F&M Chemistry Professor Shares Thoughts on Potential Fall Scenarios, Op-Ed

By Dustin Covell ||Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry

As we as a campus community prepare for the fall term, I find myself reflecting on my favorite part of teaching science at the college level. I get to help young-adults practice and hone their ability to make decisions based on the best data they have available to them, while recognizing the assumptions underlying that data. It is from that mindset that I write this opinion.

I will begin by admitting my own (conscious) biases: (1) My partner is a healthcare professional who has been at work throughout the pandemic and who has had several family members fall ill with COVID-19 (2) I am a visiting faculty member at F&M.

In the spring the complexities faced by the students, faculty and staff of F&M when thrown emergently into the lockdown were eye opening. I saw my students struggling with issues of food insecurity, technological capability, extreme stress, complicated family dynamics, health issues, and more. Being on campus in the fall would provide a student with access to reliable meals, necessary technology, mental health resources, a more normal social environment, and all of the other incredible supporting resources of the college.

That does not mean the situation would necessarily be normal, however. As the college plans its re-opening, my fear is that students and faculty are being polled and plans are being made based on what we would all like rather than what is reasonable. For example, students were asked to complete a survey about the fall term by July 6th when the announcement of the college’s plan to re-open was made on July 1st.  Faculty are being asked to designate their courses as online only by the 9th, when our first guidance on what a classroom might look like in the fall was received on the 7th. Further, faculty and students still have no guidance as to what the expectations for an online only course would be. Behind the scenes, I know the Re-Opening Operations Team (ROOT) is working furiously to actualize the idea of a campus re-opening. However, without significant details I wanted to share a discussion I have been having with students based on three possible progressions of the pandemic this fall, focusing on safety, equity, and quality of the educational experience under each.

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Scenario 1: Things get lots better

Between today and some point in the fall, the pandemic situation significantly improves and currently required safety protocols can be relaxed and/or eliminated.

 If we could safely return all students to campus and have the full F&M experience back in play, I haven’t talked to anyone that wouldn’t be thrilled. Materials prepared for a hybrid/online experience will be useful tools or supplements to already finely tuned courses designed by the talented faculty at F&M. With extra resources, F&M students would likely feel even more supported academically, and the lifting of social and extracurricular restrictions would be a welcome breath of fresh air. 

At present, I think this scenario is unfortunately unlikely, but it is important to consider and one I think most everyone would be comfortable with. The safety on campus would be equal to previous semesters and added online resources and thought about course design would likely improve the equity and quality of the educational experience at F&M.

Scenario 2: Things stay the same

Between today and some point in the fall, the pandemic situation continues to oscillate with a constant but manageable level of infections and hospitalizations.

As the current plan, I’ll spend the most time discussing this scenario, though most of the points discussed here are applicable to the next scenario as well.

Students, faculty and staff return to campus in the fall with at least initial testing for COVID-19 available and a detailed plan in place for campus life. Students, faculty, and staff faithfully complete their daily screenings and maintain all college recommended safety protocols. The hybrid model is embraced with both online and in person activities available for students. 

Based on current recommendations, in the classroom this would require reduced attendance in each class period (~50%), students and faculty with face coverings positioned 6 ft away from any other person at all times, mandatory cleanliness routines, professors largely confined to the front of the classroom and extra time and care associated with arriving to and leaving class in order for safety to be considered acceptable. Even with these considerations, the college has officially stated in the Fall 2020 re-opening plan that:

”In the present circumstances, F&M cannot and does not guarantee a COVID-19-free environment on our campus. If you choose to return to campus, you are understanding and accepting this reality and the related risk.”

Moreover, the extended class periods (2 x 90 min, 4 days/week) increase the likelihood of successful infection. In considering the safety risk, a graphic recently created by the Texas Medical Association that provides relative risk on a scale of 1-10 is useful. While there is no explicit designation for this classroom experience, I estimate it to be most like either attending a funeral (7 out of 10 risk level) or going to a movie (8 out of 10 risk level). Risk levels outside of the classroom will inevitably vary based on the activity, and as I am not experienced in these areas and have not yet seen any plans I will defer to my more qualified colleagues.

From an equity standpoint, a number of details remain unaddressed. What will happen to students who assume this risk if they get sick? How will the campus respond if a large number of individuals get sick? If there is a death? How can students/faculty/staff make the remote and in-person experience equal so as not to disadvantage students based on their choice? Will technology requirements/resources be included in tuition for the year for students in either situation? How will contact tracing efforts be executed while addressing any privacy concerns? What are considered to be symptoms that trigger quarantine? Will quarantine spaces be available for someone with symptoms? With the condensed fall schedule illness will have an even more dramatic effect on student’s falling behind. How will the college support these students if they choose to stay enrolled? If they want to withdraw from courses? If they want to change their grading option? What resources will the campus be making available for those who struggle to communicate effectively through masks and over the long distances required for in person instruction? These are just a few of the questions that come to my mind that should be fully addressed by the re-opening plan, in my opinion. This is all considered again without delving into the non-academic parts of campus where I lack significant insight.

From a quality standpoint, resources generated ahead of time for the hybrid learning environment should make this change from a pre-COVID-19 semester smoother than the emergency switch that happened in the spring. The current plan is flexible enough to allow the talented faculty, students, and staff at F&M to craft an experience that is in keeping with the central goal of the college: to foster an environment that leads to confident, adaptable, problem solvers. Specific, fully developed plans are still sparse, but the numerous faculty I have interacted with this summer seem focused on developing an experience akin to a virtual classroom. Many faculty and staff are putting significant effort into course development to craft something that is as memorable as any they have taught before, even if the subject matter itself is presented in a different way. Much work remains to be done here, particularly as details emerge/change on what a hybrid experience is expected to entail.

Scenario 3: Things get worse

Between today and some point in the fall, the pandemic situation destabilizes either on campus, regionally, nationally, or globally requiring another extraordinary circumstance to occur like the one in the spring of 2020.

Even with a fully developed return to campus plan, outside events may require a shift in campus life. While I hope this is an unlikely scenario, I can envision this to occur due to a spike in cases, the verification of concerning new information about the COVID-19 disease (i.e. long-term effects in patients in their 20s), a mutation in the virus, or an early flu season to name a few possibilities.

Short of a full exodus from campus, steps could be taken to increase to the current CDC recommendations for healthcare workers to improve in person safety if sufficient PPE can be obtained.  This would require the additional inconvenience of eye protection and gowns for all students, faculty, and staff as well as reducing the amount of time spent together at any time significantly (<15 min). Whatever protocols were in place outside of the classroom would also likely become stricter and or more invasive to maintain acceptable levels of safety for the campus community. 

As we all experienced in the spring, a sudden transition brings out significant inequity. Any of the stability and support provided by the campus environment could be quickly upended. Among the new issues to consider will be how to support students, faculty, and staff if they are forced to transition off campus in a condensed module format? How to make sure changes in situation are met with appropriate changes in expectations? How to mobilize necessary technology to match emergent need? What effect, if any, will a sudden emergent change have on student tuition/board? On student grading and withdrawal options? Can students expect any relief/support if they need to take on additional roles if forced to leave campus? How will the college support students that get sick in transit to/from campus? How should classes change to accommodate students in a multitude of time zones? Fortunately(?), the emergency in this past spring brought many of these issues to the fore and forced decisions to be rapidly made. With the wisdom of hindsight, I am confident F&M will be better prepared to adapt should another emergency occur.

In terms of educational quality, resources generated ahead of time for the hybrid learning environment should again make any emergent shift smoother. While the day-to-day experience for students may change in ways both large and small, having well developed resources online that students are already experienced in navigating will help ensure continuity. While in person instruction would no longer be possible, the inclusion of remote students in synchronous activities is already baked into the hybrid model and, should therefore make a transition less disruptive. 

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As I mentioned so long ago, I wrote this with the aim of helping students and their families evaluate the situation on campus this fall from a variety of perspectives, with the imperfect data available and a whole host of unknowns and assumptions. As the fall re-opening plan continues to develop and emerge, I hope this provides at least some help in facilitating the process of making decisions that are best for each person.  

For anyone that is interested in discussing this topic further or has questions about my plans for the fall, please feel free to reach out to me at dcovell@fandm.edu.

Visiting Chemistry Professor Dustin Covell is a Contributing Writer. His email is dcovell@fandm.edu.

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