, that has been moved to September 30th, and health data will determine if masks need to be continued. While we cannot welcome alums, prospective students, and other guests to campus, many of our students and adjunct faculty are working professionals who would benefit from informal contact with each other. When we can gather without masks and eat and drink together, we will do that and hope that before long, we can also welcome guests in person.
Despite the restrictions, most students and faculty are fully embracing the return to campus. Students attending class this summer see each other mask-less outside and often off-campus and have quickly bonded as a community. The pandemic hangs like a cloud over all of us, but many people have developed methods of resuming valued activities and have accommodated themselves to the greater risk of living during a pandemic. I know I am privileged to work in an institution with world-class medical and public health professionals who have skillfully advised our central administration throughout this long and difficult period. Like everyone else, I am losing patience with this roller-coaster return to reality. But I am grateful for the consensus that we need to do everything we can do to return to in-person education. There are risks, but they must be compared to the certainty of the negative impact of returning to Zoom-enabled isolation. COVID may be here to stay, and we need to learn how to function responsibly in this new environment.
This fall will be a test of our ability to gather in classrooms without a major increase in virus transmission. We have the tools to reduce risk, and if we use those tools, we should be able to resume normal schooling. In sixty or ninety days, we should know if we succeeded in reopening safely. A great deal rides on the success of the resumption of in-person education.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.