The lockdown cannot last forever. States across the country are slowly lifting restrictions as the nightmare of containment and cabin fever is gradually coming to an end.
One area in which reopening is still completely up in the air, with no sign of resolution soon, is education. Whether colleges and many K-12 schools will return to in-person classes in the fall is still up for debate. Many universities have postponed the decision to later in the summer, to wait for the trajectory of the disease. Even Dr. Anthony Fauci, in his Senate testimony yesterday, did not have a concrete suggestion for schools in the fall.
Colleges and universities must make a decision soon. And that decision should be to open for in-person classes this fall.
It is wholly unfeasible for the country to endlessly continue under stay-at-home orders. Universities have four months until students will be returning for fall classes, which is more than enough time to put in place health precautions and make plans to keep students, faculty, and staff healthy while learning.
For the Students
Distance learning is far from an ideal educational environment. It is in fact worse than in-person classes for the students and teachers. Students are struggling against difficult home environments, limited access to the internet, lack of access to libraries, and challenges finding a quiet or academic setting in which to study and complete assignments.
Colleges are aware of these challenges, as demonstrated by their alternative grading policies, which ranged from automatic As, universal pass/fail, an elongated add/drop period, or extended deadlines for deciding to take a class pass/fail.
Further, there is more to college than just the classes. Part of what drove students towards the institution they chose is the experience. Access to professors, sports, performing arts groups, clubs, and camaraderie with classmates are all important aspects of college, none of which can be replicated through Zoom sessions.
For the University
The shift to online learning has hurt colleges as much as, if not more than, the students. Schools were forced to reimburse for the portion of room and board unused due to the untimely end of the spring semester.
However, this reimbursement is not enough for many students and their families who feel shortchanged by the shift online, since an in-person college experience is a part of the package promised in exchange for colossal tuition rates. As such, there are several class-action lawsuits seeking a refund of tuition and other fees. Should college be exclusively online next fall, these academic institutions will not be able to maintain the same exorbitant tuition of previous years, unless they are prepared to face more lawsuits.
Further, new students are about to arrive on campuses to begin their freshman years. If the first few months of college are destined to be virtual, many schools are likely to face incredibly small freshman classes, as the number of deferments for gap years will increase dramatically.
Moreover, opening schools is important for the large staff required to keep them up and running. While professors can continue to lecture from their homes, many people who work on college campuses cannot continue to do their jobs remotely. There have already been sizable layoffs and furloughs for non-faculty employees, numbers that would only grow during an extended period of virtual learning. Resuming classes in the fall could help protect the livelihoods of the hardworking men and women who work in the dining halls, dorms, libraries, campus stores, facilities, and security.
Education Re-Opened Abroad
While universities are still engaging in distant learning, primary and secondary school students across Europe are returning to classes. High schoolers in Germany, Hungary, and Luxembourg are already back to prepare for end-of-year exams, with younger students returning grade by grade. Elementary schoolers in Norway are also already in school. France and Poland are bringing back primary school students voluntarily. Denmark reopened a month ago, and Sweden never closed.
The schools are being regularly disinfected. Classes are limiting the number of students per room in order to maintain social distance. Lunch periods are staggered, as are arrivals and departures. Hand washing is increasingly frequent. While these measures will not wholly eradicate the risks of disease transmission, Europe is showing how countries can begin to safely allow students and teachers to return to schools.
The United States should take its cue from these countries, and methodically return to normalcy in education. By fall, my classmates and I should be back on our campuses, remaining cautious but allowed to return to the rigorous and engaging academic environment promised by our schools.